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The Indian Village That Took Up Chess as an Alternative to Drinking

The people of Marottichal, a sleepy little village in the state of Kerala in southern India, have a rather unusual passion for chess. Believe it or not, they’re all chess enthusiasts. Their love for the game is such that even when they’re not playing, they’re talking strategy all the time.

But villagers weren’t always interested in the checkered board game. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, their passions lay elsewhere – mainly in the local liquor that they made for a living. Many of the residents were addicted to the cheap brew, with disastrous consequences for the whole community. Things got so bad at one point that a few villagers actually requested government authorities to raid the village and get rid of some of their liquor stock.

But things began to change when one villager – a 10th grade student named C. Unnikrishnan – decided that he wanted to learn chess. Inspired by a news report about American legend Bobby Fischer, a grandmaster at age 16, Unnikrishnan traveled to a nearby village to attend classes and learn the game himself. And once he got the hang of it, he made it his mission to get everyone in the village hooked.

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So he started giving free chess lessons at his house to anyone who was willing to learn, and to his delight, the chess bug spread through Marottichal like wildfire. Not only did they grasp the nuances of the game, they also developed a deep passion for it. Over four decades, he has trained more than 600 people, many of whom have gone on to win statewide chess tournaments.

“Around 90 percent of the villagers are chess players,” said Sreenivasan, president of the local Gram Panchayat – an organisation for self-governance in Indian villages. In August last year, he announced that Marottichal is the first “comprehensive chess literate village” or “chess village” in India. The nation’s own chess legend, Viswanathan Anand, congratulated the villagers for the achievement.

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Photo: New Indian Express/Ajesh Madhav

Unnikrishnan now runs a restaurant in Marottichal, where people are free to come in and play a round of chess any time. He also has a makeshift shed beside his house where chess enthusiasts – between the ages of 8 and 80 – gather to sharpen their skills. Needless to say, liquor is the last thing on their minds.

As Unnikrishnan puts it: “Chess is my passion. Once I start playing, I forget everything. It’s kind of an addiction.”

 

A movie based on the village, titled August Club, is currently being filmed.

Sources: New Indian Express, The Hindu

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