Given Kolkata’s love for all things sport as many things cerebral, it makes syllogistic sense for Kolkata to love chess. While carrom remains the board game of choice across localities and clubs in North Kolkata, over in the South, it is chess which dominates, especially in the Gariahat-Golpark areas. The finest example of this is the Gariahat Chess Club, an open-air space below the Gariahat flyover where kings and queens have been castled and conquered for years.
Formalised in 2006 and given a facelift in 2018, the club has 13 tables bearing laminated chess boards, arched lamp posts that keep the action going till as late as midnight and close to 30 stools for players and observers to make themselves comfortable. With a fee of just Rs 10, anybody can become a registered member, while first-time players can compete for free.
Having started out as a group of chess aficionados assembling informally since the 1980s, it took the club more than two decades to become an organised entity, thanks in no small part to support from Kolkata Police. In 2019, Gariahat briefly became the cynosure of the country’s chess community when Ding Liren and Hikaru Nakamura, two of the most decorated Grandmasters of the game, arrived for a brief visit, even playing a couple of rounds with the locals.
Like other sports centres around Kolkata, the club also bore the brunt of the pandemic, remaining closed during lockdown over the last two years. But with Covid-19 starting to recede, the players are very much back in the game. Across a series of evenings in the prickly heat of late July, My Kolkata interacted with the players who have become used to shutting out the cacophony around them – a mixture of the roaring laughter of adda, the blaring of horns, community announcements and more – to zero in on their next move.
Sagnik Sadhu (left), Shweta Roy and Anjani Xalxo (in red) laughed their way to an incomplete game that produced plenty of oohs and aahs but no winnerPhotos: Ritagnik Bhattacharya
Before we could sit down and watch the regulars ply their trade, something else caught our eye. Like many bystanders at Gariahat Chess Club, Sagnik Sadhu and Shweta Roy had no plans of playing chess. Until they did. Tempted by the cerebral exercise around them, they agreed to play a “friendly round”, where Shweta received constant help from her friend Anjani Xalxo (not quite the classic definition of a friendly). Soon enough, Sagnik was in a handicap match, with Anjani moving the pieces for Shweta, as the latter had “suddenly forgotten all the rules of the game”. With Shweta and Anjani taking their sweet time to strategise, interjections from those watching on were inevitable. My Kolkata could not resist either, and stepped in to show Shweta how to eliminate Sagnik’s bishop with one of her own, an obvious move that does not seem so obvious when you have not played for the best part of a decade. Eventually, the novices decided to end the game before either of them faced the humiliation of defeat, though Sagnik can legitimately claim that “I was in the lead before we decided we can’t think anymore”.
Budhil Baivab Basu is the most talented youngster at the Gariahat Chess Club
At 16, Budhil Baivab Basu is the youngest visitor to Gariahat Chess Club on a regular basis, which has earned him the reputation of being one of the most consistent and talented players on the club’s roster. “I’ve learnt everything I know about chess from this place. All the senior players have been extremely helpful in teaching me the tricks of the trade over the years,” said Budhil, who was described by one of the club’s senior players as “a bright young boy who always beats me”. Budhil refused to verify the second part of the compliment but agreed that “playing day in and day out has made me tactically stronger and more passionate about the game”. Even though his impending exams have cut his playing time in half, Budhil still ventures out to the club whenever he can, especially because “it helps me focus and concentrate on something other than studies”.
Sandip Nandy, the best player at the club by consensus
Rarely known around the club by his real name of Sandip Nandy, Mastermoshai is the undisputed champion of the place, having established himself over 13 to 14 years of rigorous and riveting competition. “I stay about 10 minutes away from this place, so it’s just one short auto ride away. This means that I get to spend as much time here as possible during the evenings, once my job [in a private sector company] is over for the day. I’m glad that this place is getting the attention it deserves, because it has been a fantastic platform for me to practise the game that I love,” said Sandip, 41. Just about every player who has played at the club has lost to Sandip at some point or another, one reason why he is ‘Mastermoshai’. “I’ve never seen anyone think so much about the game and have a constant hunger to get better. Even though he won’t admit it, he spends a lot of time researching his game and reading up on moves that can make him hard to beat,” said two of Sandip’s more frequent opponents.
Koushik Biswas, who hopes to knock Sandip off his perch some day
“Our Mastermoshai can destroy everyone else, but it’s a different story when he’s pitted against me!” chuckled Koushik Biswas, before reluctantly acknowledging that, for the time being, Mastermoshai remains at another level. Generally recognised to be the second best player at the club, Koushik, 30, had the unique opportunity of playing against Dibyendu Barua when India’s second Grandmaster visited the club during a special tournament in 2006. “It was one of those surreal experiences that I still can’t believe happened. Playing against Dibyenduda was something I’ll never forget. Out of courtesy, he even drew one of the matches!” recalled Koushik, who frequently practises at home on Chess.com. Once his day job is over, Koushik arrives at the club and spends at least four to five hours playing, chatting and taking small steps towards claiming the crown of numero uno from Sandip one day.
Abhijit Saha, secretary of the club, who generally plays for hours on end
“Once I start playing, I can’t get up,” said Abhijit Saha, secretary of the Gariahat Chess Club. Translated into playing time, it usually means two to three hours straight, without pause. “I’m at the club between 1pm and 9pm every day; I sometimes go here and there for work and food. I’m also in charge of the hawkers you see in and around Gariahat, so my day is often about balancing their demands with those of my pieces on the board,” smiled Abhijit, 58. But where does he find the stamina to play for so long, often in the sweltering Kolkata heat? “I don’t know, it’s just something that happens. I don’t like to stop, even if it means playing against multiple players, which is generally the case. The fact that I get to play in such a place, open-air, is enough of an incentive for me. I don’t think I need anything else to keep going.”
For Ashutosh Bose Roy, president of the club, watching chess is more feasible than playing it these days
“My days of playing are long gone. At 66, my eyes can’t see moves they could in the past. Nowadays I just like to watch,” said Ashutosh Bose Roy, president of the Gariahat Chess Club. Every day, Ashutosh spends about a couple of hours pacing up and down the club, taking in one match and then another. He remains strictly neutral, unlike other observers who are all too keen to suggest the next move to the players. “It gives me a lot of pride and satisfaction to see how this club has grown. The pandemic was a big blow, because it brought a halt to everything out of nowhere. But I’m relieved to see that everything is going back to normal. I hope we can have our biggest tournament, which usually happens on August 15, return this year,” said Ashutosh.
The Anonymous Veteran
The man who must not be named can still boggle the minds of his opponents
“I’m a retired civil engineer staying in Kasba. I don’t have much to do these days, so I come here during the afternoon and watch others play. Earlier, I used to play a lot more by myself, but now my brain stops working after two rounds,” said a sexagenarian who is a familiar face for regular players at the club. And yet, nobody knows his name. “I don’t want to reveal my name,” he insisted, before adding with a wry smile that “at my age, it doesn’t matter what people call me”. Just like his words, the anonymous veteran measured every move of his on the board, deliberating carefully before proceeding. Though a couple of quick games could not bring him victory, it brought him the one thing the club invariably provides – “a sense of purpose and something to devote my time to”.
Plenty of gambits, but no queen
Lack of female representation at the club is something for the organisers to fix in the days ahead
After several days of visiting the Gariahat Chess Club, we could not unearth one regular female player. Women seen in the vicinity of the club generally bide their time in the midst of heavy traffic, engage in chit-chat or even take pictures of the men playing. Rare are the occasions when they play themselves, except for a one-off game, as seen in the case of Shweta and Anjani earlier. But on an everyday basis, it is virtually impossible to spot a single woman trying to outmanoeuvre the men à la Beth Harmon (The Queen’s Gambit). This gender disparity is something for the club to think about as it tries to take its legacy further by becoming a bigger and more inclusive arena for chess lovers across the city.