Sunday, April 2, 2017

Minul Doluweera battles it out

I hated the idea of staying after school. For 12 years, I escaped (through some miracle, I now realise) the rule that every student had to engage in two extracurricular activities (or ECAs): one sport, one Club. Once in a while I did check into a Club or Society, only to get out after two, maybe three months. I don’t think I missed out on a lot, but I do think that I missed out on quite a number of analytical and life skills these ECAs would have taught me.

Of these, two in particular enthralled me. The first was debating. I can talk, I can write, I can probably even fight, but I can’t argue, to win or to save my soul. Sure, not everyone can do the first three, but not everyone can (or should) do the fourth. To make matters worse, the idea of winning through words wasn’t my cup of tea. After trying it out once or twice, hence, I chucked it. Just like that.

The second was chess. That too wasn’t my cup of tea, though for a different reason: try as hard as I could, my attention span was, is, and probably will remain accursedly small. I remember playing and I remember winning, but I can’t remember winning consistently. Again, therefore, after trying it out once or twice, I politely chucked it and let my friends take over. The last time I checked, those friends were still playing. That’s life. Some win, some go ahead, others don't.

There’s little, very little, that I know of chess. I know of opening moves, middlegames, endgames, FIDE and Elo rankings, and the various categories that go into these. I know of players and how much effort they expend. I also know that more often than not, those players take to it even before they enter school. This in particular intrigues me, because being a novice I have come to realise (and appreciate) the potential they struggle to build up in themselves. This is the story of one such player. Minul Doluweera.

Until around last year, Minul was the Number One Under-18 player in the country. Now he’s Number Two. I knew he had a story to tell and I wanted to ascertain what it is that drives him. So I met him, talked with him, and took down what he had to say. This is his story.

Minul’s love for chess began with his father. He was about five when he began playing, back when his family were living in England. Initially (as is often the case) he had been entranced by the pieces, but eventually he understood that chess, more than any other activity, involves prediction, conjecture, and risk. These go beyond memorising what moves where and what piece takes over what else. In other words, it’s not about taking over your opponents, but about preventing them from moving any further. I’m digressing here though.

When he returned to Sri Lanka, he was sent to Royal College. While in Grade Three, he came under the influence of Vineetha Wijesuriya. Minul remembers what happened next: “I played, I remembered how I used to play before, and I fell in love with the game. I wanted to play even more, so after a selection procedure I was taken in to our school Chess Club.” This was in 2009. From that year, he began entering various tournaments, both national and international.

What were those tournaments exactly? “There were several in fact, even before I started going abroad,” he recounts for me, “Like the Golden Square International Chess and Queens Chess Tournaments. These were followed by the National Youth Chess Championship in 2010, organised by the Chess Federation of Sri Lanka, where I emerged second. Soon I graduated into international contests: the Asian Schools Chess Championship in Sri Lanka (where I was the third), the Asian Youth Chess Championship in China, and the World Youth Chess Championship in Greece.”

All this interests me more for how they nurtured young Minul. When he started out, he had been interested in the opening. Now, however, his attitude has changed. I put to him that while opening moves certainly depend on theory, this in itself is not enough to help the aspiring player. He agrees: “The opening is actually your biggest pitfall, because it deceives you. With it, even younger players can trump their elders. The trick, however, is to sustain your strategy in a way which takes you through the middlegame and lands you in your endgame. For better or worse, not many have mastered the latter. That is why Sri Lanka is yet to produce a Grand Master.”

Minul himself, incidentally, is a FIDE Master (with a score of 2130), two removes from a Grand Master and one remove from an International Master. While ranks certainly don’t speak volumes, chess is one sport where they do. To a considerable extent, this is based on the player’s desire to look up to, emulate, and if possible best their idols. I therefore ask him who his idols are, and almost immediately he quotes Bobby Fischer and Magnus Carlsen. This I follow with another, as pertinent question: to get from the opening to the endgame, what is it that the aspiring player must possess?

He replies rather seriously: “It really depends on timing. You can opt for easy victories in your opening, especially with your pawn, but that can cost you victories down the line. That is why my favourite piece is the knight, not because it’s powerful but because it’s enigmatic. You can’t predict exactly when or where your opponent will use it. It doesn’t just move. It jumps. After a point, it becomes a player on its own right. You don’t just play with it, in other words: you calculate how, why, and when you move it. To a considerable extent, it even sums up the entire game.” In other words, the way I see it, it’s not just about reading, knowing, or even understanding: it’s about sacrificing what is to embrace victory with what will be.

Getting back to the subject of this article, I ask Minul whether he’s engaged with other activities. To my (pleasant) surprise, he is. He is an Interactor, is involved in his school’s MUN and English Literary Societies, plays in the Eastern Band, and debates.

I then ask him whether all these aided his studies, and he accepts that they have. I suppose such qualities are hard to come by and run in the family, since his brother (Dinul), who did his A Levels last year, has done roughly what he’s indulging in. Including chess.

Few players walk alone. They have their teachers and their mentors. Minul is no exception. At the outset, not surprisingly, he rattles off a list of names, of which one stands out considerably: the redoubtable, determined, and adamant Coach at Royal, Muditha Hettigama.

I have heard of Mr Hettigama, so I ask Minul to describe how it’s been studying under him. “First and foremost, he’s not just a Coach. He knows every one of us. You can say he even studies us, to assess what we are good at and are weak in. That is why he frequently asks after us and even hands down life advice. As a Coach, he is mindful of how important the fundamentals of the game are. In fact even now, after all these years, he brings us back to those fundamentals, because that is where even ambitious and aspiring players trip.”

All this has moreover been supplemented by a rigid but enlightened system of learning at Royal: “When we go out to play against other schools, we are expected to book accommodation and look after ourselves. When we organise chess tournaments, we are expected to organise everything to near-perfection.” It goes without saying, then, that chess inculcates other, as necessary analytical and life skills (as I pointed out earlier), which have no doubt also been enforced on Minul by his Master in Charge at school, Naditha Amarakoon, and his private coach, Prasanna Kurukulasuriya.

A 20-minute interview is hardly enough for a sketch, comprehensive or cursory, of someone like Minul. But then he’s 16. He has some hard yards to cross. As a follower of the game he’s grown to learn and play, I can hence say this much: with chess, there’s no real endgame. The human mind wasn’t built for such a thing. People like Minul, however, continue to teach us that we needn’t really bother. Whether or not we win, what matters is how we get to our victories or defeats. Like I said before then, Minul has some yards to cross. He will cross them well, I am sure and I will hope.

Written for: The Island YOUth, April 2 2017