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Remembering an older generation of Indian chess champions

Bibek Debroy writes: Moheschunder Bannerjee and Mir Sultan Khan were top players decades before the game attained its recent popularity in India

Chess has origins in India, with it being played on an ashtapada (an 8X8 square). Texts describe Indian armies as chaturanga (with four components), consisting of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. (PTI Photo)

The Chess Olympiad that concluded on August 9 was held in India for the first time. Covid and then the Russia-Ukraine conflict aided the locational shift to Chennai. An event like this stimulates interest in chess and attracts the young. Those positive externalities are obvious. Despite the absence of two strong teams (China and Russia.

Pakistan’s non-participation doesn’t matter), the Indian teams did well. India’s breadth and depth of talent in chess in remarkable. For those unaware, there is a double system of gauging strength — ratings and titles. The two are correlated, but the requirements are slightly different. ELO (named after the creator, Arpad Elo) rating of 2,700 (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 became GMs well before their 14th birthdays. To put matters in perspective, 75 of these 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, before the shower started. In the post-Anand era, more than one Indian player has the potential to become a world champion.

Now that the Chess Olympiad is being held in India, the media has remembered Anand and Aaron and their contributions as role models. Chess has origins in India, with it being played on an ashtapada (an 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, the response will be a bishop and a knight are both worth three pawns, while a rook is worth five. Barring the bishop/elephant, 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 the knight to the bishop since a knight could leap over closed positions.

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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 the 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). I wonder how many are aware of antecedents of that nomenclature.

Since history isn’t usually a strong point, media reportage hasn’t gone back before Aaron. The names of Moheschunder Bannerjee (often known as “the Brahmin” and his name is invariably spelt wrong) and Saumacharun Ghatak, especially the former, won’t resonate. John Cochrane was a very strong chess player, remembered for the Cochrane Gambit and Cochrane Defence. His protégé was Howard Staunton, unofficially regarded as a 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 1840-s 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 the days of positional chess, that was a swashbuckling era, driven by tactics, rather than strategy. Most chess players will know of the 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 Jose Raul Capablanca, world champion from 1921 to 1927 in a tournament held in 1930-31 and played first board for England in the 1930 Chess Olympiad. We have forgotten both Moheshchunder Banerjee and Mir Sultan Khan.

The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

First published on: 11-08-2022 at 11:17:05 pm
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