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Pico Iyer
'Tiger' Pataudi
Anita Ratnam

The Chennai Music Season
Leh Diary
Dhar: 'Middle Kingdom'

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Outlook Money

The chess stories

Chess diplomacy

By V. Venkatesan

"IT never ceases to amaze me," Mr. P wondered aloud, "that a seemingly passive game like chess can kindle animal passions in some."

I knew what had prompted the former First Secretary's remark. Only a few minutes earlier, we had been witness to an unequal physical duel between two young members of our chess club, both amateur pawn-pushers. The dispute arose due to an unfortunate misinterpretation of rules, with one of them claiming that though he might have lost his king, he could still play with the other pieces! To which, the other, not content with saying that he had never heard such bally nonsense, hit his opponent with a large rook. At which point, the battle which had till then been conducted over the 64 squares, spilled over into the rest of the playing-hall.

"You can't blame them," I said, taking the broad, flexible outlook. "Boys will be boys."

But apparently it was not just to this incident that the retired diplomat had been alluding.

"I," said he, "had more than a mere schoolboys' skirmish in mind when I advanced the theory that chess, though not quite in the same mould as heavyweight boxing, is not entirely a sedate sport. I was thinking of an occurrence in the early 1960s, the outcome of which charted a Nation's Destiny, so to speak.

"I was at that time engaged in the promotion of Friendly Relations with one of those newly liberated African states which espoused the Communist cause. At that time, the African state was beginning to feel disenchanted with the socialist ideology and was discussing a trade pact with a Western Power, which, if signed, would have been a major coup for the West. Negotiations were conducted in an atmosphere of utmost cordiality, and it seemed probable that the pact would be signed very soon. The Western Power was sparing no effort to woo the African state over, and many a garden party was thrown. To say nothing of private dinners. It was after one such private dinner, which the Western Power's Ambassador hosted for the Trade Minister of the African state that the Unfortunate Incident occurred.

"Over dessert, the two realised that they shared a passion for chess and so, soon after, the Ambassador laid out his ivory chess set and the two settled down, with some intoxicants, to an exciting game. Midway through, the Ambassador, either genuinely because of an oversight or, more probably, because he was slightly inebriated, touched his opponent's queen with no intention of capturing it -- an action which, chess pundits tell me, is more serious than if your neighbour touched your wife with every intention of capturing her.

"No wonder then that the Minister was not a little piqued and unburdened himself of an angry expletive. Hot words ensued, and soon the two were calling each other names. A Third Secretary who accidentally happened to have his ear to the keyhole at that time said later that he distinctly heard the phrases 'Dirty Commie' and 'Capitalist hyaena'.

"Needless to say, the trade pact was never signed. More important, the event had the effect of driving the African state back into the Communist fold, this time for good.''

Mr. P made as if to rise. "If my story has a moral, it is that we diplomats are but pawns in the hands of the Prime Mover. And now, care for a quick game before we adjourn for dinner?" n

(Published in The Hindustan Times.)

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