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What it takes to be a Chess Grandmaster – Sri Lanka’s best players reveal

2021 Jul 20

Chess, a unique sport that has been around for many years, teaches important life lessons and skills. In fact, to be an outstanding chess player, one must possess morals, a quick wit, focus and confidence in one’s ability and strength.

In 1999, Chess was recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee. Whilst many people believe that chess originated in India, there is much debate on the backstory of how it actually began and spread across the globe.

It is believed that the sport came from the kings. The game of chess is played as a battle between two armies. One player controls the white army and the other player controls the black army. Furthermore, each of the pieces has a numerical value; Queen (nine), Rook (five), Bishop (three), Knight (three) and Pawn (one). The winner of the game succeeds with the capture of the king, which is called checkmate.


Chess as an Educational Tool

Chess teaches you to think before you move, and in life this translates into thinking before you act. It is an equaliser. Players understand that age, gender, race, religion, language or socio-economic background does not matter. They learn important values in life such as respect and integrity.

Even with little resources, chess players learn the sport and become great players through reading books. According to gold medalist, Sasith Nipun Piyumantha, “chess books are the easiest and the best way to improve in chess.” Players spend hours practising and perfecting their skills.

Sachini Ranasinghe, the first International Women Master in Sri Lanka and the only Sri Lankan to win the Asian Zonal 3.2 Chess Championship, said “I am an International Master now, my goal is to become a Grandmaster, I want to get stronger and better than what I am now.” She is an ambitious, passionate and dedicated player, who began playing at the age of four, winning multiple awards and accolades for Sri Lanka ever since.

She also spoke about how players need to be disciplined, and although it doesn’t look like a team sport, players do care for their team just like any other sport. It also requires focus, drive and concentration to excel.

Ranasinghe added that players need continuous practice. “I would like to say that no one can become an overnight star. You have to dream but you also have to practise it on a daily basis. Depending on the player, at least eight to ten hours of chess is required daily to become an expert at the sport.”

The Opportunities

The Sri Lanka Chess Federation provides players with a high level of support, however for the sport to be recognised on a larger scale in Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe said sponsorship from brands is crucial.

Eighteen-year-old Harshana Tillekeratne, who currently holds the title of International Master (IM), commented that, “in general, most of the Asian chess players tend to have a more aggressive style in comparison to Europeans and Americans.”

“I want to reach the Grandmaster Level. I completed my International Master Title in March 2020 and was at my peak, but unfortunately in April 2020, chess games temporarily stopped due to the pandemic.”

Harshana said, “I played chess for twelve years and worked with many coaches. The experience of playing so many events has given me great confidence. Most importantly, I had the ability to learn and absorb knowledge from observing other players.”

Harshana is a rising star and has won multiple awards. He won the school chess championship U11 category in 2014, the silver medal in the World Chess Championship 2016 and 2018, and the National Championship in 2019. In 2018, he was also titled the highest-rated player in Sri Lankan chess history (having 2442 peak rating).

So, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected chess overall? According to Ranasinghe, the COVID-19 pandemic is a good opportunity for players to practise chess at home, and there are many opportunities to learn chess online.

Furthermore, the release of the TV series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ in 2020, has resulted in a surge of interest and popularity in chess. The TV series was based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, published in 1983. Within the first month of its release on Netflix, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ was seen by a record-breaking 62 million households globally. This resurgence of chess has also shown that in a historically male dominated field, the portrayal of the main character Beth, encouraged and inspired more women to play this intriguing sport.

What it Takes to be Outstanding

The sport demands patience, pattern recognition, preparation, memory, creativity, sacrificing for future benefit, logic and reasoning, understanding consequences, sportsmanship, concentration, strategy and tactics, not underestimating opponents, planning and thinking ahead.

Yet, to become outstanding at chess, not only do players need to be highly skilled, they also need to be equipped with human values. A player should possess kindness towards other players, rejoice in the progress of others and also have equanimity. It is essential to have a strong mind, be ready to face losses and not be overcome with pride due to success. Players shouldn’t play with the intention to bring the other player down mentally using manipulative tactics. Instead, they should have a strong mind, and whether you win or lose, you should take it as a learning experience. If the opponent loses, the winner should never gloat, they should be kind, supportive and make the other player feel like a winner as well.

Educating our chess players on these human values will enhance their skills further, making them extraordinary players, and help them stand out from the rest in the global context. This will indeed bring pride upon Sri Lanka.