“I sleep in the railway station.” Ismail said. I tried not to display my shock but I kept staring at him, biscuit dunked in my tea. He took a deep drag of his cigarette, held it for a moment, and exhaled clouds of smoke.
I met him after my game with a 10 year old boy. The boy had just thrashed me with his Caro-kann defence. I shook the boy’s hand and stood up and I was face to face with someone who looked like a homeless man, clad in a dirty t-shirt and dirtier lungi. He bared his tobacco stained teeth and pointed to my chair. I was too heart broken to be curious. I had plans you know? Plans to make some money from the weekend tournament that the T Nagar Chess club organised.
It was a heady year for Chess in India. Anand won the Reggio Emilia beating none other than Kasparov in the process, playing black. And I was in college doing odd part-time jobs to make money. I thought playing a Chess tournament every week was a great way to pocket some cash. I wasn’t hoping to win any top prizes, but I was hoping for a consolation prize at the least. I was confident because I had already played a few tournaments in and around Chittoor and even won the ‘Man of the match’ in the Penumur tournament. (Yes, the Penumur guys had a wicked sense of humour.)
But, I wasn’t ready for what hit me in Chennai. These kids were at a different level. They knew their theory. Even that 10 year old boy did. He in fact showed me 7 variations in our post-match analysis. Within three minutes. Just like that!
That killed me. I knew the first few moves of some popular openings and thereafter I relied on my ability to generate crazy tactics. But no, that won’t work in T Nagar Chess Club. It would in Penumur, where a grand total of three people played chess.
I stepped outside the venue. The imposing apex of the Valluvar Kottam temple car was visible through the still trees. I crossed the road and reached the tea stall. I smoked a couple of Berkley’s. When I had money it was the King’s but today I only had enough money for the bus and probably another tea and smoke.
I was wallowing in self-pity. I wasn’t sure what future held. I couldn’t get a berth in the engineering colleges as I botched my EAMCET big time. I was doing B.Com, and had some 10 papers as arrears. My dad was convinced that I should become an an Auto driver for, according to him, I’d fail in every other vocation. It was increasingly becoming difficult to source pocket money. And, my grand plan of making money from Chess didn’t quite work thanks to 10 year old prodigies. Why can’t kids just stick to Cricket or something?
I walked back inside to see who were leading in the final round. And that’s when I noticed Ismail playing. I walked over to his table. The man couldn’t even write his Chess moves (as required by rules). He scribbled some nonsense and the Organisers didn’t mind. But he played some serious chess for a guy who couldn’t read or write the Chess notation.
Ismail playing White was all over his top seeded opponent. I peered into his score sheet. Ismail had scribbled some doodly stuff. A win here and Ismail was assured of the second place. Before long his hapless opponent shook Ismail’s hand and resigned. People slapped Ismail’s back, who just nodded smiling coyly. As he stepped out, I caught up with him. I introduced myself, offered him to buy tea but the man insisted that he would buy it himself. Well, there’s always a first time isn’t it? Bumming smokes from a homeless man that is. But truth be told, I wasn’t aware he was homeless until he told me.
“What happened to your matches?” Ismail asked.
“Don’t even ask,” I said and explained the mauling I’d received from the 10 year old. Ismail guffawed. ‘That’s okay he bought you tea and smokes.’ my inner-voice reminded me.
As I was stubbing my smoke, Ismail patted my shoulder and said,
“A few years back a young boy defeated me. I was also dejected like you.”
“I am sure!” I said.
“You didn’t ask me who he was.”
He continued, “But I love the game too much. So I moved on. Also, I got to pay my rent!” and winked at me.
I never wallowed in self-pity after that. Also, I stopped playing Chess.