10 January 2023

Chess is my life and perhaps yours too


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous articles] 

After the eccentric and brilliant Bobby Fischer conceded the world chess crown by refusing to play the challenger, the 1970s were dominated by the new champion Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi. Karpov was the darling of the Soviet chess establishment. Korchnoi eventually defected and played for Switzerland. A third ‘K,’ Gary Kasparov would battle Karpov throughout the 80s, the former wresting the title in 1985.  

This is not about chess K’s, however, although players whose last names started with that letter dominated until 2004, with Vladimir Kramnik and Alexander Khalifman also winning the title.  It’s not about chess titles but book titles or rather a title used by both Karpov and Korchnoi: ‘Chess is my life.’ Korchnoi’s book was published in 1977, Karpov’s two years later.

Considering the number of games and tournaments played, the number of years dedicated to the game and indeed how many hours a day on average are spent either playing or in preparation, there are probably thousands who could legitimately use that title for a biography.  Let me be clear: I cannot. And yet, chess is my life.

Chess. It's just another sport. Some even say ‘it’s not a sport, just a game, because you don’t sweat,’ but Riyaz Aluher, Senior Games Master at Royal College, dismisses this claim, ‘in that case swimming is not a sport.’ In all sports (or games, if you so wish), there is planning, strategy, tactics, unforgiving training or preparation, anticipation (for which you need to get inside the opponent’s mind) etc. Any metaphors drawn from chess can be applied to most other sports (or games).

We plan to obtain a positional edge and attack weaknesses, play to our strengths, identify and mitigate our own weaknesses. There are always ‘better squares’ for one’s ‘pieces.’ You can always make your ‘pieces’ more active, more effective. You can manoeuvre your pieces to make for better coordination. There will always be threats to be aware of or to deal with. Psychology always comes into play. Sometimes one needs to defend, sometimes it’s best to attack. One is also required to play a waiting game on occasion. Grabbing the initiative helps. Sequence matters. It is also about timing.

Did I just describe chess or rugby? Cricket or water polo? Bridge, perhaps? Scrabble? It’s basketball, isn’t it? Soccer!

Life. Really. Efstratios Grivas, one of the top chess coaches in the world who guided the Sri Lankan men’s team to a category gold medal at the Tromso Olympiad (2014), doesn’t believe there’s anything called ‘talent.’ Everything can be learnt, he says. So it’s all about hard work. Really hard work. Sloth won’t get you anywhere if, for example, you were not born into wealth and even if you were, the fact that your parents can get you the best equipment and secure the best training possible you will not be the next Sachin Tendulkar.

No. Neither would you be even a one-test wonder like Andy Ganteaume who scored 112 in his solitary Test innings (for the West Indies against England at Trinidad in 1948) and therefore is one of only two cricketers to have a batter average greater than that of Don Bradman (the other is Kurtis Patterson of Australia who has so far played only in two tests, scoring 30 and 114 not out for an average of 144 after just two innings at the crease).

Life. Calculations. Marginal benefits compared with marginal costs. Life. Victory and defeat. Joy and sorrow. The worth of humility in triumph and grace in debacle. Life. The potential to do one’s best and not quite get there. Life. The need to make the best of circumstances. Life. To respect the forces arrayed against you even as you battle them.

Life. To be conscious of resources at your disposal and also their limitations. Life. To understand that even the most formidable opponent can slip, may have weaknesses. Life. To always be conscious of fallibility, of human frailty. Life. Learning from one’s mistakes and from those of others. Life. The ability to develop the ability to visualise a winning or a more advantageous position many moves ahead, to think out a strategy that enables reaching and to be innovative in the process.

Karpov and Korchnoi worked hard. They studied the greats who came before them. They pushed themselves, always, to become better chess players. They could visualise. They strategized. They were innovative. So too are the best students of life.

Other articles in this series:

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road