Amar entered the drawing room to find Jonah, lurking around the grand chess table as his father came in and settled onto a sofa with a laptop, five different National newspapers, and a cup of tea. ‘Wanna play?’ Amar asked Jonah, trying to supress a smile.
‘You never ask someone to play chess Amar,’ his father called out from his side of the drawing room. ‘You challenge them to it.’
Amar ignored his father and sat across the table. It took thirty-one minutes. For Jonah to beat him. ‘Let’s play again,’ Amar ordered through clenched teeth.
‘Challenge,’ his father corrected.
It took twenty-eight minutes this time. And Mr. Rathore strolled over, sipping his second tea, just in time to watch his son predict the inevitable checkmate Jonah had trapped him into two moves earlier, and give up.
‘Once More!’ Amar said evenly, struggling to keep the desperation out of his voice. The timer read twenty minutes when the game ended. Jonah had only his white king, two pawns and the queen remaining in the end. In comparison to Amar’s eleven pieces. The white queen knocked out the black king.
‘May I challenge you to a game, Jonah?’ Mr. Rathore asked as Amar left his seat and exited the drawing room, his face dark. As his guest nodded, Mr. Rathore summoned a servant to clear away the tea cups, mindful not to leave them on the chess table. He settled down opposite Jonah, rolled up his sleeves, and asked Jonah to begin.
Amar strolled back fifteen minutes later to find his father smiling, and Jonah sombre as ever. It was not long before his father’s ebony horse took out the white gold king.
‘You’re really good at strategizing, Jonah,’ his father declared, ‘But your entire strategy seems to be based around your vazeer.’ Rahgav Pratap Rathore picked up the piece Jonah would have referred to as the queen. ‘The vazeer, or minister,’ he continued, ‘is the king’s counsellor. He is capable of extraordinary feats, but at the end, you must remember, that it is the king, incapable as he may seem, that remains as the single most important unit in your army. For you to win, it is your king who should not be conquered. The vazeer can, and should, be sacrificed if required.’
He then picked up the elephant. ‘Keep your chariot in mind Jonah – the rook as you may call it. It is the only unit that works in complete tandem with your king. The rook will probably serve the king far more than the vazeer ever will.’
The two boys listened attentively as he picked up the horse and the bishop. ‘The bishop, or what we refer to as the camel,’ he shook the piece in his right hand, ‘is your King’s right-hand man. He can be used for long-range attacks and penetration that may be difficult for your opponent to perceive.’
‘And the Knight…,’ Mr Rathore motioned to the piece in his left hand, ‘is an oddity among the army. The Knight’s L-shaped movement, and ability to jump other units, makes it the most powerful in closed positions. The Knight can get over insurmountable situations in unparalleled ways.’
The Chief Minister of Maharashtra had then paused before stating the next sentence with authority. ‘You have a really sharp mind Jonah, it just needs to be honed to make the right decisions.’
Amar glimpsed excitement on his father’s face before he made an unusual request to his young opponent. ‘Would you mind if an old-timer like me taught you a little bit?’
Jonah nodded. His two-millimetre nod.
‘Chess originated in India, Jonah. Did you know that?’ The elder man began.
‘I am Indian as much as I am French,’ Jonah said, by way of answering.
‘I apologize,’ the elder man smiled apologetically. ‘But I digress. The game was first called Chaturanga. Later it became Shatranj, and then chess, as it is known in most places today. Billions of people all over the world have played it since then; constantly challenging each other, and the game. If I might say so, the game is today considered a pinnacle of IQ and strategy. And of forward thinking. But did you know, Jonah, that the entire psychology of chess can be crystallized into three simple concepts? Just three simple concepts that even chess-masters don’t realize.’
Amar turned his attention to his father, his eyes narrowing.
‘Would you like to know what those three concepts are, Jonah?’
Four fans in the drawing room whooshed air as Jonah stared blankly at the scholarly man.
‘Papa. Please don’t annoy him,’ Amar stated testily. ‘Just say whatever you have to say.’
Mr Rathore let out a chuckle. ‘The three concepts are Tabiya, prahuti and samjiti.’
Once again, the only noise in the room was the air circulating the blades of the fans Amar spoke. ‘We are intrigued, Papa. Now will you please tell us what all this fancy Sanskrit means?’
‘Opening, sacrifice and conquest,’ his father said. And then speedily began rearranging the pieces on the board.
‘Tabiya, the opening,’ the chess-master quickly brought out the pieces and pushed them out rapidly, one after the other, using only his ebony army till he reached a sort of predetermined symmetrical pattern. ‘The battle array – you analyse your army and get ready to battle, ensuring that everything has been placed at the optimum position to take maximum advantage to begin. And then you display your set. That is when your opponent should realize what your opening strategy has been. A good chess master can get into the mind of his opponent and control the moment of truth – when the opponent realizes what the strategy had been all along. That is when the chess master displays his tabiya.’
He paused as he bought some of the pieces from Jonah’s side over and arranged them until he reached a specific pattern. ‘Prahuti, the sacrifice,’ he began as he made Jonah’s rook eliminate his own vazeer, ‘Prahuti is when you sacrifice a piece intentionally, even though it serves a great purpose in your army, but you do so, keeping a greater goal in mind. And you move ahead.’
He played a rapid succession of moves for both sides till suddenly it dawned on Amar why his father had intentionally let the ebony vazeer be sacrificed. ‘And that goal is the Samjiti, the conquest or complete victory. Only made possible by the prahuti,’ he finished by bringing Jonah’s king to a checkmate in four simple moves. Moves that were simple now that they could be backtracked. ‘And that is how you achieve Samjiti – complete victory.’
The creaking of the ceiling fans was the only noise that the room heard for a few seconds after the black rook had knocked down the white king.
‘Now, may I have the pleasure of challenging you once more, Jonah?’
Amar and his father both looked at Jonah. No two-millimetre nod. But strangely, Amar could see some sort of expression on his face – as if something was shifting behind his steely eyes; as if he was in a far away place.
‘No,’ Jonah finally said. ‘Not right now.’
His father had given a quizzical look before finally breaking into a smile. ‘Some other day then. My invitation remains open. Feel free to visit anytime and challenge me.’
It was an ominous invitation; one that Amar would later wish that Jonah had never accepted.
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