In troubled Sri Lanka, chess dreams threaten to turn to ashes


Just days before Colombo began to burn, Sri Lanka’s highest ranked chess player Isuru Alahakoon decided to flee the capital to his hometown, Kandy. An officer in the Navy, his sources in the intelligence had warned him of an impending crisis, and he immediately applied for leave. “The situation was already bad, but before it became worse, I decided to go home on leave and sought leave from higher officials,” he says.

There was uncertainty. Such was the simmering strife that he did not know whether he would lose his job when he returned. Such was the unpredictability that he did not know whether he would reach his hometown unhurt. Such was the ratcheting chaos that he did not know whether his house in Colombo would be ransacked. But he knew one thing. “If I stayed in Colombo, I would not be able to focus on chess, and my Olympiad preparations would go down the drain. I had worked so hard in the last few months with the Olympiad in mind,” he says.

The road from Colombo to Kandy was risk-hewn. “I can’t ride my bike, it was too risky and I didn’t know whether I had enough fuel. I could not travel by bus, because public transport was not plying long distances. Finally, a couple of my friends arranged a car, a lift with some people going to Kandy,” he says.

The three-and-a-half-hour was arduous but a journey he says he would not forget in his life. It was a journey that made him feel life closer than ever before. “You could see hundreds of protesters on the streets, people who have lost their livelihood, people who had no food and money. You could see long queues in front of ration shops and of course, in front of petrol pumps. I felt thankful that I at least did not have to experience all that,” he says.

The backdrop was relatively peaceful at home. At least when he looked out of his window, he could see the hills and greenery and not fumes and fire. But the stories of his teammates from Colombo would shatter him. He could not feign strangeness to what was happening around him. “It was hard for them to focus with all these things happening around them. There were frequent power cuts, which meant we could not meet online and play games. Real meetings were difficult because we all lived in distant places and traveling was a hassle. Power cuts meant the internet too would go off and they couldn’t play online games,” he says.

With the general inflation, data became too expensive and they would conserve everything for chess. No random browsing or data wastage. Isuru would not even stream cricket matches—he was an aspiring cricketer and switched to chess in school out of frustration that he was not picked in the team.

But amidst their larger concerns, chess took a backseat. Ranindu Dilshan Liyanage, who had recently crushed Indian GM D Gukesh and is considered the brightest young star on the Lankan horizon, had spent countless hours under the searing sun to buy fuel or vegetables. “After a while, I got used to it. Obviously, it was hard, but one thing chess has taught me is survival. You can be a winner only if you go through hardships. This crisis has made all of us tougher and hopefully that will be reflected in our games too. The Olympiad was a motivation for us, something we could all look forward to,” he says.

Isuru then encountered another hassle. He had to return to Colombo for a visa appointment at the Indian Embassy. Again some friends helped him reach the capital in time. By then, Colombo seemed a different city, a place from his nightmares. “There was unrest, there were tears. The scenes were heartbreaking,” he says.

The sights and sounds made him fear for the future of chess and himself in the country. “As such, it’s difficult to get sponsors. Now it would be even more difficult. There would be fewer tournaments in the country and we would have no money to travel abroad for tournaments, which means it would be difficult to accumulate points and complete the norms,” says Isuru, whose dreams to complete the IM norms were stalled.

Gradually, he fears, the situation would escalate into an existential crisis. “After one point, I don’t know how we will survive. Maybe, we would be forced to leave the country. For me it is relatively fine, I have been playing for sometime and have a job. But what about the youngsters? Would they be encouraged to take up the sport? I doubt,” he wonders.

Or those youngsters who have embraced the sport but would be forced to forsake it in the race to find a livelihood. Like Ranindu, who aspires to be his country’s first Grandmaster and has now amassed 2200 ELO points. Isuru gets philosophical: “There would be some light at the end of the tunnel.” But later admits that he is not too hopeful of seeing those days of light any time soon.

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