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A note on the making of a chess icon in Sri Lanka

Way back in the early eighties, at a time when no one in the chess world considered Vishwanathan Anand’s someone who might one day become the strongest player on the planet, the strength-difference between players in the subcontinent was marginal. India was of course had the better players, of whom two, Manuel Aaron and Ravikumar were International Masters, but the gap between India’s best at the time (Ravi Sekhar) and Sri Lanka’s top players (such as Harsha Aturupana, Chandana Goonetilleka, Arjuna Parakrama and R.D. Gunaratne) did not seem insurmountable.

The frequently mentioned anecdote on this topic refers to the Asian Junior Chess Championship. Back then the Asian Junior Champion was conferred with the title ‘International Master’. That’s how Ravikumar became an IM. Anand became Asian Junior Champion two years in a row. Vajira Perera, who represented Sri Lanka beat Anand the first year the Indian won the title but was placed second overall. The following year Vajira, disguised as a Fijian (because of anti Sri Lankan sentiment in the host city) was placed 4th but still beat Anand.


 Vishwanathan Anand

World Champion

I remember a conversation with Anand, then just 18 years old, just before the commencement of the Asian Team Championship in Dubai. This was in 1986. He had one question: ‘Is Vajira Perera here?’ Vajira was studying for his A/L exam, I believe, and had not made himself available for selection. When I answered in the negative, Anand was relieved and said so: ‘He has a way of squeezing you to death’.

That was then. Anand became India’s first International Grandmaster (GM) and went on to become World Champion. Vajira gave up chess for studies and career. Chess in Sri Lanka got derailed, like a lot of other things in the country, courtesy the bheeshanaya of 1988-1989. Today, India has 23 GMs, eight WGMs (i.e. Women ‘Grandmasters’), dozens of IMs and WIMs and hundreds of FMs (FIDE Masters) and WFMs. Sri Lanka has three FMs, all retired, a few WFMs (mostly inactive) and a single WIM, Sachini Ranasinghe, who won the title thanks to a re-configuration of the zones (A special ‘Zone’ was created for India and another for other South Asian countries with the winner of this Zone being conferred an IM title).

Sachini is an extremely talented player and for Sri Lanka this is a big achievement no doubt, but the numbers tell a huge story about strength-disparities. How did this happen? There are two major reasons. First and foremost, Vishy Anand’s phenomenal rise generated a massive boost for the game in his country. Sponsors jumped on the popularity bandwagon. Secondly, India developed a well-oiled administrative cum coaching apparatus for the game.

Young chess players

Sports need icons. Sanath Jayasuriya and Susanthika, by their international star quality generated enthusiasm for their respective disciplines, for examples. Hundreds of youngsters wanted to be like them. All young chess players in India wanted to be the next Vishy Anand.

Time has passed and realities have cut down aspirations to manageable size. Sri Lanka’s chess-target is not World Champion but a titled player, i.e. an International Master. The lack of a funds and the difficulty of balancing volunteerism with the need to attend to personal affairs on the part of officials have inhibited the streamlining of the administrative structure. It is only the tireless of a few dedicated officials and the decision of some players to become professionals by way of coaching that has generated decent competition at the top. The game is more popular now across the island thanks to the efforts of the Schools Chess Association and the Education Ministry. It is ‘quality’ that is lacking now.

Commitment to the game

The nature of the problem hit me hard a few days ago when a young boy and one who was among our most promising players announced his ‘retirement’ after a disappointing performance at the Asian Junior concluded recently right here in Sri Lanka. I first met Chatura Rajapaksha in 2007, when he was just 15. He led the Sri Lankan team to the World Junior Chess Olympiad in Singapore. I was the manager of the team. I was impressed by his commitment to the game. He knew how to prepare. He knew how to coach too. He was a good student, I found out, but not one who would allow classroom prerogatives limit the dimensions of his yearning. He was yet to do his O/Ls, but had read widely and on different subjects too. He knew music and art, theatre and film. We had interesting conversations over coffee. He will soon enter the Engineering Faculty, Peradeniya University.

This is what Chatura wrote by way of justifying his decision to retire.

What this country badly needs is a title. In the near future (the next 1-2 years) there won’t be many (any) chances for me to get one. So it does not make sense for me to continue playing Chess, which will continuously collide with academic work. Yet it hurts my conscience to just quit because I failed to do what’s required. I believe the chess community knows that I tried my best and couldn’t achieve it because of rotten luck and stupidity on the part of the management in SL Chess.

The reason why our players come to a certain level and couldn’t and can’t go beyond is because that is the maximum one can go without the help of a coach or a second. I experienced it and so did Athula (Russell). Therefore I will offer my services as a second/mentor to Romesh (Weerawardena), Chamika (Perera) and Kalu (Rajeendra Kalugampitiya). I believe I can help them with their openings and pretty much improve their chess. I think they can and should break this elusive barrier and become our first IM. I think that is much more important than me playing for fun for another two-three years.

Do not think I leave playing chess because of form, disappointment or any such things. I believe if I practice hard and play the Nationals I could probably win it. Yet it will not do any good to anybody. Helping them is more important. So that’s it. I felt that you deserved an explanation. Thanks for all the help you gave to me.

Game’s development

Hats off to Chatura for this magnanimous and unprecedented gesture! He is absolutely spot on. What chess loses, the country will gain and not just in the field of chess. The ability to think, to do the hard work, to have a sense of the ‘overall’ and to sacrifice is what turns populations into nations, collectives into civilizations, events into histories. For all the focus on the game of chess and the political economy of its underdevelopment in Sri Lanka, the larger implications are clearly apparent.

When that elusive titled player, our first IM and first GM, I am willing to wager that few will remember Chatura Rajapaksha. The true icons of the game’s development are rarely acknowledged. They don’t complain either. I am sure Chatura will not.

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