Stranded in Budapest

by Frederic Friedel
5/24/2021 – You are a very talented young player taking part in a tournament in Budapest. After it is over you learn that your scheduled flight home to Goa, India, is no longer available – the first one to be cancelled due to the outbreak of the pandemic. So you are stuck in the Hungarian capital, and still are, over a year later. So what do you do, how do you manage? Here's one way Leon Mendonca and his father are coping: with a Pentecostal violin performance!

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So how do you manage when you, a fourteen-year-old super-talent, are stranded in Budapest for over a year? Well, play more tournaments: Leon played in a string of events, gained 150 Elo points and, at the age of 14, became India's 67th GM.  

A typical tournament photo: guess who is the opponent everyone fears!

Leon also met and was inspired by the famous Judit Polgar...

Just when it seemed possible to at last fly back to India there was a terrible surge in Covid  infections back home, and it seemed wiser to remain in the fairly safe Budapest. Leon and his father Lyndon settled down in an Air-BNB, making friends with the owner of the apartment, and getting used to life in Hungary. I stayed in touch with the two, often chatting in Skype, watching the rambunctious young boy I knew from the Kramnik training camps mature into a more staid young grandmaster. What follows are a couple of the things I witnessed.

One was with a Hungarian business-man named Joe Kurta, the CEO of "Call a Jet" - a private jet charter company. He was looking for a chess trainer, and Lyndon and Leon answered his ad. Joe offered them a generous hourly fee, but the two did it for free. 

It was a wonderfully convivial first session. In the meantime Leon goes over to Joe's residence alone, for dinner and a chess lesson for his new friend.

Adventures on the violin

This is a story I must share. It begins with the Kramnik training session in France, where the 13-year-old had turned up with a violin, on which he regularly practised. At the time I gave him sheet music for him and his piano-playing sister Beverley, and during the second training camp 2020 in Chennai he gave us an impressive recital.

Leon was stranded in Budapest without his beloved violin. He decided to buy a used violin, and found one in the household of Csilla Bogdan, daughter of a concert violinist. Her father had given it to her some years before, but she had concentrated on the flute and was willing to part with the violin. She offered the fairly high quality instrument to Leon at a special price – and a chess lesson for her son Kristof.

Leon and Kristof, in the home of the Bogdan family, sister Alice in the background

Now comes the part I want to tell you about. Recently I introduced Leon to Professor Vera Spillner, a seriously talented young lady, who is quantum physicist and string theorist, speaks many languages – and plays the violin at concert level (listen to her playing Ave Maria by Schubert). She is also an avid chess amateur, and we have done many chess activities together.

Professor Vera Spillner, engaging in Covid-relief activities last July 

Leon and Vera hit it off well in their Zoom encounter, and an agreement was reached: Leon gives Vera a weekly lesson in chess, and she gives him violin lessons. They started with a Giuoco Piano lesson for her, and refining Leon's Ave Maria by Gounod. I listened in for a while and found it marvellous how she was able to improve his stress, intonation and fingering in a Zoom session.

One of Vera's recommendations was: go into an empty church and play a bit there. In the vaulted area you will see what a violin can really sound like. Leon followed her advice, but not in an empty church. 

This weekend was the Christian High Holy Day of Pentecost, which is celebrated on the 50th day from Easter Sunday. It was celebrated in St. Stephen's Basilica, one of the  largest church building in Hungary.

To this ceremony Leon was invited, to play Gounod's Ave Maria for the congregation. His sister Beverley played Bach's First Preludium (on which the melody of French composer Gounod is superimposed), and this was transmitted via Lyndon's mobile phone into the Basilica. And Leon played the violin for the people taking holy communion. 

Listen to the 15-year-old Indian chess grandmaster playing a classical western piece for a Hungarian audience – quite something, right?


Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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