The World Championship of Chess, happening in Chennai, has generated much anticipation here as it has given the local citizens a chance to catch high-wire international sporting action. As a sports journalist, who has covered chess tournaments, from time to time, I can tell you that there is huge difference between following the game at the venue and catching it from your home. At your place, you pick it on television. At the venue, you get to experience it all — this is why the tickets are so pricey these days — on a bigger screen.
But let us face it, chess is not a spectator sport. Spectator sports are those that allow 1) some assumed experts to keep shouting in the background 2) television companies to make money.
Chess, it is said, was invented in India. There should be no doubting that, because as a sport chess carries the remarkable Indian genius for total lack of physical activity. Another sport that can involve even less action is, of course, cricket. On occasions a slip fielder in cricket can spend an entire day expending less energy on the field than if he were at home dialing numbers on the telephone.
If you have noticed, most cricketers, when they retire, point out that they cannot take the grind any more and specifically say: ‘These early morning and late night flights. They have become hectic’. Nobody really says the game has become tiring. That is right, physically the most demanding aspect of cricket is the travel between the games. Cricket, to this day, remains the only outdoor sport where it is entirely possible for a player on the field during a fully active international game to yawn wholeheartedly.
Sumo wrestling is also one of those events that is not wholly straining. There are contests that have ended faster than you can write and read, well, ‘sumo wrestling’. In a sport, where the whole idea is to throw/push the opponent out of the round arena, bouts have ended even before they had begun because some wrestlers are, in themselves, built bigger than the play area.
Then we come to fencing, which is an exciting sword sport with the winner being decided on the technicality of who exults first and removes the mask in a jiffy. Otherwise no one has a clue as to what constitutes winning (or losing) here.
And then there is golf, which is not so much a sport as much an outdoor alternative to bed rest, but one less exciting. These days there are mechanized buggies at golf courses, so that practically takes care of the most strenuous thing about golf, which is walking. To golf goes the credit of being a sport, whose video-game version is physically more taxing than the real one.
Coming back to chess, back in the 90s, when there were no big screens or even small televisions, covering chess tournaments as a sports reporter was a different experience altogether. You had to watch the proceedings intently, and the end of it all when the players stood up and shook hands, you walked up to one of them and, bringing to the fore all your expertise in chess, posed the question: ‘Which one of you won?’
Seriously, there was no way any one could have known what was happening on the board unless the players themselves explained.
After this, a few years later, tournaments began to have giant magnetic boards on which the moves of the players were instantaneously simulated. Suddenly the entire game was happening in front of us journalists, which we could easily make sense of, provided we were sitting next to a former player who could tell us what was happening.
The point is we journalists need at least a dozen replays from six different angles to figure out what happens on a cricket field. For us to understand cerebral stuff like chess is impossible. At any rate, if we journalists were smart enough to understand the nuances of an intellectual pursuit like chess we would not have become journalists in the first place. Long before top players started to have ‘seconds’, it was us journalists who actually had several of them to convey to us what the heck had transpired.
Now things have undergone a sea change. International matches are live webcast. With lot of experts providing easy-to-understand annotations, following chess and understanding its remarkable complexities has become a lot easier, provided you take the basic precaution of not subscribing to the broadband service provider that I am with. Chess being the sport that it is, live action picture is no different from when the site is buffering. This World Championship will be beamed on Doordarshan (DD Sports), a channel that is not exactly known for cutting-edge sports telecast.
But even in case it goofs up, and even if the internet line fails, don’t worry. There is an infallible Plan B:
Just walk up to the players and ask, ‘which one of you won’?