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Some games don’t get thrown, Sidat taught me

In June 1981 I threw a game. That’s in chess. This was long before match-fixing and spot-fixing entered sports vocabulary. In chess circles it was called ‘cooking’, i.e. predetermining the outcome of a game. It happened between players, one helping the other to qualify to play at a higher level, secure a ‘board prize’ (in the event of a team championship) or, in recent times, to secure an international rating or a title norm (for International Master or International Grandmaster, for example).

Teams ‘threw’ games too. In the case of strong regionalism, teams that didn’t have a chance of winning a prize would in some instances give free points (deliberately lose) to another from the same town or province. Arbitration has got tighter but is not fool proof. Even today, games are thrown.

National title

Back then it was all innocent. It was the final round of that year’s Major Championship, held at Nalanda College, Colombo. A certain number would qualify to play in the Premier Division and vie for the National title. I was out of the reckoning. My opponent, Sidat Dharmaratne, then just 14 years old, had to beat me to qualify. We had played for about three hours. He was a Nalandian, I a Royalist. These distinctions didn’t count. We were friends. Close friends. He leaned over and said Malinda, mata aasai premier eke gahanna (Malinda, I would love to play in the Premier Division).

It would have been his first ‘premier’. At that stage, things were equal on the board and he would have had to sweat hard to win. He was the talented player, but I was not a rabbit. I doubt he would have won. I thought for a few seconds and resigned.

My coach, Arjuna Parakrama, who happened to be around, asked me what happened. I told him. He gave me a thundering lecture. He pointed out that by ‘cooking’, I was denying the best possible overall result and had indeed denied the opportunity to someone who was even at that moment playing his heart out. That was the last game I ‘threw’ and it is an example I’ve used to condemn ‘throwing’ in all my chess coaching years. Sidat was young. I was too.

That was almost 30 years ago. We’ve both grown up quite a bit since. We never crossed swords over the chess board after that, although we both played in the premier at different times in the years that followed. Sidat remained a talent that never reached potential and I developed into a better coach than a player. For a while. We went our ways.

Chess coaching

Our orbits crossed a few years ago when we were both elected to the Chess Federation, Sidat as Secretary and I as his Assistant. We did our work, had our arguments and resolutions. We got by. Friends then, friends in the Federation and friends after he chose to leave. We spoke once about that game in 1980. He remembered it well. He too had learnt the lesson that Arjuna had to teach me. He told me something I did not know.

School team

“The person who lost out in that ‘cooking’ was my older brother Samath,” he told me. Samath, now a doctor, was my teammate. He had won his final game and would have gone through had I not thrown my game. He never breathed a word to me, his teammate in the school chess team. It was a different time, I suppose.

Sidat and I had interesting conversations and not just those related to chess. There was not give-and-take between us. Just sharing. And he shared with me something that I have since then passed on to many young chess players I’ve come to know through my work in the Federation. It is a life-lesson in fact.

“When I sit at the chess board, Malinda, I wade into the 64 squares and remain there.” Key ideas: a) 64 squares, b) remaining there. It was a tip about comprehensiveness, the need to consider all things, to see the whole and not just as an aggregate of parts. It was a tip about the need to focus, not to let oneself be distracted by anything outside of the 64 squares, including but not limited to the results of previous games, the possibilities generated or limited by a win, a draw or loss as the case may be, reputation of opponent, what’s happening at the next table etc. It is a chess rule that is applicable across the board of live and living.

Eternal verities

I never asked for reward for I never felt I had ‘given’. We just shook hands that day, signed the score-sheet and informed the tournament director of the result. He went on to play in the ‘premier’ and did quite well. I got a tongue-lashing. I didn’t complain, didn’t blame anyone. He taught me a lesson almost 30 years later. He was not teaching. He was not ‘giving’. He shared. Was, is and always will be a brother.

Life, some might say, was not kind to Sidat but I am sure he’s not complaining. My brother is not in the best of health but he’s wise enough about the eternal verities. I am not as versed as he is about these things, but he would not find fault if I wished him a relatively less turbulent journey through Sansara and in this lifetime a quick recovery from whatever ailment torments his body.

Some games, don’t get thrown, Sidat. You know this. I believe I’ve not been a poor student.

msenevira@gmail.com
 

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