My father introduced me to chess when I was eight years old. Nearly 40 years later, I know that many of the skills and qualities gained from the game stand in good standing in life and in litigation. The game is believed to have been invented by the Indians in the 6th century CE, in the era of the Gupta Empire. It was known as “chaturanga” at the time. The word “chaturanga”, which in Sanskrit means four limbs, refers to the four arms of the army – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots.
During the Gupta era, the game was played on an 8×8 grid, like today’s modern chessboard. By the eleventh century, it had spread to Persia where it was known as ‘chatrang’ or ‘shatranj’. From Persia, he went to China and Japan before reaching Europe via North Africa. In Europe, by the 16th century, some cosmetic changes were made to the game, including renaming the pieces after European medieval characters such as a knight, bishop, and rook (or fort).
The rules of the game are simple, but playing is a complex art, which requires concentration, a calm mind and the ability to sit still and close the world. These are essential qualities for any discipline or art form, especially advocacy in the courtroom. First, more about the rules for those who don’t play. Essentially, when your king or checkmate is captured, you lose. Perhaps in a reflection of real life, the female piece, or queen, is the most powerful and hardworking piece, while pawns are committed foot soldiers. Bishops move diagonally, ravens vertically and horizontally, and knights move with an L-shaped horse’s head.
Each piece has its own role, but all must work together to be used most effectively by the force that operates it – such as any army, bureaucracy or state institutions. Dealing with any crisis – whether it’s Covid or war – reflects how effective the ruling regime is in spreading the periphery of the country. Each institution is only a piece on the larger board which is the state. As in the game of chess, the constitution describes the role or function of each institution and sets the rules.
Chess has meant different things to me at different stages of my life. As a bored teenager, setting up a school chess club was an outlet for my strained mind, which wasn’t involved with the curriculum taught in class. This soon led to participation in state and national competitions for novice players. It was in the late 80’s, when I heard about a sexy player named Viswanathan Anand from Chennai who became India’s first great teacher.
In the last years of my studies, I was invited to attend the Pioneer Artek camp in Yalta, Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union. Yalta, a resort town, was surrounded by the Black Sea and hosted a camp for young people from all over the world. There I would meet talented and highly trained chess players who would quickly break up my game. At that time, a politician named Mikhail Gorbachev was talking about “glasnost” and “perestroika”. Soon, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
I was excited to be in the Soviet Union for the mother of chess. For a long time, chess was used to settle ideological wars and issues of national pride. At the height of the Cold War years, a competitor from the United States, Bobby Fischer, and defending champion Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union, played at the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. From July 11 to August 31, 1972, during 21 matches, the two players competed for themselves and for their countries. Symbolically, capitalism has taken communism. Both Fischer and Spassky were under tremendous pressure to win.
The Soviets have dominated world chess up until this point, winning the world championship for the past 24 years. The eccentric, critic of his government, brilliant and unpredictable, Fisher demanded a raise in prize money, refused to attend the opening ceremony, threatened not to play, and in the end, Henry Kissinger had to be persuaded to compete. He would go on to win the championship and break the Soviet hegemony.
I found chess again during this time of relative isolation, with the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns and curfews. In its birthplace, chess has experienced a renaissance over the past decade. Abhijit Nair writes in Bridge that as of 2021, India has 72 senior professors, having tripled this number in the past decade. In the past three years alone, from 2018 to 2021, India has produced an astounding 22 landmarks.
During the pandemic, one can still play in the world of online chess sites. Rumor has it that the former world champion and Russian opponent Garry Kasparov often plays anonymously on these sites. If one doesn’t like it, chess programs on laptops are designed to either entertain or destroy according to your selected proficiency level. I’ve played furiously during the lonelier times of lockdown, and used it to bury the grief that friends and pub mates have fallen through due to the brutal second wave of Covid. As the migrant workers were starving or decided to walk to their distant homes, I wondered what kind of “middle game” our rulers were thinking?
When I entered Omicron India, I re-watched Satyajit Rai’s only Hindi-language film, Shatranj ke Khilari. Set in the year 1856, shortly before the revolution of 1857, the film revolves around two nobles living in Awad. Obsessed with the game, they both spend all their time playing and neglecting their families and businesses, until they are completely destroyed. Starring Amjad Khan, Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi and Richard Attenborough, the film is based on a short story written by Munshi Premchand. Both the short story and the film aim to depict the selfishness and cowardice of the ruling classes in India at the time, which did not take battle against a small group of British soldiers who threatened the ancient kingdom of Awadh. In time, Awad and India will fall soon after.
How one lives life is a series of choices. Chess games are divided into opening, middle and end games. In life, the opening steps are determined by the values one decides to live by, and the middle game entails refining the craft one chooses, contributing to society, finding love, nurturing the family, guiding the young, and speaking out against the powerful. When circumstances demand it. At the end of the game, you must look at the legacy you leave behind as you walk into the sunset. You may win or lose, but you played the game by your own rules.
This column first appeared in the print edition on February 5, 2022 under the heading “Important Moves”. The writer is a senior attorney on the Supreme Court