A few months ago, at a time when I was overloaded with work, an email landed in my inbox. The subject line instantly captured my attention, and work was forgotten once I read the terse yet startling message. The author of the email claimed that he was co-authoring a book on Indian chess history, and that I would be mentioned in it. Further, he wanted my address so that he could send me a complimentary copy. I might have dismissed this as a prank or a sophisticated phishing attempt but for the identity of the email sender, who was none other than Manuel Aaron, the doyen of Indian chess, India's first IM, a pioneer who has blazed many a trail in Indian chess.
But surely this must be a mistake! I've been school, college, and university chess champion, won prizes and beaten strong rated players in open tournaments, and written articles that appeared in chess magazines (including Manuel Aaron's own "Chess Mate" magazine) … but a mention in a survey of Indian chess history? Though I had beaten 2000+ rated players, opportunities to play in rating tournaments in the 1990s (my active playing period) were few, so I didn't even have a FIDE rating. This must be a case of mistaken identity, I concluded, and I would be happy to clear up the confusion — but only after my name had appeared in print. I sent my address and quietly awaited further developments.
Months passed, and finally the book arrived. Oh joy, joy, joy! It's a sturdy, handsomely produced book that is built to last a few generations. The material is encyclopedic in scope: players, organizers, arbiters, sponsors, tournaments, historical events, personalities, annotated games, records, etc. The featured players include not only the leading lights but also the colorful characters and oddballs whom this addictive mind game draws like a magnet. Besides, the book is not restricted to just mainstream chess, it is truly inclusive: eccentric subcultures that are little chess universes in their own right, such as chess problems, correspondence chess, and blind chess, have also been covered.
It's a monumental work, a magnum opus, a work of art, a collector's item. To quote from the preface: "The objective of this book is to put down in black and white, all we now know about our chess history, our top players and their games and their genius, our organisers, our sponsors and the tournaments, before they pass into oblivion." The fact that chess originated in India makes the need for such a book all the more pressing. We Indians are known to be careless about preserving our history, and the authors, Manuel Aaron and chess historian Vijay Pandit, deserve the gratitude of the Indian chess community for undertaking and completing this task in such a splendid fashion and filling an important void.
Although the best one-word description of the book is "encyclopedia," it is much more readable than most encyclopedias. The style is conversational. A delightful feature is that it is packed with enjoyable anecdotes that bring the characters to life. The influence of Manuel Aaron is visible here, as there is nobody he does not know in Indian chess. The work has drawn on a wide variety of sources from each state. Again, it required a historian to outline the scope of the work, delineate its contours, decide what is to be included and what is to be left out, compile the statistics, and ensure accuracy and rigor. Chess historian V. D. Pandit has ensured just that. Indian Chess History is the fruit of a happy marriage between the minds of its co-authors.
The book is like a box of assorted chocolates: there is something to delight every palate. I cannot resist quoting one anecdote here, from the entry for Nasiruddin Ghalib from Hyderabad, who in his career wore several hats: he was first a player, then a coach and manager (of the Khadilkar sisters), and finally an organizer. "At the 1978 National B in Pollachi held in summer, it was represented at the players' meeting that the organisers provided bare cots with no mattresses. With no chances of hiring mattresses in rural Pollachi, Ghalib brushed aside the objections with 'You guys want mattresses today and will want mistresses tomorrow!'"
But let me be honest: the best feature of the book is that I am in it. In 2002, I was awarded the CCIM (correspondence chess international master) title by ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation) for my performance in the first ICCF Email Olympiad in 2001, where I scored 8/11 on Board 3 for the Indian team. As a result, I'm listed in the book among the Indian titled players, just a page away from Vishy Anand (!), and I'm also mentioned a couple of times in the sections on correspondence chess. I didn't think correspondence chess would be covered at all in the book, and this was a happy surprise.
I was flipping through the book a few days after I got it when a group photograph caught my eye. The occasion was the 1955 Ahmedabad Invitation Tournament, which was held to select the Indian team for the 1956 Moscow Olympiad. The person in the second row, second from right, looked familiar, and when I matched the face in the photo to the name in the caption — O. L. V. Rajaram — I had a flashback. I had played OLV (as he was known) in Trichy in one of the Anna Memorial open tournaments when I was a student at REC. OLV was in his sixties then, and I was a callow youth, still a teenager (to put the age difference in perspective, OLV had played in a selection tournament for the Indian team ten years before I was born).
It was my first ever open tournament, and I will never forget my game against him. I had played exceedingly well in the early rounds, and then came the fateful game against OLV. I managed to outplay him and had obtained a winning position when the clock was introduced (for 30 min sudden death, I think). It was the very first time I was playing with a clock ticking next to me, and I became very nervous, played unnecessarily quickly, and lost. Yes, chess can be a cruel game. I was shattered. OLV consoled me after the game: "You killed me," he said.
I eventually snapped out of my flashback and returned with renewed appreciation to the book that had united a landmark event in Indian chess history in 1955 with a memorable episode in my personal chess history in 1984, the common denominator being a textile merchant and chess player from Madurai called O. L. V. Rajaram.
Powered by Zoundry Raven