This is my first post on the Chennai 36 and I would like to share some events in the spring of 1998 when Mandak won the Schroeter in a closely contested season with Ganga. In particular, I want to share details about the critical clash in Chess between Ganga and Mandak that ended up sealing the cup in Mandak’s favour.
I was in my 3rd year in Mandak. The final year students in the hostel belonged to Mechanical engineering and the batch was actually split between Ganga and Mandak. It had several talented sports studs including Chai, Smiley, Thangi, Sori and many others. Understandably, many considered that year as the best opportunity for Mandak to win the elusive Schroeter cup. But Ganga hostel was a formidable contestant. When we did the numbers on paper, a clear win for either hostel was not obvious.
And so the events unfolded. Ganga excelled in Athletics, an event which carried a significant number of points. Ganga also had formidable teams in cricket, chess, carroms, cycling and football. The tournament went neck to neck between the two hostels until the last two events with Mandak wining gold in cricket, volleyball and some others. At the end, only two events were left – chess and carroms – and there was clearly one favorite to win both of them – Ganga!
Ganga, if I recall correctly, had never lost in these two events for the previous 3 years. In chess, it had Kartikeyan, final year , who had never been defeated during his time in IIT. He was very popular in the chess circle in IIT and any chess player in any of the hostels would have told you that he was the best player in IIT he knew of. In addition, there was Thiruvikraman, 3rd year electrical, who I knew was a fabulous player from my school days when I played in chess tournaments in Chennai. I had lost to him (and also to the short and chubby Sasikaran, a Grand Master now) in my first ever chess tournament in 1992 held in the Russian cultural club, behind the Chola Sheraton hotel. I remember this triplicane iyengar doing very well in subsequent tournaments. I managed to hold him to a draw in my final tournament in Don Bosco in 1994 and finished second. So Kartikeyan would play the first board and Thiruvikraman the second out of 4 – no wonder Ganga had never lost in chess in the earlier years.
Mandak on the other had had no reputation in Chess. We had never placed in that event. There was Karthik from 2nd year metallurgy, Sreekumar from 3rd year Civil, another guy whom I don’t remember and me. How do you go about beating Ganga in the decider for Schroeter with the likes of Kartikeyan and Thiruvikraman playing the top two boards? But if Mandak won chess, it would take the Schroeter!
The day before the duel, I went to Kartikeyan’s room to schedule our match. We decided that we would play the games in Ganga hostel. I would play Kartikeyan on the first board; Kartik would take on Thiruvikraman on the second. I saw from the ongoing game that Kartikeyan preferred to play with white and open with the king pawn. This was a crucial piece of information, since I had little experience playing against a queen pawn opening. I came back to my room and rushed to my home in Mylapore to grab the Batsford book on chess openings. I looked up one of my favorite openings from my school days – the Caro Kann defence. This is a solid defensive opening I always preferred against very strong opponents.
The following day, we started our games at around 6:30 pm. I won the toss and chose to play black on the first board. And as expected, to my relief, Kartikeyan opened with E4! And I responded with C6. He was clearly taken aback by my choice of opening though he was quick to gather his thoughts and continue with D4. The game went on from there. In the meantime, Kathik and Sreekumar had also started their respective games in the opponents room located in the first floor of the same block in Ganga.
Chess, unlike games like Basketball or volleyball, does not attract too much of an audience. I felt good sitting by myself in my opponent’s room after having surprised him with my opening move. After some moves, both of us castled on the queen side. Kartikeyan played Bishop G5, attacking my castled rook on D8. That’s when I spent about 15 minutes thinking and played my big move. Queen to A4, attacking the pawn at A2 on the castled side while sacrificing my rook! Kartikeyan took my rook and I played QxA2 – I did not take his bishop. After a lot of thought….Bishop back to G4 because he would have thought King to D2 if I checked him with Queen to A1. I replied with Knight to D4, threatening Queen A1, King D2, Queen x B2 with a threat of checkmate at C2. In a few more moves, he had to trade his queen for my knight to avoid an immediate check mate. And then it was just a formality to take the game to a finish. I remember something unique about last few moves from Kartikeyan – the pieces he held were shaking in his hand as a few of the Ganga hostel inmates stood around us in shock. For a player who was never defeated during his 4 years at IITM, he was making the last few moves in the most critical encounter knowing that he was going down. The game was done at around 7:45 pm, we discussed the moves briefly and I was back in the Mandak mess for dinner at 8 pm.
Kartik lost to Thiruvikraman on the second board and we lost on the fourth board as well by 9 pm. All we needed then was a win on the 3rd board to secure Schroeter. Sreekumar outplayed his opponent in a marathon game that went up to 3 am the following morning and the Schroeter was thus won by Mandak in a relatively private fashion. Those awake at that early hour in Mandak did not miss the opportunity to print and slip pamphlets into the rooms of key opponents in other hostels to ensure that they woke up in the morning to a surprise!
As for me, I have not played another chess game for the last 14 years since my win against Kartikeyan – it was as if all the time I had spent during my school days taking chess classes and playing weekend tournaments was meant to end in that one memorable victory at IIT. Equally memorable is my first game in a chess tournament where I lost, no…Got trashed by a 10 year old Sasikiran