Sixty-four squares. Two sets of sixteen pieces: eight pawns, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, a queen and a king. It might be just a game, but it is also a summation of man’s culture, society and intellectual advancement.
The way the chess board is set up and the use of the pieces is a history of man in miniature. The different chess pieces on the board represent a cross-section of life with its many ceremonies, grandeur and wars — epitomising the interplay of the lives of ordinary people and the rich class.
There is ample historical evidence, native and foreign, indicating that the origin of chess can be traced to India. The Mahabharat has one of the oldest references to the game in the form of chaupar, a gambling game played with dice. It was played by two, three or four players and although the pieces (infantry, cavalry, elephants, chariots) move in a similar way as the modern chess pieces, which piece you move is chosen by the roll of a dice, giving it a totally different flavour to the game. It is believed that when such gambling games became a bit too popular, one Indian king was concerned and gave orders for a new game that would have the ability to enhance mental qualities. The replacement around that time was chaturanga.
Chaturanga was played on an 8 x 8 unchequered board, called Ashtapada. It is also believed the board had some special markers, the meaning of which is unknown today. These markers were not related to chaturanga, but were drawn on the board only by tradition. Great chess historian H.J.R. Murray has conjectured that the Ashtapada was also used for some race-type dice game in which these markers had a meaning.
In India, the game was one of the important means of recreation among maharajas (kings) and aristocrats. In the Mughal era, emperor Akbar was known to have played chess with human ‘pieces’. The game reached the common man in the mid-19th century with the rich displaying expensively crafted pieces, while the poor used rough wooden lumps, the height of the pieces distinguishing one from the other.
The chess-boards used by the Indians were unicoloured, the black squares being the European invention in the middle ages. Shatranj, as it was known in Persia, adopted much of the same rules as chaturanga, and also the basic 16-piece structure. In some later variants, the darker squares were engraved.
The game spread westwards after the Islamic conquest of Persia and achieved great popularity. A considerable body of literature on game tactics and strategy was produced from the eighth century onwards.
Chess has been often mentioned in Bollywood, but the greatest tribute to the game came in Satyajit Ray’s film Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977). Based on a story by Munshi Premchand, it is set in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, in 1856, just before the Indian Mutiny, and depicts the downfall of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah at the hands of the British with exquisite irony and pathos.
India has shown greater creativity than probably any other part of the world in the range and quality of its games-related artifacts. Since the game had a major role in Indian culture and people had a natural flair for gaming, it resulted in brilliant aptitude for artistic design.
The black-and-white chequered floor design has been favoured since the time of kings. It is also seen to give a different look to various artifacts like jewellery boxes, bed covers, saris and fabric by textile industry.
Indian furniture also acquired the chess designs in the form of tabletops. Ornate chess boards are an item of decoration and are available in myriad variety. They are made of materials as diverse as camel bone, wood, marble and glass. Antique chess sets are collector’s items.
Miniature paintings also depicted the game of chess between the king and queen or his office-bearers. The paintings were also used to explain the game to novices.
Master of the Game
The story of chess in India would be incomplete without Viswanathan Anand, who claimed his fifth world championship title in May 2012. Anand has not only succeeded in bringing India’s name on the world map, but has also motivated other Indians to follow in his footsteps.
The grandmaster, who turned 42 on December 11, however, is not sitting quietly with his laurels. He still aims for perfection. Says his wife Aruna Anand: “He always aims to better his games. He is a person who is trying to improve everyday.”
For a person who has ruled the chess world for the past 25 years, he humbly said: “I simply hung on for dear life,” after beating Boris Gelfand of Israel in the tie-breaker for the fifth title in Moscow.
The chess wizard, however, rates the 2012 championship as the most difficult in terms of intensity. “For him, each championship is important. He has the fondest memory of each one of them, as all of them are played after intense preparations. But he rates the recent world championship as the most special,” says Aruna. “Definitely it was special. It was a close contest. Very few people have achieved what he has done. I feel proud to be a part of such a person’s life,” she adds.
Anand’s journey to the top began from his own home, when he was just six years old. He picked up the nuances of the game from his mother Susheela, who sharpened his mind by making him solve puzzles. He won his first ever title at the National Sub-Junior Chess Championship in 1983. A year later, when he was 15, he went on to become the youngest Indian to win the title of International Master, followed by several feats, including the national chess title (thrice).
Thereafter, there was no dearth of laurels that came his way. He was the first Indian to win the World Junior Chess Championship (1987) and became India’s first grandmaster (1988). In the 1990s, he lived his dream by playing at the World Chess Championship, though he could not win the title. In 2000, he edged past Spain’s Alexei Shirov in the best-of-six game final in Teheran for the world crown. Anand’s spell of magic continued with many more international titles. At 28, he won the 2007 World Chess Federation, FIDE World Championship.
Besides the world number 1 ranking to his credit, his feat has earned him some of the highest civilian awards from the Indian government like the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Shri and India’s highest sports honour, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna.
No wonder then why many youngsters draw inspiration from the grandmaster. India’s youngest grandmaster Parimarjan Negi says: “I have always been motivated by him. What he has achieved is incredible. As a seven-year-old, it was great to know that an Indian won the world champion in 2000. I just love to see him playing, and try to imitate him in every possible way.”
India might have produced many promising talents in the past but for now he is the undisputed king.