Many moons ago, a young boy was looking to step into the portals of gamesmasterhood. The year was 1991, the boy was 12. He had recently learnt the rudiments of that king of all games - chess. At that point, being blessed with the two necessary requirements for indulging in such misadventures - youthful enthusiasm and a doting grandfather - he proceeded to sign up for the Telegraph Open Chess Championships.
Now, you must keep in mind that this was before the days when a child's success in the mohalla depended on the number of appearances on Boogie Woogie Junior. In those more cerebral times, children did more meaningful things like writing essays and playing brain games. All the supposedly smart kids in school turned up with a guardian in tow, at the Gorky Sadan that day. The number of contenders was well over a hundred, and all participants were below 18 years of age. Geeky kids in horn-rimmed spectacles read from "1001 ways to win using Nizmo-Indian Defence", as they stood in line to register. As for me, I signed up without fanfare, and waited to be called, feeling quite out of place.
Well, the tournament began. The rules were as follows - everyone would play three matches in the first round against randomly selected opponents. Then at the end of the first round, anyone with less than two victories (or a victory and two draws) would be eliminated. After that, the serious stuff would begin.
My first opponent turned out to be a little girl no older than myself. A trifle quiet, but given the way her father was fawning over her, she seemed to be one of them prodigies. My dear grandfather (rest his soul) was a doter, as I have mentioned, but he had the good sense to sit in the reception area of the Gorky Sadan while the matches were on. This gentleman was not cut from the same cloth, clearly. Little Miss Prodigy sat down, and he whispered furious instructions into her ear. I was quite disconcerted at the way he would occasionally point at me during his pep talk. Heaven knows what he was saying. Maybe it was - "You can beat this punk!" or "Remember that thing we discussed about feminine wiles?". Well, probably not (she was maybe 11, for heaven's sakes), but who knows what goes through the heads of parents of possible prodigies (look up Tathagata Tulsi, if you get a chance).
Right, so back to the match. We tossed and the girl won. "Take White", the father hissed. She meekly complied. We sat down and the the signal was given for everyone to play the first move. Just as she was about to, along came an official and sized up aforementioned doting parent. "Why are you here?" he asked, which seemed to me to be a perfectly reasonable question. "__ is playing", replied daddy, mentioning daughter by name. "Well, __ can play on her own. You have to leave", and the big official man proved that some girls' daddies are not strongest. Screaming protestations, daddy was propelled out. Official entered a while later, gave us Very Stern looks and deciding that there were no more annoying parents hidden under the table, signalled for us to play on.
Game on it was. Little Prodigy moved a pawn and struck the knob of the clock placed on the table. This greatly disturbed me. In all this I had failed to notice the device. It seemed to be a clock of some sort, and my opponent seemed all too familiar with its functionings. Then I saw her scribble down her move on a piece of paper. This got me back in my element - chess notation, huh? Two can play that game, bitch! Here's my pawn at yours. And I can punch knobs too, see. And ha! I too shall note down my move using the ALGEBRAIC method, and not your sissy descriptive ones. Your move!
2 minutes and 4 moves later, it was over. The prodigy was down. My queen sat, a mere square away from her king, backed up by a bishop. It was checkmate in the cruelest way. I think I was grinning. She didn't move a muscle. Just stared at the board with the same blank expression. After a minute of this, I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
Once again, the official turned my saviour. He walked over and noted that the game was over. As he was jotting it down on a clipboard, up walked the previously mentioned parent. "I forgot, I had to give __ something", he said. "__ has lost", said the Main Man, with his back turned to him. I spotted a smile playing on his lips as he jotted away. Clearly he felt strongly about such parents and what needed to be done to them and their progeny. "WHAT!" bellowed the angry father, and at that moment I actually felt sorry. I was too young then, but I would probably have thought of Jim Pierce, had he been famous enough. The official motioned for us to get up and shake hands. I extended mine, and shook hers limply, all the while she stared blankly. Then she got up and her father marched her out, his humiliation stamped all over him. If that girl reads this blog, I apologise for causing whatever it was she faced that evening.
So, being quite pleased with myself, I went up to the grandfather and announced my triumph. He was extremely chuffed, and that evening was spent calling everyone I knew. "Five moves!", "future champion" and other laudatory phrases were trotted out. I could already see Vishwanath Anand's toothy grin staring at me in the distance.
The next day, I was back again. This time my opponent was a boy, even younger than the girl on the previous day. This chap had no parent in tow, but had the same blank stare. The procedure was as before. We tossed. I won and picked white. We shook hands and sat down. The first move was mine, and I grandly struck the clock when it was done. The kid did the same, but after a couple of moves he stopped bothering. Clearly not a stickler for the rules, this one. Five moves passed and the boy was still in the game. This one needed a little more strategy, it seemed.
Soon, it became apparent to me that things were not going as they should be. The kid with the buck teeth was clearly not going down, with a fight or without. Every move I made was frustrated. Every plan I had was shot down the moment I moved the first piece. My major pieces were picked off one by one, until my forces looked like the human army facing the orcs at Helm's Deep.
But this wasn't what bothered me. It was the way the boy was going about it. He had established beyond a shadow of doubt that he was the better player. He could have checkmated me many times over. He was CHOOSING not to. He was dragging out my humiliation before finally plunging the sword. I made moves that were totally random. Didn't faze him. Nothing did, it seemed. He countered with equally silly moves, as if saying to me that he could beat me no matter how I played. Finally after 30 moves on either side, he forced my king into a corner and applied the death stroke. The game could have ended 15 moves earlier, but that would have not been a great enough victory. I left, smarting.
Why this long and pointless reminiscence? Well, a couple of days later, I learnt the little boy's name. A couple of days ago, on the 18th of August 2006, the little bugger went and won himself an Arjuna Award.
And that, loyal readers, is the closest I have ever come to sporting greatness. You think that's funny? Well, how many of you have played an Arjuna Awardee in a competitive sporting match, huh, huh?
Oh, and as for the final match, it was against a pleasant 17-year old from Dhaka, who also came into the match with one victory and one loss. I turned down an offer for a draw, about twenty moved in, and finally went down in a hard-fought endgame, when he slipped a rook into my back row, which I had stupidly left undefended. Two losses meant I was eliminated, and I never participated in that tournament again. I'm told its much more competitive these days.