Death march to victory

In which the Welsh women’s captain takes a day off to explore the ‘real’ India – and quickly wishes that he hadn’t

Michael Healey

The Welsh women’s team play the tuk-tuk gambit: Khushi, Sarah, Liv, Kim and Hiya in an auto-rickshaw

Last night Sarah Kett, head of delegation, wife of strong Welsho Tim and technically my fifth player, offered to captain today’s game instead of me. I grabbed this chance to have half a day off and get some extra sleep. Sarah suggested I go for a swim. However my own crushingly stupid decision-making let me down, as so often both in life and in chess.

Today’s Namibian opponents seem much better than their flimsy ratings. Liv points out their coach is quite strong (stronger than someone else anyway), so we work on his openings in addition to theirs. Let’s hope every other team are prepping Orangutans, Chameleons and Borgs like crazy! Again they’re in strange order, Khushi playing the highest rated on four. They’ve dropped “Jolly” on one. No jollies today.

I wave the teams off, then head out in my freshly laundered outfit, proselytising to the people of Eggatur-Chennai the vital message of my black T-shirt – “MEH”. Sneaking past security, I pop next door to the mall with four tasks – camera memory card, mouthwash for all the sweeties, check out the mall, be somewhere other than the hotel or the venue.

First, the computer and tech shops: none has camera memory cards. Hmm – this may be an issue in the modern smartphone world. Another reason for me to despise the things. In the Spar supermarket I confirm there is no alcohol to be had, find my mouthwash and head to the till. They ask for my mobile number. I look confused. They examine the back of the mouthwash bottle. Suddenly it dawns on me that the thing will contain alcohol. Another member of staff comes to help read the ingredients. I’m going to be denied mouthwash, aren’t I? I mean, it’s one excuse for the dentist. Hold on, it’s all OK, and my card goes through for whatever the local price of my illicit purchase was. Tick.

I wander around the mall. It’s mally. There’s a food court, a Starbucks, an arcade, various clothes and home shops, but nothing else looking likely. The place is wonderfully lit, spacious and aesthetically pleasing, although the escalators are not the simplest (or working). 

I bump into three ladies from Team Jersey, including the mother of Daisy Carpenter who remembers me from the flight out, and chessette e-celeb “Lula“. Looking her up now I realise she is another Orangutanger! There is so much we could have discussed … whole schools of potential theory lie unmined.

I congratulate them on their draw with Sudan yesterday, and on the men’s result – they went down 1.5-2.5 against a strong Tunisian team, three of whom I played many years ago in a Maltese IM norm tournament. Saris are on the menu for the Jersey women – should I be buying my female friends back home saris? Or the men? Can I add clothes smuggling to my various occupations? I’d have to lose some chess books from the suitcases, but saris are pretty light, no?

Returning to the hotel I mention my camera memory card failure at the front desk. This is a mistake. A triple question mark blunder. After much discussion, they send me out across the road with a helpful man. Crossing an Indian three-lane main road is not so simple. There’s a lot of stuff coming at various speeds. We make it safely across, and thus begins my own special odyssey. The first phone shop says no, but suggests the next one up the road. Who suggests the next one up the road. Who …

Much like Tooting or any London high street, a lot of shops are phone shops. There’s the occasional snazzy café or restaurant, but there’s a hell of a lot of phone shops. We march on, baking under the 2pm sun. The road is hot. The sun is hot. I think of the Richard Bachman (Stephen King’s darker half) short story “The Long Walk”. The journey is endless, feet follow feet, and no phone shop is going to have a camera memory card. We are told of a magical place beyond the bridge yonder, a larger shop that may have one …

I encounter my first Indian beggar child. She quickly makes her way to my side and lightly grabs my arm, making noises you’d have to be inhuman not to pity. My guide shoos her away. As a tough tube-travelling Londoner, I’m regularly cold-hearted to beggars. But this little girl is something else. Maybe it’s because this isn’t my country. 

Shopping Indian style: a market in Chennai. Photograph: Prashanth Pinha

We reach the legendary pedestrian bridge which once seemed a heat mirage. Underneath, in the shade, a family have set up camp. A dog, distended nipples showing, is chased off by a motorbike. How much of this side of India we are missing. We reach the air-conditioned electronics store, my own Scheria. They tell us of another shop across the road. Of course Odysseus must reach another island. Let us hope the gods do not punish these modern helpful Phaeacians too.

My pilot guides us back across the road, where a stallholder asks me how much memory I want. He actually has one! Several! It works! And not even any suitors to massacre. I reach for my weapon, trusty card.

Declined. They must have stopped it after the mouthwash. I can do nothing but laugh/cry and apologise to my guide. Tears won’t come, because I’ve sweated them all out. The memory card comes out of my camera, and we leave to return to the hotel. In utter embarrassment I try to make conversation, which results in discussion of Indian politics. Other than Gandhi and Modi, I have no clue who these people are. Sarah suggested a swim – in my current state I probably could have fooled her. 

It is possible the heat has led to some further deterioration of my physical and mental well-being. A shower and I collapse. Stretching for the laptop, the girls are doing OK. Khushi seems to be playing an exciting pawn sacrifice seen in McShane-Lalic 2003, attempting her own improvement on the England board two’s efforts. I don’t remember prepping Khushi for this, but I am very tired. Maybe I’m more of a genius than I thought.

The others look to be doing OK, all having positions much as we discussed this morning. I manage a nap. Reanimating, Hiya has won a nice, clean game. Perfect, I’m delighted for her first (non-default) win. Liv, whose opening position Stockfish disliked, has very sensibly swapped off to negate her small disadvantage. She outplays her opponent as the pieces come off. 2-0. 

Khushi is having a whale of a game, Mr Fish’s evaluation bar is getting super-excited. She’s played a blinder, a really good, classical, pieces-to-the-centre-working-together crush. Khushi’s first win too, and in under 30 moves!

Kim’s opponent, clearly prepped to the eyeballs, plays a sensible opening, but White has a definite edge. A few inaccurate moves and the advantage evaporates, but now Black is starting to play. Once again I suspect Kim has had to face the secretly strongest player on two, despite a 1200 rating. Black is using her ponies in a distinctly Healeyish manner, as in our morning analysis of Healey-IM Large (Kingston Invitational best game prize-winner, thank you very much). 

Black’s advantage keeps creeping up, and Kim misses little chances to equalise a complex endgame. Finally some pawns come off, and the task looks easier. Kim has managed her time as well. A draw. 

So we win the match – without me! Was it because I wasn’t there? Was I holding them back, or distracting my girls? Or was my pointless death march under the Indian sun actually suffering on their behalf, the universe aiding them to balance out? Something about karma? Perhaps now is the time to build the new MEH religion.