Essayist Anand traces chess roots back to ancient India

June 26th, 2008 - 12:47 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, June 26 (IANS) Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was once called, may have produced the most world chess champions but the fact of the matter is that the current world champion and World No.1 player is an Indian, Viswanathan Anand. What’s more, the world’s No. 2 player among women, too, is an Indian, Koneru Humpy. Anand, who defends his world title in October this year, appeared in a new role this week - as a high-profile guest essayist in the TIME Magazine, where he traces the roots of the game back to the ancient Indian history and epics and insists that the sport travelled westward out from India.

Anand says: “Ironically, Russia may have been one of the last places in the Old World to receive chess, likely through the Volga trade route. It became popular there during the reign of Peter the Great. The late introduction didn’t stop the Russians from becoming the game’s superpower, though, and it wasn’t until 2000 that an Indian - yours truly - finally brought the title of world chess champion back to the land of birth of the sport.” Touche!

Tracing his own career, he writes: “I like to think that the arc of my own career has in some ways mirrored the journey of chess. I learned to play in India, then moved to Spain so I could play the European circuit, and won my first world championship in Iran. It’s nice when your place in chess history has something to do with the bigger picture.”

Anand mentions a very interesting incident early in his career.

Recalling the 1991 Reggio Emilia tournament in Italy, the biggest till then and one where he first announced his arrival as a world-class player, Anand writes: “In 1991, at my first international tournament, in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, a Russian grandmaster condescendingly told me I could at best be a coffee-house player because I had not been tutored in the Soviet school of chess, which then dominated the sport. With the arrogance of youth - I was 21 - I thought to myself, ‘But didn’t we Indians invent chess? Why shouldn’t I have my own route to the top of the sport?’”

Thus began Anand’s journey to the top of world chess, where he is perched now.

He adds: “It would take me 17 years to find that route, and along the way I’ve had hundreds of conversations about the origins of chess - with players, fans, officials, taxi drivers, barbers and who knows how many people who sat next to me on a plane. I’ve heard the ownership of chess being claimed by Russians, Chinese, Ukrainians, Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Spaniards and Greeks. My own view is that the sport belongs to everybody who plays it, but the question of its origins is easy enough to answer: chess comes from India.”

Anand goes on to supplement his argument by delving into history.

He says: “Our claim is based not on dominance - although the Indian school is now producing lots of high-quality players, including (ahem) the world No. 1. Some of the oldest references to the sport are found in ancient Indian texts. In the great epic Ramayana (which, according to some sources, was orally transmitted sometime between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.), the demon king Ravana invents chess to amuse his wife Mandodari. A brilliant mind, she promptly beats him at it. My grandmother told me that story when I first began to play the game at age 6. Chess also features in the Arthashastra (3rd century B.C.), perhaps the world’s oldest political treatise. Its author, Chanakya, describes chess as a game of war strategy, known as chaturanga, played on an 8-by-8 board. Think of it as the world’s first virtual war game.”

The chess historian in Anand continues to describe how chess travelled westward out of India. He says: “…went through Afghanistan into Persia, where the game became known as chatrang. The Arabs called it shatranj and learnt it when they conquered Persia in the 6th century A.D. They introduced the game to Europe when the Moors crossed the Mediterranean into the Iberian peninsula. It grew immensely popular in Moorish Spain, where it was played in the street - a practice still seen in parks and other squares in cities around the world.”

Anand continues to amaze us with his grasp of chess history, when he adds: “Iberia underwent a major change after the 15th century reconquista by Catholic forces led by Queen Isabella I - and chess changed, too. On the board, the queen became the most important piece; the bishop replaced the camel and flanked the king and queen. (Modern chess is still played by rules formalized under Isabella’s reign.) Around this time, the Spanish player Luis Ramirez de Lucena wrote what may have been the first book about chess theory - the Lucena Position remains to this day the cornerstone of rook and pawn endings.”

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