The Chess Olympiad was being held in India for the first time. Covid, and then Russia-Ukraine, aided the locational shift to Chennai. An event like this stimulates interest in chess and attracts the young. Despite absence of two strong teams (China and Russia, Pakistan’s non-participation doesn’t matter), India’s six teams (three in the open section and three in women’s) are certain to do well. For those unaware, there is a double system of gauging strength—ratings and titles. The two are correlated, but requirements are slightly different. ELO (named after the creator, Arpad Elo) rating of 2700 (higher, the better) places the player in the super category, a potential world title challenger. (Olympiad is a team event). As of now, there are three Indians in that league—Viswanathan Anand, P Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi, but there are others, younger, knocking at the door. The parallel system of titles proceeds upwards through Candidate Master (CM), FIDE (French acronym for the International Chess Federation) Master (FM), International Master (IM), and Grand Master (GM). There are around 2,000 GMs in the world today and Parimarjan Negi, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa and Dommaraju Gukesh have become GMs well before their 14th birthdays. To set matters in perspective, 75 of those GMs are Indian. Viswanathan Anand became a GM in 1988, Dibyendu Barua in 1991 and Pravin Thipsay in 1997. After that, there was a long dry spell, before it started to rain GMs. To set matters in perspective again, for more than 20 years, after Manuel Aaron in 1961, there was a dry spell of IMs too. In the post-Anand era, more than one Indian player has the potential to become a world champion.
Given India was hosting the Chess Olympiad (held biennially) this year, the media remembered Anand and Aaron and their contributions as role models. The hoary history of chess has origins in India, with it being played on ashtapada(8X8 square). Texts describe Indian armies as chaturanga(with four components), consisting of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. The analogy with pawn, knight, bishop and rook is obvious. An aksauhini(army) consisted of 21,870 chariots, 21,870 elephants, 65,610 horses, and 109,350 infantry, in the ratio 1/1/3/5. Ask any chess player how many pawns a rook, a bishop and a knight are worth, under normal circumstances. In an exceptional situation on the board, the answer will vary. Usually, response will be a bishop and a knight are both worth three pawns, while a rook is worth five. Barring the bishop/rook, I find that a remarkable coincidence. But then, India was known for its numerous elephants. They weren’t at a premium. Thanks to the PM mentioning it, most people are now aware of the Shiva temple of Sathuranga (Chaturanga) Vallabhanathar in Tiruvarur.
When we were kids, there was an Indian system of playing chess, with slightly different rules. There was no castling. Instead, the king had a knight’s leap once, before it faced a check, so that it could be tucked into a fortress. Pawns on the second rank could only move one square. Therefore, there was no en passant capture. When a pawn was promoted, it got promoted to whatever the eighth rank square was meant for, not necessarily a queen. At least initially, positions were relatively closed and players preferred knight to bishop, since a knight could leap over closed positions. A favoured technique was to fianchetto the bishop.
Move the knight’s pawn (either on queen-side or king-side one square), place the bishop there and tuck in the king behind this protection, with that single knight’s leap allowed for the king. Rules have now become standardised and international, with those Indian rules forgotten. The new breed of Indian players will talk about King’s Indian, or Queen’s Indian, Attack and Defence, with bishop fianchetto and a hypermodern strategy of attacking from a distance, without using pawns to fight over the centre (impossible under Indian rules because pawns could only move one square).
Since history isn’t usually a strong point, media reportage hasn’t gone back before Aaron. Names of Moheschunder Bannerjee (often known as “the Brahmin”) and Saumacharun Ghatak, especially the former, won’t resonate. John Cochrane was a very strong chess player, remembered for Cochrane Gambit and Cochrane Defence. His protégé was Howard Staunton, unofficially regarded as world chess champion. (Today’s chess pieces are named after Staunton. The first official world chess champion was Wilhelm Steinitz, in 1886.) Posted in India (Calcutta) from 1840s to 1860, Cochrane looked for good chess players and discovered these two Bengalis, and others. Through Cochrane’s records, more than 400 of Banerjee’s games have survived. Without any formal training, he didn’t fare too badly. Before days of positional chess, that was a swashbuckling era, driven by tactics rather than strategy. Most chess-players will know of Grunfeld Defence, introduced by Ernst Grunfeld in 1922. “The Brahmin” used it in his game against Cochrane in 1855. Much later, there was Mir Sultan Khan, whom Pakistan claims. Around 1930, he won the British championship thrice. He defeated Capablanca, world champion from 1921-27, in a tournament held in 1930-31 and played first board for England in 1930 Chess Olympiad. We have forgotten both Moheshchunder Banerjee and Mir Sultan Khan.
The author is Chairman, EAC to the PM