On the 64 squares, 24×7

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One of the regrets we have is that our daughter Tejaswini quit training in chess. She had joined well-known chess coach and International Master Lanka Ravi’s academy in Secunderabad when she was just about six years old but a few tournaments later, we realised that it takes a lot to be in the company of kings and queens.

The turning point was Vijayawada, November 2009.

There we met Sanjana, a seven-year-old. She was then in class three at Siddhartha Public School in Vijayawada. But she did not go to school. Instead, she was in the company of kings, queens, knights, bishops, rooks and pawns, for eight to nine hours, everyday. Sanjana’s sole focus was on excelling in the game of chess. Her parents hoped she will be a Grandmaster one day, a la Vishwanathan Anand and Koneru Humpy.

That weekend, one of their dreams came true. Sanjana won all her five games to be crowned Andhra Pradesh’s under-7 chess champion and mom Radhika was beaming.

“More than anything, I am relieved. If your child does not perform well at any tournament, you start to feel the pressure. The nagging doubts, about whether we have taken the right decision for the child, start upsetting you. When she wins, I start feeling confident once again,” she said.

Each of the winners at the tournament, both boys and girls, was there because they intended to be professional chess players and were working virtually full-time to make that happen. With full support, dedication and commitment from their parents.

Like Anurag, a class 1 student at Smartkids in Secunderabad. He had not gone to school for the last two months, to prepare for the state championship, and wouldn’t go the next two months either. He finished fourth at Vijayawada. I watched with admiration as the cool and composed boy, who had just won a rather long match in the third round at the championship, didn’t even seem to pause to think that a break was necessary. The game over, he immediately sat down to analyse the moves with his coach Avadhaani, and then it was time for a practise match with another player.

It was this interest in chess and the ability to remain focussed that prompted Anurag’s father Murali to choose chess over academics.

“At this early stage, he can afford to miss a year. He has been learning chess for over a year now. Another year of focussed training and he will be among the top Indian players in his age group. When he is showing potential, it is wrong to not give him the right amount of backing,” he said.

It is not an easy call to take. Even if your child is that young. When Sudhir had asked Lanka Ravi when would be a good time to initiate Tejaswini (then five and a half years old) into chess. Ravi’s answer was, “You are already one year late.”

Tejaswini, till the time she coached with Ravi, went to the academy for two hours, twice a week. Those who had seen her play and win smaller tournaments or finish runners-up said, she had potential. But at Vijayawada, where she won one game, drew one and lost three, we wondered if to realise that potential, would she need to focus only on chess, like the children in Vijayawada and elsewhere were doing. Like we found out.

Sanjana’s day, we were told, started with online coaching at home, at 9 in the morning. By noon, she was off to her chess academy and stayed there till late in the evening. Over the weekend, a well-known coach from a neighbouring town came in to train Sanjana. It was obvious the child ate, breathed and thought chess.

7-year-old Srinath Chowdhary told me his day began at 7 am when he left home for the Chess Academy. He got back by 5 pm. By six, the tution teacher came in, so that he could keep up with the academic syllabus at school. After dinner, it was time to once again do some puzzles and checkmating on the chessboard, before calling it a day.

I asked Srinath, didn’t he miss school, playing with his friends, watching TV? Srinath was grinning as he answered, “That’s the best part of my playing chess. I don’t have to go to school.”

Priyanka, another child who was focussing on chess, told me being good at chess won her admiration and that made her feel good. “Even at school, they treat me as special, so that helps.” Her mother Durga said it was never easy to take the road less travelled. It needed physical, mental and financial commitment.

The parents pointed out that this kind of rigour was not for every child. Incidentally, all the four players, Sanjana, Anurag, Srinath and Priyanka, have an elder sibling, who the parents said, did not show the inclination or interest and were going to regular school, like any other student.

To excel, to become better than the best, you often need to do much more than the rest. But did I really want my daughter to try to become a superachiever? By focussing only on chess, wouldn’t her world and worldview get limited to the chessboard and to victory? After all, she enjoys learning at school, music and so many more things. Won’t she miss out on those joys, of exploring the world, having fun with friends? Tejaswini is our daughter alright, but can we really take the decision that she can forego the little, big joys that childhood and life offers? Wouldn’t I rather just let her be, let her enjoy the joys of learning many things, including chess, and hope she becomes a happy, well-adjusted, sensitive individual? That’s what I would personally choose. But then may be a Sania Mirza, a Saina Nehwal, a Koneru Humpy and a Vishwanathan Anand are not made that way.

Lanka Ravi too doesn’t think 24×7 on the 64 squares is what makes a chess champ. “What kind of chess they play is more important than how much chess they play. Also I have seen those players who have grown up skipping a formal education in a proper school, are poor communicators and are not able to have a realistic assessment of where they stand in the world outside the world of chess.”

At Chess Academies, little princes and princesses are preparing to become the kings and queens of tomorrow. Victory and success are commendable ambitions to pursue. But I hope the spirit of sportsmanship teaches the children to appreciate that you can’t win every match, always, and winning is not everything. Life is a beautiful game, a celebration, that you must learn to enjoy, whether it is on the chess board or outside those 64 squares.

  1. April 16, 2012

    Kinnera Murthy

    Somehow this kind of pursuit scares me. As parents, how much right we have to force the choice on a child and make it a single point focus in life? The same goes for professional courses and other sports. What really happens to the collective psyche of such children? The debate on Amy Chua’s book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is appropriate at this point.

  2. April 16, 2012

    Ravi Sastry

    nice and thought provoking.

  3. April 15, 2012

    Padmaja Narsipur

    Excellent piece, Uma! Kudos to the disciplined little champs, and many more to their even-more disciplined and focussed parents – I really do think perseverance of parents has a lot to do with these children’s success.

    While sport is an excellent teacher of life, the serious pursuit of it is probably not for everybody. We have tried skating, karate and chess for our kids so far, but they’re not keen to pursue any of them as a regular hobby, let alone as a potential career. Right now, they are happy to just play “shuttle” on the road outside and tinker with cricket other times. They are, I guess, doomed to be normal kids, just like their parents!

    • April 16, 2012

      Ravi Sastry

      dont understand the use of the term “doomed”. Is being normal, ” doomed”? Iis being diffrent or to be better than the rest, better?
      As a parent I guess it is dangerous to think that my child should be better or a league above others. Why?

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