In troubled Sri Lanka, chess dreams threaten to turn to ashes
Just days before Colombo began to burn, Sri Lanka’s top-ranked chess player, Isuru Alahakoon, decided to flee the capital to his hometown of Kandy. A Navy officer, his intelligence sources had warned him of an impending crisis, and he immediately requested leave. “The situation was already bad, but before it got worse, I decided to go home on leave and asked senior officials for leave,” he says.
There was uncertainty. The latent conflicts were such that he did not know if he would lose his job on his return. The unpredictability was such that he didn’t know if he would reach his hometown unscathed. The chaos was such that he did not know if his house in Colombo would be ransacked. But he knew one thing. “If I stayed in Colombo, I wouldn’t be able to focus on chess and my preparations for the Olympiad would fall apart. I had worked so hard over the past few months thinking about the Olympiad,” he said.
The road from Colombo to Kandy was risky. “I can’t ride a bike, it was too risky and I didn’t know if I had enough fuel. I could not travel by bus, as public transport did not travel long distances. Finally, a couple of my friends organized a car lift with people going to Kandy,” he says.
The three and a half hours were strenuous but a trip he says he will never forget in his life. It was a trip that made her feel life closer than ever. “You could see hundreds of protesters in the streets, people who lost their livelihoods, people who had no food or money. You could see long lines in front of the ration stores and of course, in front of the gas pumps. I felt grateful that I didn’t at least go through all of that,” he says.
The backdrop was relatively peaceful at home. At least when he looked out his window he could see the hills and the greenery and not the smoke and the fire. But the stories of his Colombo teammates would upset him. He couldn’t pretend to be strange to what was going on around him. “It was hard for them to concentrate with all these things going on around them. There were frequent power cuts which meant we couldn’t meet online and play games. Real meetings were difficult as we all lived in remote places and traveling was a real headache. Power cuts also meant the internet went down and they couldn’t play online games,” says- he.
With the general inflation, data also became expensive and they would save everything for failures. No random browsing or wasted data. Isuru wouldn’t even broadcast cricket matches – he was an aspiring cricketer and switched to chess in school out of frustration at not being picked into the team.
But amid their larger concerns, failures took a back seat. Ranindu Dilshan Liyanage, who had recently crushed India’s chief executive D Gukesh and is considered the brightest young star on the Lankan horizon, had spent countless hours in the scorching sun buying fuel or vegetables. “After a while, I got used to it. Obviously it was difficult, but one thing that chess taught me was survival. You can only be a winner if you go through trials. This crisis has made us all tougher and I hope that will be reflected in our games as well. The Olympiad was a motivation for us, something we could all look forward to,” he says.
Isuru then ran into another problem. He had to return to Colombo for a visa appointment at the Indian Embassy. Again, friends helped him reach the capital in time. At that time, Colombo seemed like a different city, a place of his nightmares. “There were troubles, there were tears. The scenes were heartbreaking,” he says.
The sights and sounds made him fear for the future of chess and for himself in the country. “As such, it is difficult to get sponsors. Now that would be even more difficult. There would be fewer tournaments in the country and we would have no money to travel abroad for tournaments, which means it would be difficult to accumulate points and meet the standards,” says Isuru. , whose dreams of completing IM standards have been blocked.
Gradually, he fears, the situation would degenerate into an existential crisis. “After one point, I don’t know how we’re going to survive. Maybe we would have to leave the country. For me it’s relatively good, I’ve been playing for a while and I have a job. But what about young people? Would they be encouraged to play sports? I doubt it,” he asks.
Or those young people who have adopted the sport but would have to abandon it in the race to find a livelihood. Like Ranindu, who aspires to be his country’s first grandmaster and has now amassed 2200 ELO points. Isuru becomes a philosopher: “There would be light at the end of the tunnel.” But later admits he’s not too hopeful of seeing those bright days anytime soon.