After criss-crossing seven European countries to play in 16 tournaments, undergoing innumerable Covid-19 tests, staying in budget accomodation, dealing with the unpredictability of changing travel restrictions and curfews, 14-year-old Leon Mendonca became a chess Grandmaster last fortnight.
From mid-March till now, Leon, with his father Lyndon in tow, have been on the road in Europe chasing the coveted FIDE title in the nightmarish pandemic.
On the morning of March 18, Leon and Lyndon had rushed to the Budapest airport to fly to Delhi via Doha after a tournament the previous day. But airline staff told them they would not be able to complete the final leg of their flight before India closed borders just before the lockdown.
They were stuck in an apartment in Budapest for two months till Leon got a lucky break at a chess festival nearby. He jumped at the opportunity to play over-the-board when almost everyone was playing in front of a screen. Leon won with a round to spare.
The father-son duo had registered with the Indian high commission in Budapest for a ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ flight back home. The Hungarian capital was not on the priority list of repatriation flights, so the wait kept prolonged.
Fortuitously, tournaments were returning to the Schengen region.
The teenager and his father decided to aim for three Norms needed to become a Grandmaster. The first two were earned within three weeks of each other by mid-November. On December 30, he finished second at Italy’s Vergani Cup in Bassano del Grappa, to win his third and final norm.
“The first thing I did was play in the snow,” Leon says. Playing chess while taking Covid-19-related precautions was fraught. Wearing a mask resulted in the bespectacled youngster’s glasses fogging up when sitting across the board.
“Going through so many PCR tests and staying away from home for so long has been challenging,” the youngster said. Hungary, Serbia, Greece, Italy, Slovakia, Germany, Czech Republic and Spain were covered by rail, with Budapest being the base camp since March.
Having his father Lyndon to take care of everything — from booking train tickets, cheap Air bnbs, cooking all meals, checking pandemic restrictions for each city — made the European stay easier. “I just focus on my chess, while he takes care of everything,” Leon said.
Lyndon, a marine engineer now on a sabbatical (unpaid break), was fully-prepared, though the extended stay was not in the initial plan. “I carried an induction stove, rice cooker, pressure cooker and all sorts of pots and pans,” Lyndon said.
Dal, rice, rajma, soups, pasta and pizza has been the staple during these months. “There is the cost factor and also it is about health (diet) and hygiene. Right now in the apartment in Italy there is an oven. So I am able to make bakes which he loves,” the father said.
Because of lugging along all the utensils, some things had to be left behind, like Leon’s violin. Appearing for the Grade-5 test at Trinity College was put on the backburner. He also had to find new ways to unwind between playing. “I could not play the violin, so I compensated by listening to a lot of western classical on my laptop. It (playing the violin) is a form of relaxation and de-stressing after a long and strenuous game,” Leon said.
Being musically inclined also helped Leon become more instinctive on the board, his coach Vishnu Prasanna said. The coach, who stays in Chennai, and his ward have been video-calling each other.
“He plays the violin which makes chess more creative for him. Instead of slogging it out, I told him to come up with spontaneous ideas. You have to prepare obviously. I encouraged him to be more intuitive. Like they say in music, you have to play with the feel. Same in chess too. He hated mechanical repetition. Chess can also be approached as an art form. There have been chess players who have been musicians. It goes well together. He would often get into time trouble because of overthinking and trying to play without mistakes,” Prasanna said.
On his return home, he is looking forward to seeing his elder sister Beverly, against whom he first started playing chess, and mother Anita who is a doctor at the Goa Medical College.
“My sister Beverly inspired me and I first played against her. My only ambition was to outbeat her in all her endeavours.”
The Mendoncas have ‘scrounged’ and dipped deep into their savings to make Leon India’s 67th Grandmaster.
Despite support from Geno and Microsense, they stuck to low-cost accomodation and didn’t waste a penny. However, there were unexpected expenses.
“Right from June and July we have been doing nothing but tests. The worst one (most expensive) was in Spain where they charged us 145 euros each for a PCR. This was in Sitges in the Barcelona region when he travelled for a tournament. At some tournaments we were fortunate because they asked for an antigen test,” Lyndon said.
‘Nothing short of miracle’
Looking back, Lyndon says the year has been nothing short of a miracle.
“There was no question of planning because things changed not by the day or hour, but by the second. So there was unpredictability. Even if we thought of planning to go for a tournament, we did not know if they were going to have the tournament or not because other players also have to travel. Everyone had to test negative. We have always gone through that risk of uncertainty. We would go to the station, book a train ticket and just go. God has been kind to us.”
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