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Game Plan

When Indians ruled


RIGHT MOVE: Vishy continues the tradition of two Indians, Moheschunder Bannerjee and Mir Sultan Khan (right)

The Russians set great store by their traditions, especially their long line of chess legends : Alekhine, Botvinnik, Kasparov. That may be one reason why they chafe at an Indian's extended run at the top of the chess world. But could we point to a lineage of our own? Bannerjee, Khan and Anand perhaps? Yet few are likely to have heard of Bannerjee or Khan. Therein lies the rub, and an interesting tale or two.

The rules of Indian chess are different from those of the international game. Since international chess is what the modern game is, it follows that chess today has little to do with the country of its origin. No faulty logic here, just a leap of facts. This conclusion is reinforced by most chess terminology: Sicilian Defence, English Opening, Slav Defence. But what about terms like Queen's Indian Defence, King's Indian Attack and Nimzo-Indian Defence? The 'Indian' here mostly refers to a 19th-century exponent of the game, Moheschunder Bannerjee, better known as 'The Brahmin'.


In the middle of the 19th century, Bannerjee was playing a style of chess that the West took over 70 years to comprehend;and which the Soviets later institutionalised. "He invented the King's Indian Defence and the Gr?nfeld Defence, " says English grandmaster Raymond Keene, in an email to TOI-Crest.

Incidentally, these two openings, along with the Nimzo-Indian, were seen in five of the 12 regular games that Viswanathan Anand and Boris Gelfand played at the world championships last month. Indian Defence Systems, as such openings are called, were championed in the West in the 1920s and entered the chess mainstream after the Soviets tested their soundness in the late 1940s.

"The Brahmin's contribution to opening theory was immense, " says Keene, a familiar name in India because of his newspaper columns. "I first came across a game of his in a book around 50 years ago. His name was spelled Moheschunder Bonnerjee there.

The game was played in 1847 in Calcutta against John Cochrane. "

Cochrane, a Scottish barrister, played against Bannerjee from 1848 to 1860 while he was posted at the Calcutta Bar, and recorded the encounters. In 1843, Cochrane was the planet's number one player, a status he lost to the legendary Howard Staunton. It is pertinent to note that in the mid-19 th century, Britain was at the forefront of world chess.

Much of what is known about Bannerjee is courtesy Cochrane and another Briton, chess historian Philip Sergeant, who wrote about him in the book, A Century of British Chess (1934). According to chess writer Edward Winter, Sergeant described Bannerjee as a man from "the mofussil - upcountry, as we might say - who had never been beaten at chess".

US international master and chess author John Donaldson says that the late American international master Jay Whitehead, his friend, was also a great fan of Bannerjee. "Jay knew him as Mahescandra and copied his games from the chess columns of various old English newspapers. I recall Jay remarking on more than one occasion that Mahescandra was a modern player in not only his opening choices, but also his middlegame. "


Mir Sultan Khan, the Khan in the putative Bannerjee-Khan-Anand chain, was 'perhaps the greatest natural player of modern times', according to the Oxford Companion to Chess. He was called a genius by none other than the great Jose Raul Capablanca, Cuban chess legend and former world champion. Khan famously defeated Capablanca in a 1930 game, since dubbed 'The Wrath of Khan'. He also scored notable wins over Savielly Tartakower, Salo Flohr and Frank Marshall, who were among the strongest players of the era.

"He crushed Capablanca. Both played the same style of manoeuvre and Capa appreciated the subtle nature of Khan's style, " says Keene. "He knew no Western theory - just like The Brahmin. Yet he scored well against almost every great player of his day. The exception was Alekhine, who beat Khan three times without loss. The Russian's tactical mastery was too much for him. He needed more study and practice to be able to face Alekhine. "

Indeed, what is remarkable about Khan and Bannerjee is that they also had no theoretical grounding in chess, unlike their Western contemporaries. Khan, born in 1905 in Punjab, was in fact a valet of Sir Umar Hayat Khan, one of the province's largest landholders. He won the all-India championship in 1928. The next year, Sir Umar took him to London, where he won the British championship. He repeated the feat in 1932 and 1933, when his international career ended, since he came back to India.

According to Oxford Companion to Chess, Khan had no regrets. Instead, he felt 'he had been freed from prison'. "Khan had few peers in the middlegame, was among the world's best two or three endgame players and one of the world's best 10 players. Capablanca called him a genius, an accolade he rarely bestowed, " the Oxford Companion to Chess says.

Keene has a funny story about Khan. Khan retired to his village (in present-day Pakistan) and vanished from the world stage. When Soviet grandmasters Mikhail Botvinnik and David Bronstein contested the world championship in 1951, the games were sent to Khan in his village for him to play over. "His verdict was that these are two very weak players. I believe he would have beaten them both if given the chance. Khan had an inner calm and accuracy which he would have used to beat the Soviets, who were often inaccurate and unsound, " says Keene.

And there, too, lies a great irony. Modern chess is identified with big-talking Russians, whereas a number of its great conventions may owe much to the genius of two modest Indians. Anand continues the tradition.

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