When I was a teenager, I used to be pretty good at chess. The highlight of my amateur chess career was in the late eighties when I beat Manuel Aaron, the nine-time Indian national champion and India’s first international master. True, it was only a simultaneous exhibition, and he was playing 32 of us. True, three others also beat him. Still… Even more satisfying than beating the champion was the fact that my friend, whom we lovingly call Kutty, got beaten by Mr. Aaron. To understand why Kutty’s loss was sweeter than my win, we have to go back a few years.
Date – August 1983. Venue – No. 20 Madras Mail. (To the uninitiated — this was a train that took one from my hometown of Trivandrum to Madras. These cities were later renamed to Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai in a moment of patriotic inspiration; but I was away during that time and prefer the older, shorter names.) I was in the train going to my university (IIT, Madras) as a freshman. Unbeknownst to me, so was Kutty, who was sitting across the isle in the car (which we used to call a compartment or a bogie.) Soon we struck up a conversation and realized that we were going to be classmates. Kutty looked like a harmless character — all blinking eyes, thick glasses, easy grins and loud chuckles.
Things were going pretty well until he noticed my magnetic chessboard among my stuff. All right, I admit it, I had arranged it so that people would notice it. You see, I was rather proud of this chessboard that my dear father got me as a gift (from a cousin working in the “gulf,” of course). Kutty said, “Oh, you play chess?” He said it almost too casually, in a tone that rings alarm bells these days, thanks to experiences like what soon transpired in that baking oven of a train.
But, young and reckless as I was, I didn’t heed the warning. I used to think a lot of myself those days — a personality trait I haven’t quite outgrown, according to my better half. So I said, equally casually, “Yeah, do you?”
“Yeah, on and off…”
“Want to play a game?”
After a few opening moves, Kutty asked me (rather admiringly, I thought at that time), “So, do you read a lot of books on chess?” I still remember this clearly — it was right after my fianchetto, and I honestly thought Kutty was regretting his decision to play chess with this unknown master. I think he asked a couple of more questions in the same vein — “Do you play in tournaments?” “Are you in your school team?” and so on. While I was sitting there feeling good, Kutty was, well, playing chess. Soon I found my fianchetto diagonal hopelessly blocked by three of my own pawns, and all my pieces stuck in molasses with nowhere to go. Twenty-odd excruciating moves later, it was I who sincerely regretted exhibiting my chessboard. You see, Kutty was the national chess champion of India, in the sub-junior section.
In our IIT lingo, it was thorough poling, that chess game, much like a lot of the games that followed, for I kept challenging Kutty during the next four years. You see, I have no qualms fighting impossible odds. Anyway, I learned a lot from him. Eventually, I could play blind chess with him without the benefit of a chessboard, as we once did during our one-hour bus ride from Mount Road to IIT after a late-night movie, shouting out things like Nf3 and 0-0 much to the annoyance of the rest of the gang. I remember telling Kutty that he couldn’t make a particular move because his knight was in that square.
Although I remember it that way, it is not likely that I would have seen something Kutty had missed. He could always see a couple of moves deeper and a couple of more variations. I remember another one of our train games, a rare one where I got the upper hand; I declared, impressively, “Mate in 14!” Kutty thought for a minute and said, “Not quite, I can get away after the 12th move.”
Anyway, it was this first embarrassing chess game with Kutty that made his loss to Aaron doubly sweet. Kutty later told me that he had missed a fork, which was why he lost. Well, that may be. But you are not supposed to miss anything. Nothing is unimportant. Not in chess. Not in life.
Photo by soupboy