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Outlook Money
Frontline

The chess stories

Of sun signs and 64 squares

By V. Venkatesan

"CHECK and mate," he announced and moved on.

I sat back, disappointed with myself for having lost a game which, at one stage, I had all but won. Soon, a voice cut in on my post-game analysis.

"Young man, you aren't by any chance a Taurean, are you?" asked The Sage as he moved up and sat down next to me. He had been watching me lose and was now, I presumed, coming up to tell me where I had erred.

"Why, yes, I am," I said. "But how did you know?"

The Sage smiled knowingly. "Your game said it. You play too defensively and you rarely, if ever, attack your opponent's king. A defensive game does have some elements of merit, but you must be ever alert to move in for the kill. You are too typically Taurean."

I nodded my agreement. This was not the first time that my passive play had come in for criticism, and I was surprised that The Sage hadn't got around to it earlier. But this was the first time someone had blamed my sun sign for it.

The Sage, incidentally, is a venerable gentleman who haunts the chess club I frequent. I am told that his only claim to chess mastery is that he once got as far as the pre-quarter final in the Veterans'(70 years and over) Tournament, but that did not prevent him from sermonising to all other members on their distinctive styles of play and what exactly he found disagreeable about it. Which was how he had earned for himself his sobriquet.

I mumbled my thanks and got set to leave, when he said, "All of which leads me to the story of my cousin's son, Ajay. I wonder if you'd care to listen to it."

"Well, actually, I'm in a hurry today. Some other time, maybe," I said and rose. The Sage, I forgot to mention, was a compulsive raconteur and could never stop, once he got into one of his moods.

"I think you should hear it now," he said, pinning me to my chair, thereby thwarting my attempts to flee. "The story of Ajay, who had much more to lose than just a chess match if he played passively will, I am sure, be an inspiration to you."

THERE ARE two distinctive classes of chess players (said The Sage). One of them is the lot which has never seen a theory book on chess; the other group is steeped in the theory of openings and other technicalities. Members of the second family often pause on Move Thirteen to recollect whether Capabalanca played likewise when he clashed with Mieses in 1913. They are, by and large, not innovative and choose instead to play from familiar positions, not taking risks. Ajay, undoubtedly, belonged to the second group. Added to which, he was a Taurean.

The result of this combination of elements was that Ajay, though he attained much distinction over the 64 squares and was gainfully employed, was not a very popular man. His games were very dull and, as an extension, so was company. He was not unlike you -- a poor conversationalist and far too introverted. All of which would not have bothered him, but for the fact that he was in love. He was totally, madly and deeply in love, and the woman for whom he nursed such intense feelings was a frequent visitor to the chess club, named Champa. So did Ajay confide in me, adding that he did not know how best to go about the business of asking for her hand in marriage.

I confess that when Ajay told me of his love for this girl, I felt not a little sorry for him. I mean to say, here was a girl full of verve and of more than customary vivacity, who, quite regardless of whether she won or lost, deemed her time wasted if she did not sacrifice a minimum of three pieces in the course of the games she played. And Ajay, as confirmed a theoretician as ever played Pawn to King Four, was in love with her. It seemed to me that the romance would end like one of those Greek tragedies, but nevertheless, I ventured to do what I could by way of a possible union between the two young hearts.

Age gives you a certain licence to get away with things that you otherwise might not. Thus, when one day I called Champa over and told her of Ajay's devotion to her and how he thought the world of her, she did not turn violent like so many of today's girls. She said she had already inferred as much from the admiring glances he had cast her way. But she also made it very clear that she wouldn't dream of marrying him. I pointed out there very certain advantages to having a Taurean husband, who was stable and balanced even if he was not going to be the life and soul of every party ("Take Karpov, for instance. I'm sure Mrs. Karpov does not regret her decision today."). Champa said no, she didn't object to Ajay being the introspective sort, in fact, she liked him for being so; but she was not, repeat not, entering into wedlock with a dull chess player.

"If, in tomorrow's play-off match, Ajay decides to play aggressively and sacrifices a couple of pieces, I'm all his. But if he goes ahead with his dull wood-pushing, he can look elsewhere for love." And so saying, she stomped off.

I knew what she was talking about. Ajay was to meet the reigning local champion in a play-off match slated for the morrow. But what he did not know was that this would be a play-off match in more ways than one. I instantly proceeded to his place to fill him on the latest and, needless to say, the poor lad was very much shaken by the news. I mean to say, who wouldn't be?

AT THIS point, I was forced to interrupt The Sage.

"Well, if it's all the same to you, could you spare me the fine details and give me just the hard facts. I'm already late."

To which, he muttered something about the tactless ways of the younger generation. And he continued:

"The next day, Ajay turned up at the tournament venue, all keyed up after a sleepless night. The tension being more than he could stand, he blundered on the 16th move, leaving one of his major pieces en prise. His opponent, totally baffled by the seemingly sacrificial offering from a man whom he knew to be the last word in the theory of openings, promptly resigned. And, off-board, chess analysts perceived so many 'hidden threats' in the move that Ajay had made that they promptly gave him the 'chess brilliancy prize' for the tournament.

"Now of course, Ajay and Champa are happily married. Soon after their wedding they moved over to Timbuctoo. In fact, I heard from Champa last week, saying that they were the happiest couple in Ulan Batur. She further writes to say that Ajay's style of play has changed for the better since the play-off match, and sums up by saying that if Ajay is anything to go by, Taureans must make very good husbands."

TWO WEEKS after my close encounter with The Sage, while talking to one of my clubmates I inferred that The Sage was suffering from senile dementia. That last-said fact is, of course, outside of the present narrative, and is mentioned only as an odd fact in conclusion. It should not, in any way, influence your liking (or dislike) for the reminiscences of The Sage. n

(Published in The Indian Express.)

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