Venkatachalam Saravanan by Amit Dutta

An international chess master and a filmmaker play a match while discussing the art of the game and its history in India.

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

BOMB 148 Summer 2019
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Theory + Practice is a series supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

The Indian chess player, writer, and trainer Venkatachalam Saravanan has been an International Master since 1994. I got to know him through mutual friends and, being a chess enthusiast myself, I’m aware of his extraordinary ability and multifaceted understanding of the game. Studying his games, it became clear to me that Saravanan is not an ordinary competitive player but one who possesses a deep passion and appreciation of chess as an art form. The color and vibrancy of his game reveals a person of artistic temperament in search of abstract beauty. As Marcel Duchamp famously said, “Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry; the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem… From my close contacts with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

I am grateful we could have this conversation, which is accompanied by a game of correspondence chess, presented here in part.

01

Amit Dutta Saravanan, 1.c4 is my first move. I’ve taken the liberty to play white, which gives me the advantage of moving first and the bonus of time, called tempo in chess parlance. I’m intrigued by this particular move not only because it deviates from the principal moves (e4, d4), but also because of the pattern it creates by putting pressure on the center from the side, which was the main weapon of the chess school of Hypermodernism. How would you reply to this move?

02

V Saravanan I would reply with 1…g6 and let me explain why. In professional chess, the moves and opening variations one faces are not the entire story. The main point of concentration is the opponent. Like in any professional sport, getting ready to clash with an opponent in a tournament starts with getting to know him or her, to understand what kind of player he or she is. This means browsing through the databases with millions of competitive chess games and finding the ones the opponent has played. Once you have seen a sufficient number and gotten a grip on his play, you try to understand him more in terms of his personality. The moves he makes, the opening variations he employs, especially his decisions at crucial moments in the games, might give you better ideas about his psyche. Is he ambitious? Is he reckless? Is he strong in all departments of the game? Does he take risks?

Once you gain these insights, you decide on your response and then translate it into a concrete opening and a particular line. But at the same time, you stick to your own preference of style and your own vision of how to play chess. Of course, for this, you should have a sufficient arsenal at your disposal, which is something you learn to understand through the course of your career, as you consciously develop skills, knowledge, and breadth of personality over the years. And then you take it another step up: Visualize how your opponent is going to approach you; guess what he will think about you and how he’ll face you. And then you try to out-think him. Of course, this is an ideal scenario and not always possible, or workable. If the opponent’s first move is 1.d4, 1.e4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3 or otherwise, do you have to think about its philosophy and what it fundamentally implies? Certainly, you do.

If I feel that the opponent is a tactical player who prefers action, I will opt for the quiet 1…c5, steering the game into calmer channels, requiring subtle play. If I feel that the opponent is not particularly good at positional judgment (compared to tactical aggression), I will prefer 1…Nf6, subsequently getting into 2…e6 and thus black’s light-square strategy.

In our case, I’d rather stick to 1…g6, aiming in the long run at either the King’s English or the King’s Indian setups.

AD Very interesting! One response could be changing the move order (depending on Black’s reply) to Queen’s Gambit/Indian Defence/Grünfeld Defence. Or White can surprise Black with the Polish Opening by playing the outflank variation (b4).

This idea of transposition connects chess with Indian classical music, which reminds me of a story. One of my friends, the rudra veena player Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, told me a story about his father, the great Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who was also a keen chess player. As you know, in our raga system, each raga is defined by a set number of notes in a fixed order—like an order of moves in chess—and emphasis on certain notes begets a different melodic structure or a certain variation/color in the main raga itself. The musician can choose to transpose a certain raga into another one. The Ustad used to test his percussionist, the pakhawaj player, by playing a certain raga but thinking of another one. When the percussionist remarked, “You were playing this raga but I was perceiving a certain other raga,” he replied, “You are absolutely right. Sometimes when we are playing a certain raga, we are seeing the other raga silently flowing by our side.” Similarly, with this chess variation, a great chess player must see many other variations flowing silently by the side.

When did you first encounter chess? What attracted you most to the game? Was it a mental puzzle-solving thing, or were you drawn to its delicious visual patterns?

VS I was born in a village near Coimbatore in central Tamil Nadu. I learned to play chess from my mother and older brother around the age of ten. I didn’t know until much later that competitive chess existed. My brother had five friends who used to gather at our home most evenings to play chess. Being six years younger, I was usually reduced to watching them and to suggesting moves. I was a hyperactive kid with a loud mouth and I used to boast and tease them. By the time I was thirteen, they would all gang up and play against me as a team, but I started beating them most of the time. At this point, my brother encouraged me to take part in a competition—the district sub junior (U-15) championship in 1983.

I didn’t develop an aesthetic appreciation for chess until much later, although the shape of the pieces, the Horse in particular, was probably a subconscious factor in attracting me to the game. What fascinated me for a long time was the chess battle as a warlike scenario. For me, it was a game where I commanded an army of horses, elephants, sepoys, and the like to invade an opponent and smash his defenses. From the beginning I played pretty aggressively, going for my opponent’s king whenever the opportunity arose. The taste of sacrifices, the attacks and combinations fascinated me. I came to understand beauty in chess much later, after I began reading books and matured as a human being. Coimbatore not being a chess city, I wasn’t exposed to chess books or to reading in English until I was fourteen or fifteen.

AD When I was young, chess appealed to me first visually—the wonderfully carved wooden pieces, the yellow and black patterns, the mechanical wonder of the chess clock, the satisfaction of pushing the button after your move, and the players noting down the moves in a mysterious code language, which for me was as fascinating as musical notation. I really feel sad that I couldn’t pursue chess long enough.

03

My next move is 2.Nc3. I wonder if the game will now steer toward the King’s Indian. I was always intrigued by the word “Indian” in some of the attacks and defenses. I’m aware of Mahesh Chandra Banerjee employing this technique in 1884, but what makes a certain set-up “Indian”? What’s intrinsic to this setup? Is it the typical fianchetto (which makes the delayed response lethal)?

VSI play 2…Bg7.

04

The term “Indian Defences” is given to all the Hypermodern openings, where Black allows White pawns to occupy the center, only to attack them later with blows in the center itself.

The King’s Indian Defence has appealed to me greatly since childhood. As the cunning plotter, you allow your unsuspecting opponent to fully occupy the center. You let him enjoy his time under the sun, whereas, with a smile (or smirk) you’ll make it rain blows later on. Fantastic! In a way, you’re the aggressor even though White has the first move and hence perceived control over the game. But he will for sure be hunted down, typically with sharp attacks on his center and raids on the kingside. Of course, one result of growing up, in life and chess, is the realization that not all attacks prove fruitful. Defense as an art has grown in stature, and my own chess has become much more solid, positional, and technical. Not that I gave up aggression at any point, but I started believing the maxim “the best fighter is not ferocious.”

The King’s Indian still has a consistent presence in my arsenal. At some point my play got too one-dimensional—only tactical—and I forcibly led myself away to play other positions, for the sake of variety and well-roundedness.

AD When you were growing up, India didn’t have as strong a chess culture as we have now. What motivated you back then? Was Vishy Anand already on the scene? Were you aware of the international matches and chess personalities back then?

VS India didn’t have as many colorful personalities as today, but what was around during my childhood was enough to hold my fascination. After all, that’s the beauty of childhood, isn’t it? To be fascinated by even the smallest of things, sights and pleasures, and then to fall head-over-heels in love with that fascination.

In the 1980s, chess in Tamil Nadu had a bunch of International Masters (IM), who looked quite strong and colorful. I warmed up fast to Ravi Sekhar, Krishnamoorthy Murugan, Tiruchi Parameswaran, Devaki V. Prasad, and others. My personal interaction with them was the most important influence on how my chess developed—hanging around them and analyzing moves with them, eagerly waiting for the smallest of wisdom they would share. I was completely mesmerized by the game.

I started playing competitive chess very late by today’s standards—I was in my ninth standard at school. Till then, I was enthusiastic about football (I even played in the district league at Coimbatore)and was on the school basketball team and Kabaddi team. By that time, I was also quite proficient in Tamil elocution—I wrote and directed my own Tamil plays and acted in All India Radio plays. But then chess came like a whirlwind and swept me off my feet.

I was fortunate to be a board boy at the 1984 Asian Junior Chess Championship, which was held in my own school at Coimbatore. Vishy Anand was a participant and my adoration for him started that day and has continued ever since. I was lucky to qualify and play at the National Junior Championship at Nagpur in 1985, where Anand was the favorite to win the title, although the ultimate winner was IM Neeraj Mishra. Anand then became the first Grandmaster (GM) of India during the Sakthi Finance GM tournament at Coimbatore in 1988. Once again, I was fortunate to be a board boy there. Just recently, in February 2019, I sat next to him at a two-day workshop for children in Pune and I still couldn’t help being fascinated by his genius.

Two other people who were deeply influential to me were GM Praveen Thipsay and IM Varugeese Koshy. They were simply brilliant in the art of chess analysis and disciplined to the core. Because we were close friends, they taught me how to properly analyze games. In a time of no coaches or sufficient books, such interactions were the main sources for developing my chess.

AD Was there an Indian chess magazine at that time? What was your first chess book?

VS There was Chess Mate, published by India’s first IM Manuel Aaron, but it wasn’t a comprehensive magazine for world chess. The first books I bought were the unromantic Batsford Chess Openings by Garry Kasparov and Raymond Keene, and Chess Informant 39—I naively believed that opening preparation was the key to progress. The first book I read properly was Garry Kasparov’s Fighting Chess, and I was mesmerized by it. The hero worship I developed for him lasted decades, and my admiration continues to this day. I even found a reason to go all the way to St. Louis when Kasparov announced his return to chess for a single tournament and faced Anand over the board at the 2017 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz.

In Coimbatore, we had a very good library of chess books, preserved by T.P. Narayanan, who was, along with A.C. Unni, my mentor during my initial years. This collection gave me a fairly good introduction to most of the all-time greats in the early 1980s and made me fall in love with chess books.

AD For me, growing up in Jammu, it was difficult to get hold of any chess books. All I found was a copy of The Chess Player’s Handbook by Howard Staunton, and I read this obscure book cover to cover. It was published in 1847 and had the old notation system!

Here is my next move: 3.d4, where the pawn in front of the Queen moves two squares. Interestingly, when I learned chess at a young age, a Pawn could move one square and the King had to jump like a Knight to castle. That is why fianchetto was so common. It is said that Mir Sultan Khan was so fond of fianchetto because in Indian chess you have to do this to castle fast. We all know he had learned Indian chess first. Did you first learn Indian or International rules?

05

VS When I learned chess, I didn’t even know that an Indian version existed. In a way, I’m from a remote place, too. Coimbatore is not really Tamil Nadu, in the chess sense.

With 3…Nf6, we move into the King’s Indian. In childhood, I used to think that this led to a forced win for black all the time, inviting an amused Praveen Thipsay to say, “You have to first understand the difference between Black and White in chess!”

06

AD At what age did you decide to dedicate your life to chess? And were your parents supportive?

VS I decided around the age of seventeen that chess was everything for me. When I was sixteen, my father had unexpectedly passed away; he was only forty-four years old. It was a confusing time. My mother ran some small businesses to see my brother finish engineering school. Somehow, in this time of turmoil, I decided to give it all to chess. I promised my mother that if I failed in chess, I would pursue a PhD on the works of Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi! Back then, it puzzled me that they allowed it, but I now understand that both my brother and my mother saw a passion in me that was already all-engulfing. Even today, my brother remains the biggest supporter of my chess. It probably also helped that one Vishy Anand became a Grandmaster precisely at that stage—in 1988 when I was finishing up my twelfth standard.

AD There was no money in chess at that time. How challenging was it to make a living as a chess player?

VS It’s wrong to think that there was no money in chess. For me, it all worked like a charm—I finished high school and my brother got a job at a software start-up in Chennai, where we all moved to in 1988. There I won the 1989 National Junior ahead of much competition—which I had never thought as possible, even in my wildest dreams—and I immediately joined the Indian Bank in 1990. If there was a plan, it couldn’t have been better.

I felt the money I made at the time was enough. Now, Internet teaching and proficiency in English language allows Indians to be online trainers and make pots of money. I make a living as a mentor for a few established IMs and GMs, as a professional player, and as an occasional writer.

AD You have many interests, for example in literature and other sports. How does this affect your chess career?

VS My other interests definitely affected my performances over the years. To be a great chess player, you need single-minded devotion, which I probably never had. I was always a seeker of too many good things in life. If I could start all over again, I would probably do things in a different way. The focus and determination I have today—if I had had it ten years ago, I could have become a Grandmaster much earlier.

07

AD I move 4.e4: the pawn in front of the King moves two squares. I hope to try the f3 Sämisch Variation that I improvised and worked hard to “invent” when I was young, being blissfully oblivious of even basic theory. Later I found that this particular variation was quite a common one.

Because you are based in Chennai, I have a little story. From 1828 to 29, a correspondence chess match was played between the cities of Hyderabad and Madras (Chennai). Interestingly, they also played the English Opening and the Reversed Sicilian in that game. Madras had a gifted player, Ghulam Cassim, whose 1829 book An Analysis of the Muzio Gambit was published to international acclaim.

08

VS Wow to your details on chess history!

My move is d6. I’m still fascinated with playing the King’s Indian and its complications. I used to be excited playing against the Sämisch and Four Pawn because they were the most tactical. Now I enjoy playing against everything.

Tell me about your journey into chess and cinema.

AD I was very inspired by Satyajit Ray and his films, like Pather Panchali; he was the reason I went on to study cinema. Frankly, if I had coaches and some guidance in my childhood, I would have liked to pursue chess in earnest instead. I had a choice between my two passions: chess and cinema. Chess coaching or chess institutes were virtually absent in India then. But there was a film school in Pune, 2000 kilometers away from my home. So I pursued cinema.

VS I’m a big fan of Ray. I’ve read almost everything he wrote except for the Feluda series and I will catch up on that soon. Only after watching Ray’s movies many times over did I develop a love for cinema.

AD Coincidentally, Satyajit Ray was also very interested in chess and he made that famous film based on Munshi Premchand’s story “The Chess Players.” There are many other filmmakers who had a love for chess: Stanley Kubrick and even Sergei Eisenstein. I have a photograph of Andrei Tarkovsky playing chess with his father—it was given to me as a gift by the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow when I was a guest there. Probably the Soviets were the earliest to recognize the power of both chess and cinema and promote them systematically through national institutions. Just as the earliest major chess theories were Russian, so were the earliest potent film theories. I wonder if there is a connection beyond the surface coincidence. The Soviets also upped the stakes of competitive chess by grooming dedicated champions. And since the computer revolution, the pressure for tournament ratings and titles seems to be only mounting. Does this trend affect you?

VS I never played chess to get a title, but I still play chess very seriously. I’m playing an open tournament at the 2019 Budapest Spring Festival. It’s a very strong event. Two or three times a year I go to Europe to play, and for the last couple of years, I’ve also traveled to the US, where I play and report on chess tournaments. I’ve long stopped playing in India. I aim to play about eight to ten events every year.

09

AD f3 Here we go! We enter the Sämisch.

10

VS I castle (0-0). Yup, there we go into a Sämisch. By the way, currently, at the top most levels, this is a problematic line for black to play. But I have my secret weapons. :-)

AD Do you have a daily routine as a chess player?

VS I am a mentor for a few GMs and IMs. They are all stronger than me in terms of rating, but my experience and in-depth knowledge of almost all spheres of chess has been quite handy in making them stronger players. Especially since I started mentoring, I realize a thousand mistakes that I made when I was younger—in choice of openings at tournaments, in preparation, in terms of focus on important moments on the board, the importance of chess endgame theory. (Today I regard myself as an endgame lover!) The list is long and a little painful, to be frank.

I have seven players with whom I work regularly. Most of them travel to Chennai, stay in a hotel, and then come to my place in the morning. We work until six in the evening, with an hour’s break for lunch and a twenty minutes siesta for me (which I really need in order to work with the same level of focus for more than seven hours a day). I play badminton most of the evenings. Then I spend time with family. After dinner, my mom, wife, son, and I generally play board games (we are all addicted now!).

When no one’s coming to work with me, I spend the same time on my own preparations. When I have tournaments on the horizon, I stop working with others and concentrate on my own form, which takes a minimum of two weeks to build up. I get into shape by solving lots of positions and preparing openings to play in the upcoming tournaments. So my day is generally spent with chess throughout. I’m deeply in love with chess. I have a huge collection of chess books, and even when I’m not preparing for something concrete, it is quite natural for me to randomly pick up a book and study it for a few days. I also follow almost all the top tournaments in the world on a daily basis and am pretty up to date on what’s happening in international chess. As a professional, I’m obliged to know what kind of openings get played at which level, what my “students” are doing, whether any new technical invention has come up. There are seven to eight chess magazines I read regularly to catch up. Even just looking at a combination, an endgame finesse, a prepared opening improvement, or a pretty finish brings me big joy. These are aha! moments for me and they haven’t diminished at all over the years.

11

AD Coming back to our game, I move Bg5. I know that Be3 is the better move—the book move—but I want to play what I had prepared on my own. I am curious to discover your secret weapon!

12

VS Nc6. It may not be the perfect move here. Theory considers 6…c5 to be sound but theory is nowadays derived from machines and it’s impossible to play like them over the board. So, even if a human brain knows that 6…Nc6 is not the best move here for black, it’s another story to play white and get an advantage comprehensively with white pieces. Those who work only with chess engines overlook a crucial piece of the game, which is the fact that a human is emotional. He has psychological baggage and will be affected by sways of his moods over the board. Hence, it is very much possible to play irrationally and still hold your fort—as long as you believe in it and are technically sufficient to handle a disadvantage. But you have to be strong-willed and equipped to be imaginative and invent counterplay even under pressure. The Russian word for that is karosh, which roughly translates to “inspired guts,” a well-known term associated with the King’s Indian Defence.

AD I remember you played the Fritz 3 computer as one of the first in the country—in a tournament in Pune. What was that experience?

VS Playing Fritz was frustrating. At that time, it employed an obscure opening trap in the Ruy Lopez Opening, and I fell into it right away.

AD What do you think of the coming of computers in chess?

VS This is a complex subject, so I will just mention a few points. Thanks to computers, nowadays you can become a Grandmaster without ever touching a single book. It’s become impossible to prepare without computers, if you want to get your information quickly. Computers and learning the English language have given Indians a great livelihood as chess coaches. I use computers extensively, for training, teaching, writing, and following chess competitions.

AD I recently got a glimpse of your amazing home library of chess books, thanks to a YouTube video posted by a chess journalist. How do you use the books? Do you read the notations of moves blindfold or do you use a chessboard along with them?

VS I honestly don’t know how many books I have, but I know all of them. I mostly read them blindfold. The majority of books now don’t contain variations, as that has shifted to digital publications and databases. About a third of the time I use a chess board to study those.

AD What are you reading these days?

VS I generally read a lot of stuff at the same time. Right now I’m reading Michael Connelly’s Black Echo—a perfect detective novel during chess tournaments. Before going on this trip to Hungary, I decided to do some work on my basics and started Glenn Flear’s Practical Endgame Play. It is a very tough book on complex endgames and reminds me that I can still learn a lot at this stage of my career. From time to time, I try to read books that give me ideas on everyday life, mundane stuff, like James Clear’s Atomic Habits. For the coming months, I set myself the ambitious goal of completing Kasparov’s trilogy, Garry Kasparov on Garry Kasparov. I just started with the first volume—an engrossing, complicated, and challenging work—and I’m loving it. I wanted to broaden my opening repertoire, and hence started with two basic books on Nimzo-Indian Defence: Ivan Sokolov’s Winning Chess Middlegames and Victor Bologan’s Ruy Lopez for Black. There is nothing romantic in reading such books—you sit and work hard on them the whole day.

AD I’m currently reading Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan. I’m very intrigued by the use of AI in chess and by its self-learning program. What are your thoughts on AlphaZero and artificial intelligence in chess?

VS No doubt, AlphaZero revolutionized the way we all can play chess. Engines are changing the ways humans think, and AZ just takes it to the next level. There is a human side to it too—nowadays, when a person uses a chess engine to evaluate a position, he doesn’t only look up to what is offered by the engine, he also tries to understand why the engine thinks in a different way. This is slowly and subtly affecting how human beings operate. Fabiano Caruana is the perfect example of how an engine can “lead” a human being to think correctly, in an inhuman way, over the chessboard. I’ve yet to get to Sadler and Regan’s book. I’ve read their earlier and very interesting book Chess For Life, which describes many chess personalities and how they progressed as players.

AD Thank you, Saravanan. I end this conversation with this 7.Qd2 move. We can keep playing our game. I wish you a wonderful tournament at Budapest!

13

VS I play 7…a6. The game gets very interesting here as there will be a trench fight soon. Suits me :-)

14

Amit Dutta is a filmmaker, writer, and chess enthusiast. He is currently working on a novel and film based on the game’s history in India between 1800 and 1947. He won silver in the All India Correspondence Chess Championship in 2017. Subsequently his chess biography was published in the AICCF Bulletin, and he is ranked among the country’s top players. His national peak rating is 2032 and international rating is 2397, as calculated by the new Glicko-2 system. He collects rare chess books.

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Originally published in

BOMB 148, Summer 2019

Featuring interviews with Mary Weatherford, Nanfu Wang, Lee Quiñones, Venkatachalam Saravanan, Tyshawn Sorey, Ben Whishaw, Édouard Louis, Geovani Martins, Prageeta Sharma, and James Thomas Stevens.

Read the issue
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