Sunday, May 28, 2017

'Battle of the Kings': Of kings, knights, pawns, and players

On April 21, 22, and 23, the Royal College Chess Club held the 21st Battle of the Kings, the longest uninterrupted chess tournament organised by a student body here. The 21st, be it of a person or institution or event, usually calls for reflection, meriting a throwback to how the thing being celebrated evolved. This is hence a sketch of how a bunch of schoolchildren, left to their own devices under the supervision of a set of elders, have proved themselves.

My first recollection of chess is that it was a game where victories and defeats were (to say the least) unpredictable. You can win and go up one day and slide down with one wrong move the next. Your opponent may be poorer (in whatever respect) than you, but luck even with its many shades and nuances (thankfully) doesn’t take that into account. To a considerable extent then, it has come to reflect the wider social landscape of the country, where mobility remains a distant possibility that’s nevertheless emboldened the proverbial underdog. For me and a great many followers of the game, that’s what has defined Battle of the Kings throughout its history.

21 years is not a long time but it certainly is considering the strides made in chess here. Not many people know, for instance, that we’ve produced players who were not only able to reckon with better players elsewhere, but could rout them too (as Vajira Perera proved when he defeated Vishvanathan Anand somewhere in the eighties). We have not produced a Grand Master but a few years back we did produce an International Master (Romesh Weerawardena). Clearly then, we are not lacking in talent, inborn, inherited, taught, or picked up. We aren’t lacking in tournaments either. And above everything, we aren’t lacking in across-the-board representation. Which brings me back to the subject of my piece.

I went to watch the Battle of the Kings on Sunday. Because it was the last day, the tournament ended rather quickly, at about noon (I left soon afterwards without staying for the awards ceremony). At the outset I was pointed at three teams by a member of the Royal College Chess Advisory Committee (I’ll name him later). All three were from the North: Chenkalady Central College, Hartley College, and Kokuvil Hindu College. I didn’t get to talk with them all, only with the captain of the latter school team.

Unlike in Colombo, Kandy, and much of the South and elsewhere, there’s a disjuncture between popularity and dissemination, where chess is concerned, in that part of the country. “It’s popular, but not widely played,” the Kokuvil Captain, Gajendran Gasanthiran, told me.

His story of how he got to rise up in the game is typical of schoolboys like him from there: having seen a senior boy clinch the school championship, he’d asked him to teach him. His knowledge of the game at the time, naturally enough, had been elementary. So elementary, in fact, that when he managed to route that same senior and clinch both school (two years in a row) and provincial (in 2015) championships, he would have been as (pleasantly) surprised as we were.

The Kokuvil boys played rather decently at the tournament, I noticed. Gajendran in particular, with a FIDE score of 1209, spoke of how he defeated two more highly ranked players, with scores of 1298 and 1600, elsewhere. Now chess is a game where ranks and the categories embedded therein do matter, but while Gajendran and his colleagues do need to rise up more, their level of interest and enthusiasm speaks volumes about how it has ascended over the years. “Most of those who take to chess where I come from grow up in the city,” he told me with a slight grin, “I am an exception: I come from outside.” Heartening, no doubt.

And to a large extent, that’s what has shaped Battle of the Kings over two decades. Here’s what that Advisory Committee member wrote: “From the earliest days of chess that I remember, we at Royal were not only aware of the privileges that accrue from the fact of being students of the school, but the responsibilities therein. Chess players in particular have always felt a need to do what is possible to lift the game in schools outside Colombo and in less privileged schools in the Province.”

Inasmuch as the Club consists of juniors and seniors guided by determined teachers, it has been structured to teach those juniors and seniors not only how to play, but also how to accommodate opponents as hosts regardless of background. I didn’t get to talk with either of the two College Captains (regrettably), but I did get to talk with a junior player (Minul Doluweera, currently the Number Two Under-18 player in the country) who confirmed this, attributing it to a set of elders of whom one stands out significantly: Muditha Hettigama, the most senior chess coach at Royal.

The tournament ended with the Senior Chess Team of Royal College winning 25 out of 30 possible games, defeating runners-up Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda 4-2 and second runners-up Ananda College 4.5-1.5. As in the last two years, Dharmasoka clinched victory in the Girls category, with Anula and St Joseph’s (Nugegoda) coming in second and third respectively. The top scorer from the entire contest, moreover, was Lakindu Withanage, from the host school. All in all, well played out.

I am no chess player, only enthusiast, so I think it best to end my piece with comments made by two individuals who’ve been involved heavily in the tournament.

The first, Minul, I texted the following message to the other day: “It’s good to see how you all use your privileges to help other less privileged players." He texted back: “That’s the whole point of this tournament: to give back to society.” The second, that aforementioned Advisory Committee member, whom I will now reveal as Malinda Seneviratne, penned the following years ago: “The boys do their best. I think they deserve a salute now and then. I haven’t contributed much all these years, so saying ‘thanks and keep it up’ is the least I can do.”

Taken together, the young and the old, the king, the knight, the pawn, and the player have come together. Now that they’ve all hit 21, I think it’s safe to infer that in the years to come, the Battle of the Kings will impart more, much more, than instructions on getting past the opening and middle-game. So thank you, for the game and for everything else that has been taught.

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 28 2017