Not till the tempest called Viswanathan Anand hit the shores did India know it wanted to play chess. If one wanted to play chess in the 1980s or 90s in India, it was relatively easy to procure a chess board or even gain access to a chess club. However, if one wanted to reach a higher level, it was difficult because chess literature wasn’t always freely available.
Without good books, it wasn’t possible to get a handle of the basics. And without the basics, there was no higher level. It was here that Pravin Thipsay stepped in to fill the breach. The Mumbaikar, who had not become a Grandmaster yet, had won the Indian Chess Championship in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1989 and had represented India in three Chess Olympiads (1982, 1984, 1988) already. He was given the chance to write a chess column in The Times of India in 1991.
“It all started in an unexpected way,” Thipsay told Scroll.in during a telephonic conversation. “There was a felicitation function involving Viswanathan Anand in Mumbai in 1991. For the first time, an Indian had qualified for the Candidates matches, and the event was sponsored by The Times of India. Sunder Rajan, who was the sports editor, was there and I knew him. So he came up to me and said ‘Why don’t you start writing about chess and chess players’?”
Thipsay added: “I don’t want to discuss the financial details as he said they would not be able to pay very well but I said that wasn’t the issue because taking the game to the people was a good idea. And I was too busy in those days to write a book, so I felt the idea had great merit. And I agreed to it.”
The Thipsay chess column, then, had an unbroken run of 20 years. It would appear in the newspaper every Sunday — 750 words of pure bliss for anyone who played the game and broken down in a simple manner to even bring in those with a fleeting interest in the game.
Thipsay’s columns were usually broken into two main parts: an intro which was around 500 words and then a chess puzzle (sometimes with annotated moves). But what made it truly interesting was that one never quite knew what the column would throw up. On some days, it would be a history lesson on the old masters, on others he would talk openings or end games; it would also sometimes features interviews and games of upcoming Indian stars.
“I was against doing only the puzzle,” said Thipsay. “Because a puzzle, on its own, is a boring thing. There has to be some interaction, some history, something that leads into it. 750 words was my limit. And that isn’t a lot. The position alone takes about 250 words. It was a tough task. It also had to be simple. Only once when [Bobby] Fischer passed away in 2008, I asked them for another 250 words. I think I made a good piece — a 1000 words with a puzzle.”
The challenge of collecting material
These days if you want to do some research for an article, one just has to open a browser, log into a search engine and enter the search terms. In the old days, it wasn’t as easy.
“In those days, there was no email or chess databases like Chessbase or Fritz, so I had to go old school. Read books and have contacts from around the world send me interesting games. Once I would get it, I would post or fax them the article and then they would make a piece out of it. Getting data at that point was very difficult but it helped that I was the Indian champion in those days. We were playing a lot of tournaments. I was also in the Indian teams from 1982 to 2004 and met many greats such as Ivanchuk, Shirov, Adams, Short regularly.”
Thipsay used every experience as an entry point. At that point, he was also writing for an international chess magazine called New In Chess (The Netherlands) and Chess Informant (Serbia).
“In return, they would also give me some news,” Thipsay said. “They would point out some interesting games or tournaments. So sometimes, I would get material through someone when I was playing some tournaments.”
But mainly, Thipsay wanted to focus on India and the Indian chess scene.
“The All India Chess Federation had come up with a Chess Forum magazine, which still exists,” said Thipsay. “It used to give all the results and would highlight one or two good games of the players who won. So I would end up covering everyone from Harikrishna to Humpy, other than Anand who was already at the world level by then. But some of the unknown players (who are now big players) were all covered in the column.”
He added: “Sometimes, I would take the phone number from the AICF office and talk to the boys and girls about how they saw the game. That way, I was getting their impression of the game too. Frankly speaking, the youngsters at that time were more open to sitting and discussing chess on the telephone. There were no electronic devices to distract them. Today’s children, if I compare, are more into their phone, or Whatsapp so they almost seem to be more introverted as compared to 20 years back. I could get a lot of information from these players. Today, if you approach someone, they will give you data but they are very shy, at least the chess-playing children.”
The big focus
One of Thipsay’s pet grievances about how Indians played chess was that they all seemed to learn the arithmetic part of it very well but they are never able to truly learn the strategic nuance of it which remains the centre of the game even today.
“Our Indian children are becoming GMs very early but beyond that, they struggle a bit because their base isn’t there,” said Thipsay.
To illustrate his point about why chess players must not get too obsessed with theory, Thipsay narrates a story about his favourite player, Fischer.
“Fischer wasn’t financially very well off initially. He was a very strong player but he didn’t have a lot of money. Still, he would go to chess clubs and play $1 or $2 games and he would play hundreds against beginners with unfavourable odds. For instance, if he lost, he would pay them $20. And he said that he learned a lot of new ideas from the beginners because they played with a lot of imagination and they played without fear. Fischer used to say, ‘As we become theoreticians, we lose our imagination’.”
Thipsay would use his column to drive home the point that the thinking process was very important. It was a lesson he had learned while playing for India.
“I was lucky that I took part in many Indian camps and got to train with many GMs. So one of them told us that if you are thinking about a win, then you have to visualise the final position, otherwise how do you know where you are headed,” said the 60-year-old.
“For example, if a builder starts work on a building, he already knows what it will look like in the end and he can plan accordingly. Only once it is all defined, can he ask the workers to begin.”
If one reads books written by the great masters (Paul Morphy, Fischer, Richard Reti and more), they can realise that the best spend a lot of time planning before they actually move.
“Through the column, I wanted to bring that culture to Indian chess because I felt it was something that was missing,” said Thipsay. “No one has really thought about it. It was something new. Research or a scientific angle to chess was not the Indian way at that point. It was my attempt to bring it to the common man, in a way.”
The end of the run
Perhaps the best part of such a long run are the memories. And Thipsay has plenty of those.
One of the combinations deployed by Vishy Anand in the 1992 Olympiad was very similar to a Fischer combination which was played exactly 30 years before and the opponent was the same — Austrian GM Robatsch.
“So, one Sunday, I put out Fischer’s game and followed it up on the next Sunday with Anand’s game. It was interesting,” he said with a chuckle that chess tragics can relate to.
His memory of Koneru Humpy’s initial impact is pretty vivid as well.
“I felt she should have been a multiple-times world champion by now. To finish world no 2 in the world juniors in the boy’s section ahead of almost 10-15 GMs when she herself was not a GM was outstanding. And her victory over Karpov in 2006 was superb. Karpov was very impressed and said, ‘She’s a fantastic player’.”
From time to time, players send him pictures of his column. One day, a former boss turned up with 200 cuttings of his column. And all of that only serves to make Thipsay nostalgic.
“I learned a lot at the time. A fantastic experience. I wish I had so much time because today, perhaps, we are busy doing things that are not as enjoyable,” said Thipsay.
“I didn’t ask why they decided to stop it. I didn’t try to argue otherwise either, it had been a good run.”