Check! Castling in the air

Looks like INDIA has been caught in a zugzwang

Zugzwang is a chess term which, in simple English, is the situation when the player who has to make the next move would lose. The German word, pronounced ‘tsooktsvang’, means ‘compulsion to move’.

Looks like INDIA has been caught in a zugzwang. Whatever they do is getting them in a worse position than they were in before making the move. They thought they got a good acronym for a name, but now the rest of us say, INDIA is falling apart. Their Prince Charming thought that instead of spending his winter evenings in Delhi having chai-pakodas and feeding his Pidi, he should ride out to reconnoitre the field, and rouse his troops for the poll battle. Now allies are blaming him for going on a joyride when he should have been in the war-room crafting strategies.

But why pick a chess term to describe political parties’ pre-poll predicament? It is just that our treasurer Nirmala Sitharaman gave me some food for chess thoughts in her budget speech. Hailing the prodigy Praggnanandhaa who nearly checkmated world champion Magnus Carlsen, she proudly claimed “today India has over 80 chess grandmasters compared to little over 20 in 2010.”

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

Indeed, the NDA’s many Herculeses—sports ministers from Sarbananda Sonowal to Anurag Thakur—have cleaned India’s Augean tracks and fields to Olympian standards. They got our sportspersons more funds, facilities and fields, and toned up many messy sports bodies, though a few Brij Bhushan Sharans are hanging around the rings as native versions of Vince McMahons.

But does the government have anything to do with the making of prodigies like Praggna or Vaishali? Has the state, which may have patronised chess, spotted or nurtured chess talent?

Chess had its beginnings in ancient India where it remained a courtly pastime till Satyajit Ray filmed a Premchand story in 1977, mocking at a few lazy Lukhnavis of the 1850s. Then came Viswanathan Anand as the knight in shining armour, self-made, self-taught, self-funded, and winning the global crown. His example inspired several thousand Indians to let their kids brood over the boards rather than mug up textbooks for school boards, or get torture-tutored for NEET, CLAT or CUET. We got our 80 grandmasters from those kids whom Anand inspired.

Indeed, the political grandmasters in Washington, too, had hailed their Bob Fischer’s freak win over Russia’s Boris Spassky in 1973 as the free world’s checkmate on the state-controlled bishops, knights and rooks of the USSR. In truth, they had nothing to do with Fischer’s win. It was just that Fischer gave the Yanks a face-saver after their shameful defeat in Vietnam.

Not so in Russia. They had been playing the game for centuries. Ivan the Terrible fell dead over a chessboard. Lenin’s love for the sport helped make chess a national pastime. By the 1920s, chess was established as a central tenet of the Soviet society, where it captured the fancy of the hawkers in Arbat as well the apparatchik around the Kremlin. Just like our drivers and hawkers playing cards in our car parks and street corners, you can still see lines of hawkers selling vegetables and cheap goods in Russian town streets playing chess on boards placed between them when no customers are around. No wonder, Russia produced seven of the eight world champions from 1948 till 1993, and more later. The US? None before or after Fischer’s freak win.

The long and short of the story is: regimes have little role in making a Fischer, Carlson, Vishy, or Praggna, but maybe a bit in the shaping of Spassky, Karpov, or Kasparov.