One could see the rain pouring down over the azure Olympic-sized swimming pool standing on the balcony of one of the sixth floor residential rooms of the Andheri Sports Complex. Swimmers, there were none – of course, it was raining cats and dogs – but a white plastic chair had evaded the eyes of those in charge and could be seen wallowing from one end of the pool to another.
Inside, International Master (IM) Sagar Shah, was training a bunch of five blind chess players. These five were India's chosen representatives for the World Team Championship for the blind in Sofia, Bulgaria. Even though the sun was hardly in sight when you looked out the window, it was already afternoon. The posse had been practising since morning. IM Shah had played simultaneously against all of them and they were now analyzing each of the games.
Kishan Gangolli, five-time national blind champion and the reigning Asian champion, had managed to hold to a draw against his trainer in quite a complex game. IM Shah had played adventurously in the opening and had ended up in an inferior position. He would have found himself in trouble had Kishan found the strongest continuation. But the position was complex enough for the International Master to find his way out of the woods. As the clock ticked down to its final seconds, Kishan repeated moves to sign peace.
Despite the missed winning opportunity, this was a good result for Kishan. After all, he was rated about 400 points below his opponent. But neither Kishan nor his trainer was happy with the way the game had ended. Both agreed that Kishan should have tried to push for a win; the substandard success of drawing against a better player was not appreciated.
And that was the overall attitude of the camp. Everyone zealously tried to bring out the best in them. At another point, while analyzing an opening, Ashwin Makwana, a sub-1800 rated 33-year-old from Gujarat, came up with an incredible sequence of moves that startled even his coach. The surprise was largely due to the fact that this wasn't a typical tactic in that particular or any opening for that matter. The quote by the Australian master, John Purdy comes to mind here:
"If the student forces himself to examine all moves that smite, however absurd they may look at first glance, he is well on the way to becoming a master of tactics"
Clearly, Makwana was going through every possibility, however absurd it looked at the first glance. Perhaps, this was because he, like most of his other teammates, had learned chess all by himself. Whether or not a tactic is typical or atypical for the opening was never even a consideration. It was a possibility worth investigating, that's all there was to know.
"Most of us don't have a coach. Of course, now we are getting coaching from Sagar sir to prepare for the World Teams and he is great. It's because of him that we are able to polish our strength and work on our weaknesses. We had also received such coaching camps when we were selected for other international events like the World Olympiad. But for our regular practice, we are by ourselves," said Soundarya Pradhan, the only member of the team to be 100% blind.
For someone like Subhendu Kumar Patra who will be representing the country for the first time in his career, this is, in fact, his first experience working with a coach. Rated 1542, Subhendu says he is excited about his trip to Bulgaria and hopes to contribute to the team to the best of his ability.
Aryan Joshi, the youngest member of the team, is the only one with a formal coach. Under the tutelage of Dronacharya Awardee, Raghunandan Gokhale, Aryan has won several accolades on national and international levels. Only 16 years old, has not only made it into the national team by finishing fourth at the National Championship for Blind but has also been selected to play the World Junior Championship in Solec-Zdroj, Poland, next month. Aryan's teammate, Pradhan will also be a part of this event.
The lack of a coach can be quite a big disadvantage especially if the player is blind. Due to their disability, these players face quite a bit of difficulty accessing reading material like books or tutorial videos.
Even when it comes to thinking over the board, it's more of a matter of forming an image of the position in their head for them. The board and pieces are specially made for the players to understand the position through touch. But every one of the players said they prefer thinking in their mind instead of touching the board constantly. The board only comes in handy to crosscheck what had been calculated or, at times, to refresh the position in their mind.
"The board can be a distraction sometimes. Out of experience, I can tell that I am more prone to committing blunders if I am constantly touching the board. But when it comes to thinking blindfold, I am much better, I feel," said Soundarya Pradhan talking about the role of the chess board in his play.
From 12 to 17 July, the team had been practising hard with IM Shah at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai. On the final day, Shah's wife, WIM-elect Amruta Mokal also joined in to help the team in their preparations. After all, the challenge ahead of them is a tough one. Even though highly motivated and extremely hardworking, the Indian team is far from the strongest in Bulgaria. In comparison to some of the stronger teams in the fray like Russia, Ukraine or Poland which have multiple titled players, the Indian line-up is considerably weak.
Despite being much weaker on paper, the team had finished seventh at the World Chess Olympiad for the Blind, held in Macedonia last year. It was here that the top sixteen finishers were selected to play forthcoming at the World Team Championship.
Also, this isn't the first time that the team has qualified for the World Teams. In the previous edition of the World Chess Olympiad back in 2012, India had finished fifth and qualified for the 2013 World Team Championship. While their performance in 2013 did not earn them a medal, the team is confident of a podium finish this time. The team had shown good form finishing seventh at the World Olympiad for the blind, last year. Another important detail was Kishan Gangolli's bronze medal finish on the third board at the event. Most importantly, the team is brimming with confidence and their zeal is palpable.
What's more, the team even got to meet their idol, Viswanathan Anand. The players asked various questions to the champ on how to handle pressure, how to fight against stronger opponents and so on. Anand not only answered all of their questions elaborately but also gave them some useful general advice for the tournament.
"This year, we will bring home a medal," said all team members equivocally when asked about their prospects this year.
IM Shah is also anticipating a good result from the team. Sharing his thoughts with Firstpost, he said, "Despite India being one of the lower seeds in the tournament, it will be a tough contender for its opponents. Everyone has practised very hard and if our players are able to play their best game, team India can surely upset even the best teams at the event."
Aditya Pai is an editor at ChessBase India
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Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 20:59:43 IST