Ratnagiri remembers RB Sapre, country’s first national champ, a pioneer, mentor and an obsessive analyst. Shivani Naik tells the story of Indian chess’s glorious, but overlooked era that has stayed hidden between the exotic days of Shatranj ke khiladi and the exciting years of Deep Blue-Vishy Anand
When Chaitanya Bhide sent out the first intimation of the RB Sapre Memorial chess tournament inviting entries on a WhatsApp group, he could see the beginnings of a response form on the screen of his phone in the immediate seconds that followed. Had he been around, India’s first national champion Ramchandra Sapre, whose memory was being commemorated in his centenary year with a tournament in Ratnagiri, would have been thrilled at how technology had made this prompt back-and-forth possible.
Largely unheard of beyond the chess circles, Sapre lived in chess’ quaintest era. In the mystical age when RB Sapre had hopelessly fallen in love with chess, an e4 could take a couple of days to draw out the first response: an impending c5. Reciprocations of an imminent Nf6 to c4 would arrive on a postcard, to kickstart a to-and-fro conversation that in Correspondence chess could go on for as long as twelve months till the vanquished resigned or the winner was determined. Still, as the inaugural national Correspondence Chess champion (he participated actively since 1948), around the same time that he became India’s first joint National champion across a real checkered board in 1955, chess wafted through Sapre’s life like a meticulously stirred slow cook.
Bhide, in Ratnagiri as part of the organisation Chessmen Ratnagiri a few years ago, had only heard of the name RBS in speeches by old-timers — a vaguely renowned board player who had once gone to that faraway behemoth of chess excellence, Russia. “There was a lot of romanticism to that story that someone who had grown up in Ratnagiri could’ve gone to Russia 60 years back. We didn’t even know that he was India’s first national champion,” Bhide says, even as he takes a breather from organising the city’s first national-level meet this weekend (28-29 November), hoping to replant the lost legacy of Sapre who spent a few schooling years in Kondhan village of Sangameshwar
Taluka in Ratnagiri and where he picked his first pieces of chess in the late 1920s.
King of Chess
RBS was first national joint-champion with Dharbha Venkayya at Eluru, AP in 1955 at age 40, but he first played the game drawing a board on the floor of the front yard and with pieces chiselled out of wooden twigs and dipped in ink. A multi-lingual book titled Ramchandra Sapre: Buddhibalacha Raja, put together by his eldest daughter Shubhangi Pol stocks some of the best memories, pooled in together by speaking to his associates, friends and family. Leafing through the pages, one attempts to pull out of obscurity those snapshots of a life that was barely known beyond a small circle. As the eponymous tournament kicked off in Ratnagiri, it was another opportunity to understand a man, ahead of his times in gaining mastery over chess, whose lifelong obsession with the game was pivotal to how future Indians learnt the sport.
What Ratnagiri remains astonished by is how one amongst them nurtured an ambition so vastly larger than the city’s typical trait of sticking to the beaten path – formal education followed by vocational employment. Lokmanya Tilak traced his roots back to this place and launched his feisty thoughts into a fiery orbit from Ratnagiri, but as such, there was nothing in the sleepy hamlet’s environment where learning Sanskrit shlokas was the pinnacle of aspiration – and with no history or pedigree in the sport – that could point a boy in the general direction of chess.
“Us people from Konkan are very risk-averse and too conventional. Just 2-3 hours away, Kolhapur boasts of sportsmen in different disciplines. But us folk are hardly ever inclined towards competitive pursuits,” Bhide says. “We’ll have the world champion in carrom. But we’ll think a thousand times before dreaming of going out and playing chess internationally,” he confesses.
That, Sapre was invited by Russia in 1954 to witness the Vasily Smyslov – Mikhail Botvinnik World Championship match owing to his canny analysis in letters written to Russian magazines, naturally, stumped all of them. When they heard ‘India’s first national champion’, Ratnagiri was not going to allow even this most tenuous thread to greatness, slip away. Dilip Navare, a chess enthusiast, plunged into the Facebook maze, contacting every Sapre on the network to check if they could track down the long-lost RBS. Having located the family, he would promptly start a tournament, and in its third edition now it is aiming high this year (steady increase in entries from 80 to 150 to 250) with a maiden national-level meet with former prodigy and GM-norm holder Srinath Narayanan expected to turn up at the sea-side event.
Mumbai, where Sapre bounded from the blocks for his own chess career, though, remains oblivious to the memory of a man whose lifetime was synonymous with the little progress that the city made in chess. “When Sapre was at the forefront of organising chess events in Mumbai, the city produced GMs. When he left, chess faded away,” GM Abhijit Kunte had said at the release of a book Ramchandra Sapre – Buddhibalacha Raja (King of Chess) earlier this year when the centenary of the late chess-champ born on 4 March, 1915 was celebrated. Kunte reckons Sapre was influenced by Russian Mikhail Botvinnik, that scholarly master who helped build a chess empire out of Russia.
Both were atheists, stood for scientific enquiry and worshipped chess.
Sapre’s was a scholastic approach to the game when he eventually came to Bombay with his family when his maternal uncle (his father died young) took a railways job. He grew himself a voracious appetite for chess literature, learnt rudimentary Russian through the magazines, and taught himself western chess theory that was quite apart from the “Indian style” with its arbitary and uncertain rules.
Living on the fifth floor of the Madhavwadi chawl, opposite to the Dadar (east) station, he would start frequenting the Dadar Book Depot and hoarding chess books. It started with the book “300 Open Games” written by Dr Tarrasch, but there was also the latest games in Russian magazine 64, and his deep ruminations of the MCO – a book on modern chess openings.
Evenings post-6 were spent at the chess club and the Irani cafe, where the Parsis of his Ismail College introduced him to modern chess theory and the habit of endless cups of cutting chai. He couldn’t afford an engineering seat at Kharagpur and a BSc was abandoned at the altar of chess. He earned the lifelong friendship of Shayamsheth Batliwala at college, who would offer him a job at Broadway Laboratory at nearby Wadala – the pay was modest, but he was assured leave for whenever he wished to take off to play tournament chess.
He would rent out a second room after marriage and children happened, though the front-room became Mumbai’s hottest chess hub for enthusiasts to stop by and play, even as Sapre’s manic obsession grew – he had started writing on the game by now for The Indian Express and Sunday Standard – for the sake of a double income to support the growing family.
Very little is known about his maiden trip to Moscow as the first Indian to secure an invite to watch the Worlds in the spiritual home of chess except that he returned with two precious chess clocks. A vegetarian, he had been scandalised to find a piece of meat floating in his soup, before the waiter scooped it out and told him “Now it is vegetarian.”
But a classic introvert who barely spoke, he was hardly one to boast of his adventure. He struck a rapport with Robert Fonatna, a Swiss master posted in India that helped him expand his openings repertoire when he headed into the 1955 Nationals – albeit one that the Madras province players had boycotted. He would win the Eluru event at 40, and line up a few days later at Ahmedabad Invitational to help select the team for the 1956 Chess Olympiad. Sapre would beat Fontana (ineligible to represent India) but finish second behind him at the 12-player meet with 7 wins and a pair of draws. Moscow beckoned, again.
Players were paying out of their pockets. “Return airfare from Delhi to Tashkent via Kabul was Rs 1150, sizable amount but not too big for the love of the game,” Sapre wrote.
The Indians flew out to Kabul enroute Russia, after a midnight scramble for the Afghanistan visa. They’d struggle to find a hotel in Kabul owing to a day of national revelry and land at the Indian embassy’s doorstep where they were initially dismissed before being put up at the Indian Club, a pub frequented by foreigners for drinks. A store room held their belongings, while they slept in the open pandal.
They’d be stranded longer than they thought in Kabul as the Russians awaited instructions to allow the Indians to board a flight to Tashkent. When the permissions came through, Sapre would travel with some football players and his team-mates a day later. Back in Moscow, though, Sapre was on familiar turf.
In his postmortem of the trip where India fared modestly – failing to win the second classification, and finishing 27th of 34 countries, Sapre was candid about his performance on the top table when writing a column about the sojourn, “Mhaiskar with his energetic style and Ramdas with his quick and simple moves were more successful than SVR and I with our theory and without a proper mix of dynamism. I played defensively against grand masters and finally cracked under pressure.”
Back home though, there were consisent finishes at the Nationals upto 1976. (Delhi 1959 – 3rd, Hyderabad 1961 – 5th, Madras 1965 – 5th, Pune 1967 – 4th, Ahmedabad 1973 – 3rd)
The front room of Madhavwadi though was turning into a chess club, with wife Sudha hosting an endless stream of chess players who would fill up all waking hours on weekends when RBS stayed glued to chess set. There was a portable improvised typewriter and a withered chess board to annotate the games for his newspaper work – which ate into his time and focus when playing. Bollywood actors like Rehman and Parikshit Sahani would call him over for a game of chess. Daughter Shubhangi Pol recalls, “Our father’s image for us was that of a chess player only. So we never expected him to take us out for picnics or to hotels.” He took his kids to the circus though, with his wife playfully saying, “It’s only because your chess animals are seen there.”
Amateur to heart
As such, Sapre cranked out chess as the sport of self-indulgent hookah-smoking royalty unencumbered by any of the daily responsibilities of ordinary men and put it firmly into the heart of the middle-class Mumbai chawl. Arun Vaidya, former international writes, “Sapre’s generation managed households and families and jobs and still played chess. Rambhau’s generation proved that ordinary family men could excel at chess. They brought it out of royal palaces into Bombay’s chawls.”
Though he ensured quality education for his four children and was always supported by his wife who stepped in to anchor the domestic scene when the husband took off with his pocket chess board, the sport was bordering on a dangerous obsession. “Only on Sundays we could make social visits,” his wife told former champ Manuel Aaron. “But he would not take me out because often his chess friends would come. And on few Sundays when they did not come, we still remained at home because he thought they might come!”
Never ever gaining commercially from the sport, nor using his acquaintance with the well-off co-players, Sapre would write and play endlessly, earning goodwill but little else. It ensured that a young player, LP Khadilkar, could pick a magnetic pocket chess board at the Saveri Bros, Kalbadevi for Rs 35 instead of Rs 40. But, chess was also taking a toll on his health.
It started with acute insomnia in 1957. Over-thinking and staying up late to play chess, RBS couldn’t sleep well for six months. The doctor advised change of scenery and weather. And the Sapres would shift residence and move to Khandala and Ambernath helped by relatives for a year. “It was not madness, just exhaustion,” daughter Shubhangi says.
“He would cycle to work at Wadala, and work late nights with a Wednesday writing deadline. There was no support from society, government or professionals and no cash prizes. He would sit analysing all games till past midnight, then eat and sleep, then back to work. The pressure of raising a family was always there,” she says.
He took time off, found a natural swim tank on the foothills, collected wild berries in the woods as he recuperated from being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His employer Shyamsheth would bring his salary home. He returned refreshed in a year, though chess stayed unabated.
A player, who believed in an intense study of openings, he made the most of access to advanced books. A universal player, playing positionally till the time was ripe for tactical attack, is how experts described him. The family struggles to find any pictures of the man who passed away in 1999. It was almost as if life began and ended with chess for him.
Wife Sudha summed it up best when she told Aaron, “If I lay dying he would not do anything but say ‘it is natural for everybody to die’. But if his knight was trapped on the board he would tear out his hair trying to save it.” Ratnagiri, this weekend, will hope some of that madness rubs off on the sleepy town as chess comes to life, remembering RB Sapre.