A documentary on blind chess

by Priyadarshan Banjan
8/18/2015 – In India a group of boys dream of becoming chess masters. But this is no ordinary chess and these are no ordinary players. Algorithms is a documentary on the thriving world of Blind Chess. Filmed over three years, it travels with three talented boys to national and world championships, documenting their struggles, anxieties and hopes. Preview tonight in Mumbai, premiere on Friday.

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Algorithms: a documentary on blind chess in India

Most people like to believe that chess is played by sight, which does play an important role as it enables us to see the board. Most of us take our eyes’ role for granted while playing the game. This is not true however. Chess is a game of vision. Algorithms is a sport documentary that tells the story of the little known, nevertheless thriving world of blind chess in India. Filmed over three years across various cities of this country, this 96-minute story enables the sighted to see how the blind visualize. The 2012-released black-and-white documentary is all set to witness its theatrical release across India on August 21.

The documentary poster

A still from Algorithms

It was a rainy July evening at the Mafatlal Towers in Mumbai – host to an open chess tournament. A 19-year-old lad, rated around 2000, sat hunched at his board, nervously trying to maintain his composure as his clock ticked away. The position was around equal, but everything is fair in love, war and time-trouble.

The day’s playing session was heading towards its end and the spectators had taken a sudden interest in his game. The lad didn’t mind – he was without sight. He couldn’t see. Not surprisingly, he was struggling as he felt his way through the pieces on his braille chessboard, his hands trembling, as the clock repeatedly went below the ten second mark, giving out a customary beep every time it did so. In all instances, just in time, he would announce his move.

His mother who sat nearby helping him with his scoresheet was almost having a fit. His lower rated opponent offered him a draw and she almost screamed, ”…take it already!” “No” was his emphatic reply.

After a 15 move long struggle, his opponent was staring at a lost position, with his own time running out – forced into resignation.

Darpan Inani with his mother Vimla Inani at Mumbai, 2013 [Photo: Sagar Shah]

Darpan Inani lost his sight at the age of four – a victim of the Steven Johnson Syndrome. Nevertheless, he never lost his vision, for which chess came as a fresh breath of life. In 2010, at the age of 16, Darpan became the youngest National Blind Chess champion ever, the youngest unsighted National Champion across all the sports in India’s history.

He is an idiosyncratic, confident and extremely positive young man, focused on achieving what he desires, in chess as well as life. If you meet him, you will also ‘see’ that Darpan has always possessed wisdom that belies his age. He hopes to become an entrepreneur in the future.

We spotted Darpan Inani as early as 2010!

“Basically there is no other sport except for chess wherein visually impaired can compete on an equal footing with the sighted,” Darpan says. “Other games like cricket, soccer, etc. are played by the ones without sight as well, but they are always visually impaired vs. visually impaired games. We cannot play football or similar sports with the sighted players in its originality. Chess is the only sport which allows me to compete at par with the sighted.”

This documentary also shows the significance of ‘touch’ – it says that the modern materialistic society has forgotten its value. Dutch GM Jan Donner once said that, “in the split second you touch the piece, you’ll see more than you saw in the past 30 minutes you spent studying the position.” The unsighted chess players rely on their ‘touch’ to feel their way forward.

Alternatively, as his mentor Charudatta Jadhav always says: “Four moves in and we are all blind”. He is right, isn’t he? Four moves into a position, a sighted is on par with the non-sighted.

Charudatta Jadhav (right) mentoring his wards

Labeling Jadhav with adjectives would fail to do justice to the man’s value. He works at the TATA Consultancy Services (TCS) and has numerous professional laurels to his name. He is also the one who set up the All India Chess Federation for the Blind (AICFB). For Darpan and his fellow chess players, Charudatta Jadhav is a pioneer who changed the way they live their lives. Yes, he too is completely without sight.

Charaudatta, or as his pupils lovingly call him, Charu Sir, lives in Bombay and is a champion player turned pioneer. He discovered the game of chess soon after he went blind in his teenage years. It gave him confidence and a purpose in life. Convinced of the power of this game, he has dedicated his life to develop chess for the blind. He now dreams of having every visually impaired and unsighted child in India play chess.

Charudatta Jadhav being felicitated by former Indian President, the late Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

This documentary tells the story of how ‘Charu Sir’ goes about converting his vision into reality

The story involves three talented boys, Darpan (middle; 15 years in 2009, now he is 21), Sai Krishna (right; 12, now aged 18), Anant (left; 16, now aged 22) and Charudatta Jadhav. Blind Chess includes totally blind as well as visually impaired players. Darpan from Baroda (Gujarat, India) is completely without sight, Sai Krishna from Chennai (Tamil Nadu, India) is losing his sight, and Anant from Bhubaneshwar (Orissa, India) is totally without sight as well. Then there is Charu Sir. He is the leading and linking figure between the two world junior chess championships that form the narrative arch of the film.

The film opens with the qualifying tournament in Bombay organized by Jadhav in January 2009. His primary aim is to find a new generation of junior unsighted chess players. He is almost evangelical about his task, and firmly believes that in time an unsighted player will become a Grandmaster. The film focuses on the three teenagers, documenting their trials and tribulations as they train to hone their skills on the chequered board, at the same time grappling with economic and emotional pressures.

The film takes us to different social and class milieus in different parts of India. Passion and preparation for chess has to be balanced with the demands of academic studies, for that alone can fetch a job in the future. The documentary goes to their homes and narrates the poignant story each family has to tell. It shows the anxious parents and the frustrated coach of Anant, the small family of Sai including his blind elder sister, the totally dedicated parents of Darpan. Over the three-years, the three boys grow into young men. They develop their chess game as Charudatta analyses their games, strategizes for them and motivates them on.

The teenagers compete in tournaments across Europe. Did Charu succeed in his dream of converting his trio of young lads to champions of the world?

After a heart wrenching journey of hope and despair, thrills and throes, the documentary ends where it began, in Bombay, with Jadhav beginning the process all over again.

SaiKrishna S.T. from Chennai is partially sighted, has regularly topped
his classes in school and dreams of becoming a journalist

Anant Kumar Nayak from Bhubaneshwar dreams of serving in the Indian Admistrative Services

A still from the shooting of the film

These young men clearly know the role chess has played in their lives. Darpan says, “Chess has helped me a lot as it is a very practical game. It is about life – and in life, just as in chess, it boils down to how you strategize and what do you envision for yourself in times to come. Therefore, I think chess has contributed a lot to my decision-making abilities. Besides, it has taught me to stay calm in the most panicky of situations and think in a clear way. In addition, chess has given me a lot of exposure to the world, which I guess would not have been possible, had it been alone for studies, and if chess weren't there in my life”.

The role played by chess in helping Darpan visualize cannot be underestimated. He has been a topper in a school with sighted children for most of his life! Right now, he is in the final three years of the a course in the Institute of Chartered Accountancy of India (ICAI), widely believed to be amongst the toughest courses in this country.

Interestingly, apart from Darpan, both yours truly and our reporter Sagar Shah have been students of the same institute in the past. Personally, I know that the kind of problems and calculations involved in solving the questions in the fields of finance, taxation, cost accounting, etc. are mind-bogglingly complex, the answers often running 4-6 pages long. It becomes almost impossible to hold all the figures, involving complicated transactions, in your head, and in spite of using the calculator one is always forced to resort to doing it on paper. To think that Darpan can do it, despite lacking sight, with the use of a mere ‘talking calculator’ and a scribe to write his exam, is simply astonishing. “Yeah, you need to practice a lot to be able to perform all those complex calculations and entries in taxation, costing, and accounts mentally. Therefore, my scribe reads out the question for me, I remember the figures and then tell him that X will be posted in this account or this adjustment needs to be affected here and so on. Therefore, I solve all the problems in my head first. In comparison to the sighted, I of course need to devote a bit of extra time in preparing for these complex subjects, like if you require four hours to prepare a chapter, I might require 4½ or five hours to study and understand the same. It requires me to indulge in some strenuous and painstaking preparations, but then it all works out in the end and the toil comes to fruition.”

Darpan told us that he uses the Job Access with Speech (JAWS) software to read his text and chess books. This software is a screen reader that reads whatever text appears on the screen. His passion for chess is not limited to playing tournaments. He even used to play blitz online! On being asked how he managed to do that, he said that he made his mother play online, and she would announce his opponent’s moves while he sat beside her and dictated his replies.

Most chess players born in India in the past two decades will tell you that they look up at Indian ace Vishy Anand as their role model. Darpan is no different. He met Vishy in 2010 at a specially arranged encounter – India’s best chess player with India’s best unsighted chess player!

Darpan recounts, “Meeting Anand Sir is one of the best moments of my life so far. I was deeply touched by his humility and his passion for the game. We talked on general things – he inquired about my studies and which stream I would opt for, as I had completed my tenth board exams that year. Then he saw few of my games in my laptop, immediately understanding my problems and advised me on how I should improve my analytical abilities.”

Vishy Anand inaugurated a special preview before the theatrical release at PVR,
Chennai on August 9, 2015. He played a game with Charudatta Jadhav to mark the occasion.

About the filmmakers

Having made many documentaries in the last five years both in UK and India, Ian McDonald has earned a distinctive reputation for genre defying works. Algorithms epitomizes his holistic approach in that he believes that direction, camera and editing are all part of being a filmmaker in documentary. Getting to know his subject over many years through his camera and taking a year to carve out an understanding of that world, Ian has created a challenging film that goes against the grain of popular notions of sport documentaries.

The husband-wife duo behind this work. Producer Geetha J. is keen on yoking theory and practice, and has done pioneering work in the media, academia and film activism. Her move to filmmaking heralded an era of digital expression by women in Kerala (a state in Southern India). Her experience as an independent producer includes six documentaries in UK as well as six short films in India, apart from many years in the television industry. Attentive to the creative sweep as well as the nitty-gritty details, Geetha has been a hands-on producer, nurturing a nascent idea into what Algorithms is today.

Algortihms releases in theaters in India is 21 August 2015.


This one is aimed at a festival audience:

And here is the theatrical trailer:

The theatrical poster

Official film site with full information and pictures

Priyadarshan Banjan is a 23-year-old club player from India. He works as an editor for ChessBase News and ChessBase India. He is a chess fanatic and an avid fan of Vishy Anand. He also maintains a blog on a variety of topics.


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