Rook and Roll Stars

Illustration: Anand Naorem

I PITY THE Bulgarian queen, standing alone in the corner, resigned to her fate of protecting the pawn on a3 while the engines of war roll unheeded across the checkered squares”, is not something one hears in formal chess commentary. What we do hear is Alexander Ipatov (International Master) and Christian Bauer (Grandmaster) laconically pointing out that Ba3 (Bishop to column a, row 3) is a weak and sub-optimal move and that clearly, to anyone who can hold a multi-level decision tree in one’s head, 6 moves from now, white will be a pawn down. Clearly.

Contrast that with the soul deadening lameness that is commentary by ex-Indian cricketers, who have fine tuned the art of stating the bleeding obvious (“We have a match on our hands”, “That ball was asking to be hit” and “India need to bat sensibly here” for starters).

There is a very good chance that you probably are not aware that Viswanathan Anand, who is the current World Champion, is engaged in a supreme battle of wits with the challenger, Veselin Topalov from Bulgaria. Between the cricket served like raisins in a pudding of advertisements that was the IPL, Lalit Modi’s attempts to fix auctions and dethrone tweeting ministers of external affairs and the dreadfully boring ICCWorld T20, we are completely ignoring the man who probably is India’s greatest sportsman of all time — Anand just clinched his fourth title on May 11.

Think about this for a moment. An order of magnitude more people play chess than they do cricket around the world. Also, anyone can play chess. All you need is a 40 rupee board with plastic pieces. On the other hand, very few possess the luck, talent and the financial resources (in that precise order) to play serious cricket. One might argue that most Indians are not natural sportsmen, but there’s no such excuse for this 2000 year old game that is said to have originated here. But a sport becomes mainstream only when people who have no clue about the game get excited enough to share their opinion on the antecedents of a poorly performing player (“India should never bowl Agarkar at the death” etc)

I’ll admit that chess is not a spectator-friendly sport. There aren’t any cheerleaders gyrating in joy over the knight’s capture of the pawn at d5

And while we gloat over one fluke victory in the World T20 in 2007, Anand has been at the pinnacle of the chess world for well over a decade now. I will admit that chess is not quite a spectator-friendly sport. There are no cheerleaders gyrating in joy over the Knight’s capture of the pawn at d5 and no Karbonn Kamaal Kastle. And the middle game tends to proceed at the speed of a three-toed sloth. Pieces cannot be tampered with. One cannot grease the palms of the opponent’s bishops or chew on pawns to make them swing in strange directions.

We need to revitalise interest in chess. Whether Viswanathan Anand retains his championship title or not, the games so far, even the draws, have been filled with more drama and excitement than the entire IPL season. What we might need is some exciting commentary on Bulgarian queens, henpecked Kings, double-crossing, pawnmolesting bishops and marauding elephants.I’d like to see the day when potbellied uncles, sitting in their rocking chairs tell their nephews how stupid the queen exchange was in the same tone of voice they use to dismiss a bad delivery from Ashish Nehra.



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