22 January 2014

Recollections of the ‘Battle of Kings’

‘Battle of the Kings’ is the annual inter-school chess championship organized by the Royal College Chess Club.  It will be held for the 18th successive year at Royal College on January 24-26, 2014

It is not a battle of kings, contrary to the claim embedded in the name of the tournament.  It’s a battle of knights and bishops, pawns and rooks.  And who can forget the queens?  It is also a battle of princes and princesses, ladies-in-waiting and pawns that will not reach the 8th rank.  It is a battle where some players don’t actually sit at a table and ponder 64 squares over a couple of hours or longer.  That’s my recollection of this tournament.

I remember the first organizers. I know the organizers of this year’s event and the dozens who have toiled to make the tournament a success over the last 18 years. There were always committed, energetic and enthusiastic senior players. There were younger players who were roped in for specific tasks.  And there was an army of old boys on call to chide, guide and encourage.  It’s an event that turned followers into leaders and leaders into better decision-makers. 

It was not easy for the organizers because they were challenged to do better than those who came before and to make it harder to beat by those who follow.  By and large, the boys of each era have done well.  The increasing popularity of the tournament testifies to the fact that each year something new is added.  In fact, the college hall cannot accommodate all the schools any more. 

Today there are many similar tournaments organized by other schools.  This, however, has stood the test of time.  It is the longest running annual chess event organized by a school.  That says a lot about popularity.  The success is also remarkable considering the fact that today there is no lack of chess tournaments in the country.  Apart from the regular tournaments in the national calendar organized by the Chess Federation, there are many international tournaments held throughout the year in Sri Lanka.  In addition, many young players take part in age-group events overseas.  Despite all this, the ‘Battle of Kings’ still records good representation from all parts of the country. 

Most heartening for me is the fact that apart from Royal most of the winners have been from schools outside Colombo. From the earliest days of chess that I remember, we at Royal were not only aware of the privileges that accrue from the fact of being students of the school, but the responsibilities therein.  Chess players in particular have always felt a need to do what is possible to lift the game in schools outside Colombo and in less privileged schools in the Province.  ‘Battle of Kings’ is only one initiative among many in this regard.  The Club has organized many workshops and many players, after leaving school, have ended up coaching in other schools. 

Looking back at the years gone by, as the organizers no doubt would readily acknowledge, the old boys have been a key source of strength.  Quite apart from providing guidance and encouragement, many have played a hands-on role in this event.  One cannot forget, for example, the contribution of Dr P.P.R. Perera, one of the best arbiters I’ve encountered.  PPR, as he has always been known, ever since he first represented the junior team in 1991, was firm and fair.  Jayendra de Silva has been equally strong by PPR’s side.  Together they helped conducted many a tournament where no one could complain about any untoward incident that marred the spirit of the game.  From the moment the tournament begins to the awarding of medals and trophies, these two were not recognizable as ‘Royalists’.  They were officials.  No, they were rare officials because they did not bring school tie or any other loyalties to the job at hand.

Muditha Hettigama was different.  A former captain, National Champion and the longest serving chess coach at Royal (he might even be the longest serving coach in any sport in the school – someone should check it up!), Muditha had clocked years of service to his school and in particular chess at Royal.  Royal has the best trophy cupboard among all schools in the island when it comes to Chess.  That’s thanks to Muditha, more than anyone else. 

His focus has always been the school and therefore the team.  Royalists, as individuals, have not exactly swept away medals and trophies on offer at national events. On the other hand, those individuals who have done that don’t have much to say about the teams they represented while at school.  If any school has a boast equal to or better than Royal’s it would be Girls High School, Kandy. Interestingly, that too is because of a dedicated coach, Sarath Eriyagama. 

Muditha is unarguably the best coach of school teams around.  He knows how to identify talent and identify strengths and weaknesses among that identified talent.  He not only makes them better players but shows them how to stand alone on their own feet and improve their play.  He inculcates in his charges solid values.  These remain long after they move from chess to other things in life.  I’ve seen this.  The best chess players that Muditha has coached are also really good human beings whose lives are marked by amazing generosity and a definite slant towards what is right, what is just. 

Muditha, through all these years, is the uncelebrated personality whose touch has made this event what it is. His fingerprint is on all elements of the entire process, from inviting schools to how the prize giving is conducted.  And all that falls between these. 

So this ‘Battle of Kings’ is a lot of things to me, as you can see.  The organizers do a lot to make it special for everyone and I have no doubt that each player, teacher, coach and parent will take away some special thought from the event.  The boys do their best.  I think they deserve a salute now and then.  I haven’t contributed much all these years, so saying ‘thanks and keep it up’ is the least I can do.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be contacted at msenevira@gmail.com


sajic said...

I am delighted that you mentioned Girls' High School, Kandy. BTW I thought it was renamed Kandy High. No matter. It was always and still is a great school.

Anonymous said...

Are you taking part in this event as well this year?

Anonymous said...

Dear Malinda,

Have you considered writing an article about obvious match fixing going on in national finals?.The level of play can't be and shouldn't be mistaken for mistakes that happen during games.Even a under 8 player could see some of those mistakes these national players have made.I think an investigation on this from you would be great for all chess lovers.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

i am aware of this problem. i brought it up on facebook among chess players. hard to prove: 'to err is human'. and people are reluctant to come forward and talk about fellow-players soliciting draws and wins.

Anonymous said...

Well it's a sad state in that case. " To err is human " is true.But for some of these games it can n't be the case.
Anyways i think talking about these will at least prevent future incidents like this.Or players will at least put some professional effort even on fixing.