Manish Hamal made headlines in the year 2008 for being the first Nepali to earn an FM norm. His achievement paved way for an entire generation of Nepali chess players.
In the war of Kurukshetra battle troops were tabulated on the unit of “Akshauhini”. One “akshauhini” comprised of 500,000 warriors, 21,870 chariots and elephants each, 65,610 horses and 109,350 infantry. The ideal ratio, thus, in one “akshauhini” is one chariot: one elephant: three cavalry: five infantry soldiers. Emulating this very structure, an ancient strategic game by name of Chaturanga developed in the Indian subcontinent. It employed the use of small figurines to represent the elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry and was played on checkered boards of eight by eight grid.
With modifications (and of course complications), Chaturanga is what we today call chess. Most people have, at some point in their lives, played the game: in mandatory classrooms, on computers, or family get-togethers. And most of us can at least narrate the different roles that each chess piece plays. Chess champions start off that way anyway. “I started by learning what each piece meant. My father played chess with me to bond better and I never stopped playing,” says Milan Lama, the current U-19 and U-16 national champion of Nepal.
Lama took chess at school and guided by his coach Keshav Shrestha eventually progressed to competitive games. Tournaments after tournaments, Lama won national championships and was awarded the norm of CM (Candidate Master) in the year 2017. “I love the beautiful combination of the chess pieces the most. Strategizing, planning, finding tactics, it’s always a challenge and I love that,” he says.
Lama prefers online training to reading books. “I solve tactics, play blitz, explore openings, watch games of high rated players. I practice for at least two to three hours daily,” he adds.
Conferring an international title (Lama’s CM for instance) on a player is a complex affair. There is a sophisticated system that governs the world of chess. The FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) or World Chess Federation is the chess equivalent of football’s FIFA or Cricket’s ICC. And it is the association that ranks, rates and gives titles to the players according to their various criteria. Beginning with the CM (Candidate Master), the title progresses on to FM (FIDE Master), IM (International Master) and finally the GM (Grandmaster).
Manish Hamal made headlines in the year 2008 for being the first Nepali to earn an FM norm. His achievement paved way for an entire generation of Nepali chess players. “So it is possible after all for our players to rank well and acquire norms was the common consensus then,” says Hamal. People were waking up to the idea that Nepali players could make progresses in chess. “That year alone close to 40 new chess tournaments opened up,” adds Hamal adding that it took him a decade of playing and practicing chess for 8 to 10 hours every day to finally get somewhere.
Since then, Hamal has represented Nepal in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bangkok, Malaysia, South Korea, Turkey, and recently in Australia too. In 2011, he again brought the spotlight on himself when he came second at a major chess tournament in Kolkata in India. He became the first Nepali player to do so.
Having started playing since school and playing with whoever was willing to play with him, Hamal has been involved in chess for 25 years now. He also coaches current young chess players who, he believes, show great potential for the future of Nepali chess. “Nepali players have consistently drawn games with GMs and IMs for years and on occasion beaten them as well. There has always been potential but we have never tapped into it. Besides me, we have had five more FMs, one WFM and many CMs. With our young players I think we’re headed forward,” he says.
Said WFM is Sujana Lohani, the first female FM of Nepal. Hamal coached her himself. Also a national champion, Lohani played her first game in school because her friends kept insisting on it. So she played one game and kept at it. Making it a point to practice for three to four hours every day, she reads books, goes over strategies especially the openings and tries to memorize other games. A bachelor’s student in Kailali, Lohani has been off the chess scene so she isn’t training right now but only last month she won gold in the eighth National Games.
Lama and Lohani are representative of what Hamal believes chess is today – a young player’s ground. He wouldn’t be wrong to assume so either. With young chess giants Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri taking over the world rankings, it’s fair to say that this is an age of young talents (especially since the top four have yet to break into their 30s). Giving credit to their excellent forms, chess experts predict whole sets of world records to be broken this year alone. With computer chess engines, highly discussed game plans and records breaking here and there, this is an interesting time in the world of chess. The same can be said for Nepal as well.
Bibek Thing (CM) recently scored a FIDE rating of 2288, the highest ever recorded by a Nepali. FIDE rating is a chess rating system that basically estimates the strength of the player when pitted against other players. A 2500 plus rating is typical for a Grandmaster. Bibek is also Nepal’s number one rated player. Currently a student in Russian Social State University in Moscow, Bibek moved to Russia four years ago to further his training and develop his game. “I chose Russia because of its excellent chess culture. I wanted to train and play with them,” he elaborates.
Beginning at the age of five, Bibek played his first game against an older neighbor who he won that very game. The neighbor was also the one who explained the game to him. Then he played with his cousin, Himal Lama (also a CM and national player), for years. A former U-19 champion, Bibek has since then gone on to win an open tournament in Moscow where players from 18 countries participated. He placed sixth in Junior Asian championship in Philippines. Amidst the string of his achievements, Bibek is still laboring for the Grandmaster norm he hopes to achieve soon. Becoming a chess coach and promoting chess in Nepal is his dream.
Bibek states that playing chess helps improve focus not just during the game but elsewhere in life too. “Chess is mental sports. It helps improve one’s memory, logics, calculations and cognitive skills,” he says adding that creativity and confidence are other added advantages.
At Russia, he definitely feels he’s getting the training he requires. The resources, technology, books, and software are aplenty. The methods too are different. “You are also exposed to many strong tournaments on a regular basis,” he adds. He also appreciates the chess culture in Russia where he notes everybody loves chess and people send their kids to prestigious chess schools.
Hamal, Lama, Bibek and Lohani all believe that this is the time of great change and progress and not capitalizing on the opportunity would be a mistake. “We only hope people would shift some of their focus to this board game that is great fun and mentally stimulating at the same time,” concludes Hamal.