In 1991, a group of us chess players from Cochin decided to play in the Palani chess tournament (officially the R. Guruswami Naidu Memorial tournament). I had lost my mother earlier that year and was desperately in need of a change of scene. This was one of the strongest open tournaments in the country, the venue being a small village called Kalayamputhur located just outside the temple town of Palani. The Palani tournament had been held every year since its inception in 1972. (By the way, the 1973 edition was won by O. L. V. Rajaram, whom I wrote about in my previous post.) Players flocked to this tournament from all over the country, as the organizers provided free food and accommodation to every player. Yes, you read that right! If that wasn't generous enough, the organizers also increased the prize money every year by 25%. This was probably too good a thing to last, but it was a sad day indeed when the organizers, citing a slump in the textile business, announced that the 25th edition of the tournament, played in 1996, would be the last. We were fortunate that we decided to go when we did; we wouldn't have got another chance.
We were going primarily to have a good time. After all, we were carefree bachelors, except for one player, who, however, remained a bachelor in spirit and accompanied us on all our shenanigans. The strongest player in our group, and therefore the most ambitious, suggested that we approach this more seriously than is our wont. After all, rating tournaments were a rarity in Cochin, and if we played well in Palani, we could get our maiden FIDE rating. We agreed to rise above our usual eat, drink, and be merry lifestyle, and spent some time every week in joint opening preparation and a review of the basic rook endings. Finally, the day of our departure dawned, and off we went. We chose to give the shared accommodation provided by the organizers a miss and instead booked ourselves into a hotel in Palani town. There were frequent buses to Vijaykumar Textiles, where the tournament was conducted.
However, Mission Palani began inauspiciously even before the first move had been made on a chessboard. Soon after checking into the hotel on the night of our arrival, the reception desk informed us that shortly before we arrived, there had been a telephone call from his house for our married friend (OMF from now on), and he was to call back immediately. OMF went down to the lobby (no mobile phones then) while the rest of us unpacked. When he returned to the room, his face was ashen. His wife had an office job and had left home before him, and he was supposed to have dropped off their house key at his mother's place before leaving for Palani. However, this he had forgotten to do, and his wife and infant daughter, locked out of their own house, were stranded at his mother's house.
His daughter was bawling for her favorite toys (he had heard her wails in the background), dinner was cooling its heels in the unreachable fridge and his wife's clothes were hanging loose in the untouchable almirah in their locked home, and to make matters even worse, his wife had an important business meeting the next day. She had returned home late after work, and all the shops had closed. Nothing could be purchased that day. Striking an emotional note, she had vowed over the phone that she would rather die than go to work in her mother-in-law's hand-me-downs. She demanded that he present himself in Cochin the very next day. She had then banged the phone down, snapping that she had no more time to waste on him now, because she had many urgent phone calls to make to isomorphic friends to borrow … err … garments of a … hmm, how should I put it? … delicate and vital nature so that she could go to work the next day.
OMF was shaken by this unexpected turn of events and picked up his bag to catch the first bus back. It was with some difficulty that we persuaded him to sleep well and catch the morning bus instead. He eventually saw the wisdom of this, and we all retired for the night. The next day, over decoction coffee, the strongest player had a brain wave. He had fought his way to a leadership position in the hurly-burly of Kerala student politics in college (in fact, I think I'll call him SL for student leader from now on), and had battled his way out of many a sticky campus situation. SL's suggestion was simple: Why not just courier the key home? It wouldn't take much longer to reach than if he went back himself. The shrill exhortation of his wife to return was still ringing in his ears, and OMF was hesitant at first, but then he saw he could have his cake and eat it too. His wife would get the key, and he would get to stay on and play in Palani. It really was as simple as that. There wasn't much time left before the commencement of the first round, but we managed to courier the key and reach the venue just in time for the start of play.
The venue was swarming with players, and the atmosphere was electric with excitement. It was a thrill to see Pravin Thipsay, who looked like a distinguished scientist, and his wife, Bhagyashree, in the tournament hall. I won my first round, but thereafter found the going tough. The one opponent who stands out in my memory was an old man called Majee. The moment I saw him, his clothes told me that he hailed from Bengal. He was thin, short, and had the alert eyes of a raptor. He looked to be in his late sixties, but his quick movements belied his age. I had the White pieces in our game, which I remember well.
He played the French Defense, and I chose an opening setup akin to the King's Indian Attack. Queens were exchanged on the 20th move, after which I had the better position. The battle lines were clearly drawn. We had castled on opposite sides, and I felt I could shatter his queen side with pawn advances and infiltrate with my heavy pieces. However, I was so busy plotting his downfall on the queen side that I carelessly overlooked I could win a pawn on my 21st move and also underestimated his designs on my king side. As I pondered Majee's pawn thrust 23…h5, the realization hit me that I was in trouble. The more I looked, the more his "h" pawn looked like an invincible battering ram. And it went just as I had feared. By the 25th move, my position was a shambles. I thrashed around desperately to salvage the game, but Majee prosecuted his advantage with the vigor of a man half his age. I was forced to concede defeat. We exchanged a few words after the game. I told him that I had done my schooling in Calcutta. He hailed from a village in Midnapore, he told me.
Meanwhile, the key had not been delivered even after three days. OMF had to field nightly spousal telephone calls at the hotel desk, and he returned from these encounters looking more and more haggard and drawn each time. After a quick lunch the next day, we visited the courier office. The clerk at the desk had no explanation for the nondelivery of the key. We demanded to meet the manager. By this time, SL was fuming. Now, SL had a theory that Malayalam is nothing but Tamil spoken through the nose. Therefore, whenever SL spoke "Tamil," he attempted to speak only through his mouth, an impossible biological feat for a Malayalee, for whom the mouth and nose are husband and wife (not necessarily in that order) in speech. The resulting unnatural strain on the transverse nasalis invariably caused SL's nose to become as red as a tomato. This made him look even more angry than he was when he thundered: "Look, I'm not going to the police station here to make a complaint. I'll file a complaint in court against you in Cochin. If the key is not delivered by tomorrow, I'll force you to come down to Cochin every month for the next three years!" At this there was more hand wringing and confident assurances that of course the key would be delivered by tomorrow. "In fact, saar, it is most probably being delivered right now, even as we are speaking." We could only hope for the best as we returned for our next round game.
SL played the game of the round as he launched a ferocious attack against his highly rated opponent. The ultimate tribute was paid to the game: a crowd of spectators thronging the board and debating possibilities among themselves in hushed tones. SL lost the game, but it was our finest hour. We had failed in our mission of getting a FIDE rating, but our heads were unbowed. And we were returning home the next day, but the misbegotten key hadn't reached home. OMF wondered whether the key had found its way to a gang of burglars, and if he would return home to find the house stripped of everything of value. Back at the hotel, we were on the point of setting out for the courier office with a strongly worded letter of complaint (cc the city police commissioner) in hand when the hotel reception announced a phone call for OMF. From the exclamations he gave vent to during the call, we knew something was afoot. At length, he turned to us sheepishly. The key was lying at the courier office in Palani. In our hurry to make it to the first round on time, OMF had addressed the packet to his locked house, not to his mother's house. The key had been returned to the Palani office marked "addressee not at address."
Some time after this, maybe a year or two later, I met Majee at the Madras Central railway station. He recognized me at once, and his face brightened. He was returning home after playing in a tournament, he said. And wasn't I playing, he asked? I said no. His eyes seemed to demand an explanation, and I mumbled something about the difficulty of getting leave. But he continued to look quizzically at me, and his question hung in the air. We exchanged some pleasantries, and if he was amused by my broken Bengali, he didn't show it. We had our trains to catch, and we said goodbye.
I met Majee for the last time after he died — on the pages of Indian Chess History by Aaron and Pandit, where an account of his life and career is given. He was the runner-up of the West Bengal state championships in 1964, the year before I was born. He himself was born in 1914, which means he was 77 years old when I met him in Palani. In 1981, he came second in the Palani tournament. He created a sensation in Calcutta chess circles when he got his FIDE rating in 1994 at the age of 80! He was uncompromising over the board, always played to win, and hated pre-arranged draws; a more practical approach would have fetched him greater success. And far from being a landed gentleman of leisure as I'd thought, he was practically penniless. He lived for chess and chess alone, the ultimate chess gypsy.
For some reason, Majee captured my imagination. His sprightliness in his so-called declining years. His upright bearing and direct, unflinching gaze despite his penury. And the FIDE rating at age eighty! Only a select few can summon up the physical stamina, the emotional motivation, and mental energy to play competitive tournament chess after, say, sixty. Eighty! I felt a stirring within myself. That same week I bought a new chess clock (my old clock was beyond repair). One month later I played in a one-day rapid event to test the waters. The chess scene in Cochin had been transformed during my long absence. Many of my chess friends had taken to coaching. Most of the players were school and college kids. Anxious parents thronged the venue. Coaching, computers, and the Internet made these kids a strong force to reckon with. The number of FIDE-rated players in the district must be in the hundreds, and most of them seem to be kids. I'd read about the Indian chess explosion, and now I was seeing it first-hand. In my playing days, kids like these were easy meat. A parent at the venue told me that his son, in the ninth standard, preferred to play "uncles" like me rather than other kids because the "uncles" were easier to beat. The boot was truly on the other foot now.
The rapid event had given me a feel for what it was like to play tournament chess again, and I grabbed the first opportunity that came my way to play in a rated tournament, the one conducted by the Regional Sports Centre (RSC) in September this year (the photo above was taken by a fellow player just before the start of the seventh round, and the photo below was taken by the official RSC photographer, Mr. Yusuf). This was my first regular-time-control over-the-board tournament after 18 (!) years. All my opponents were rated players (and all but one were school/college kids), and I finished with 6/9 points (five wins, two draws, two losses). The upshot was that I became the champion among the unrated players. And that's a prize I'll never be able to win again because I also secured my maiden FIDE rating: 1549 (with a performance rating of 1610). The RSC has been my lucky venue. My previous tournament proper was a team event held in the RSC in 1997 (!), and in the very first round I had memorably beaten the player who came third here this year (he's rated over 2000).
And what next? Majee da, with your blessings, I hope to emulate you by continuing to play tournament chess in my sunset years.
Note: The misadventure with the key did occur, but my description of the events surrounding it is a fictional dramatization. In real life, the crisis was handled with admirable aplomb and exemplary mutual understanding by all the parties involved.
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