The inward eye

Kishan Gangolli was in Class VI when his uncle introduced him to chess.

Written by Kumar Anand | New Delhi | Published:October 7, 2012 2:11 am

Kishan Gangolli was in Class VI when his uncle introduced him to chess.

Kishan Gangolli was in Class VI when his uncle introduced him to chess. With only 25 per cent vision,he is called the “silver lining” in blind chess in the country. At the International Braille Chess Association (IBCA) Blind Chess Olympiad held in Chennai recently,Gangolli won the individual gold medal in the third board and helped India finish fifth in the team event from a field of 30 competing countries. Another blind chess player,Darpan Irani,18,still cherishes his meeting with world chess champion Viswanathan Anand. “After analysing my game,Anand told me that while I am good at strategy,I should concentrate on tactics,and this is what I try to do,” he says.

Vadodara-based Irani was first introduced to chess at the city’s Blind Welfare Association. “There,I learned for the first time that even a blind person can play chess. Chess is the only game in which a blind person can compete with a sighted on equal footing,and this is what attracted me to the game,” he says. He won the first district-level tournament,an Under-14 Baroda Open tournament in 2005,defeating sighted opponents.

The main difference in blind chess is that the moves are announced out aloud (‘E4,A6’). The board is a bit different too. The black squares are raised by 2 mm. Every piece has a tiny spoke under it that fits into holes in each square. The black pieces are different from the white pieces with a dot on the top so that players can touch and recognise. “All the notes are written in Braille. In normal chess,I use a regular board but it is difficult for me to take notations. In blind chess,we can record on Braille score sheets or voice recorders,” says Gangolli.

Irani’s coach,Shekhar Sahu,who trains both the sighted and the visually impaired says the latter are always eager to learn. “They imbibe as much as they can from my lessons,” he says. Sahu is the only coach for blind chess players in the country and the first Indian to be a senior trainer,the highest honour for coaching in chess by the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) or World Chess Federation.

The 20-year-old from Shimoga,Karnataka,has set his sights on a world championship. “Chess is not just my hobby,it is my life. More than winning blind tournaments,I want to win the sighted tournaments,” says the final year arts student. He first took to playing competitive chess for the blind in 2010. “The game instils confidence in us and teaches us patience. After I started playing chess,my grades improved too,” says Gangolli.

For Irani,chess is more than just a game. When playing,he draws a great deal of strength from mental visualisation,and relishes defeating an opponent,especially a sighted one. Sahu is proud of students like Irani. “Some are specially gifted. “They have lesser distractions,so even though they are not fast enough,they usually have a far deeper understanding of the game because they internalise it so much,” says Sahu. It’s evident in the confidence that Irani exudes. “I visualise the pieces placed on the board and also where they’d be after both the players have made their moves,both the current position and the future position; a picture appears in my mind,” he says.

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the endeavours of the godfather of blind chess in India,Charudatta Jadhav. He developed the world’s only talking software,Talk 64,used by players from over 18 countries. He produced study material for the game called DAISY-Digital Accessible Information System, which comes with audio books and navigation tools. He also conceptualised an online library for chess books,a project that will soon go live. Without Jadhav,says Sahu,blind chess wouldn’t be where it is today.

Being a blind player himself,he represented India several times on the international stage. Jadhav says,“Performing well against the sighted gave me enormous confidence. My disability was no longer a hindrance. Now I am not a disadvantaged person,only one with a few limitations.” says Jadhav. Currently,he heads a team of 600 people at the Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai.

Jadhav also features in Algorithms,a rare documentary,made on blind chess players in India. It happened when sports sociologist Ian McDonald came across a newspaper report on a blind chess tournament. His initial nine-minute short Out of Our Hands is on four young players playing chess under a tree on a summer’s day in Chennai. Here began the journey to understand the world of blind chess. The 109-minute Algorithms,completed early this month follows the journey of three top junior blind chess players of India with Jadhav emerging as a hero.

“There is no narration in the film. It’s just there to be seen,all the questions in the audience’s mind about blind chess will be answered naturally; that’s how we have tried to make it,” says J Geetha,journalist-turned-filmmaker,who produced the documentary.

India’s blind chess scene,according to Geetha’s experience of working with the community for four years,is more vibrant than other countries. “I think Anand has had a huge impact on the youth. Apart from that,Charudatta,has been a key figure in improving the scene,” she says.

But it’s not easy being a champion,says Irani. When confronted with a sighted opponent,he has to depend a great deal on the opponent calling out his move,even as the clock keeps ticking. “Time is a challenge because you have to visualise and touch the board. It is difficult to maintain speed,” he says. Th e pressure increase all the more when the opponent does not call out his move,especially when they are near the end of the game. Irani too represented India at the Blind Chess Olympiad 2012. But chess is only secondary to studies for him as he pursues a chartered accountancy career.

Gangolli,aims to be an IAS officer but there is some unfinished business he hopes to accomplish before that. “In blind chess,the Russians have dominated. I want to end that. I want to win the world championship at least once,” he says.

(With inputs from Sankhayan Ghosh and Gopu Mohan)

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