The serene beach town of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu sprung to life, draped in the festive vibes of the just-concluded 44th Chess Olympiad. The mega tournament outside Chennai was an opportunity to not only showcase India’s prowess on 64 squares but also to promote Tamil Nadu as India’s chess capital. With 187 countries participating, the playing venue resembled the frenzy of a carnival and the busy silence of a science laboratory all at once.
While Chennai can justifiably be described as the chess capital of India, it may not be the only one.
Almost 2,700 kilometres away from the sunny Coromandel coast of Mahabalipuram is Amritsar; it is famous for many reasons but chess isn’t one of them. For the global chess community, however, Amritsar is the hub for the world’s finest wooden chess pieces.
The Punjab ‘Repertoire’: A Novelty in Chess
Novelty refers to a new move or idea in chess that was previously unknown in chess theory. The handful of chess-piece manufacturers in Amritsar take pride in asserting that no one in the world can match their unique artistry in designing, shaping, and crafting wooden chess pieces – a different kind of novelty in the chess world.
World class chess pieces fly every year from Amritsar’s workshops to the the US, the UK, the EU, Africa, and Australia. Globally, chess tournaments are played exclusively with wooden pieces.
Chess manufacturers, however, rue that there is no awareness about the Punjab city’s identity as the world’s chess factory, nor the support they need to keep thriving.
It isn’t theoretically possible for a king to be under check simultaneously from three opponent pieces. But for chess set manufacturers, a triple threat is precisely what they’ve had to endure over the last two years:
First, an acute shortage of labour owing to the lockdown-induced migrant labour crisis
Second, a sharp rise in air freight and production costs
Third, a reduction in export incentives from the government
COVID-19 Lockdown: A ‘Discovered Attack’
In chess, a “discovered attack” occurs when a queen, rook, or bishop is found to be attacking an opponent piece after a pawn moves out of its way. Similarly, for Amritsar’s manufacturers, it was only after production came to an abrupt halt due to the COVID-19 lockdown that they realised the looming threat triggered by the lockdown – the migrant labour exodus.
Rishi Sharma, a third-generation chess-set manufacturer and exporter, runs the Chess Empire. Sharma, who along with his brother, runs a factory on Dhapai Road said that the exodus of migrant labourers in March and April 2020 made it nearly impossible to complete existing export orders.
“During the lockdown, we requested the workers to stay back and we were also paying them but they chose to go home as there was a sense of panic. For 6-8 months we faced acute labour shortage,” said Sharma, whose grandfather started the business in 1962.
“We had below 50 percent labour left with us. Some came back after two months, some after four, and some after six months,” Sharma added.
Aditya Chopra, among the top Amritsar-based manufacturers and exporters of wooden chess sets since 1970, has about 60-odd families associated with his factory production. Crafting wooden chess pieces from Sheesham Wood-rosewood and boxwood is a specialised task that only a few are proficient in, and replacing artisans isn’t easy.
"The chess industry is a cottage industry as we specialise in handcrafted production and not having the skilled workers does make a big difference, as it takes time to train workers to craft the pieces."Aditya Chopra, manufacturer and exporter
It usually takes between two to four months to complete an order but the COVID waves meant inevitable delays and a long backlog of orders. “March to June 2020 were months of little to no production,” he said, adding that “even though production had resumed by September, it took some time to get back to speed. When you don't make goods for four-six months, it is a long sabbatical for hand-carved items,” Chopra added.
Punjab ‘Knight’ Riders
What is it that makes crafting chess pieces such a complex task? In world-class chess sets, the value of a set is determined largely by how just one piece is made – the knight. Crafting a knight is a difficult task, one that only a handful of artisans with years of training can shape perfectly by hand.
“We treat carving knights as a work of art. While a pawn may take a few minutes, a single knight may take anywhere between two hours to a couple of days. Which is why it is a cottage industry. We also outsource the task sometimes to master artisans when it is a very specialised knight,” Sharma said.
The Amritsar Gambit: Sacrificing Profits
In chess terminology, a ‘gambit’ refers to a pawn sacrifice used to gain an advantage in space on the board. The Queen’s Gambit is the most famous example but the King’s Gambit, the Smith-Morra Gambit, and Benko Gambit are other popular tactical moves.
What the chess manufacturers endured in the months following the first wave resembles a gambit on the board. In this case, however, businesses had to sacrifice profits in order to gain goodwill and maintain relationships with buyers.
“Some of the buyers were pretty understanding,” Chopra says, adding, “They’ve been buying from us for over 15 years so we have a relationship as well. It is still a niche market so we all worked together and managed to sort delivery issues out through mutual coordination.”
“As deadlines piled up and working hours gradually relaxed by the government, the exporters had to work round the clock to meet deadlines. Once they allowed us to operate full-time we were working almost 15-16 hours,” said Sharma.
During Christmas, when the gifting season starts, there is more pressure than other times. The orders start coming in around September. Working backbreaking hours to fulfil pending orders wasn’t the toughest part for the manufacturers though.
The next step proved to be a greater challenge, another ‘discovered attack’ they weren’t prepared for. The air shipping costs had shot up three times post-pandemic, causing a major dent in the exporter’s total costs.
“We faced massive hikes in air freight. The charges were almost double but we had to fulfil our orders. Since we had committed a certain price we could not increase the price. We have to fulfil our commitment regardless of emergencies,” said Sharma.
Aditya Chopra faced the same issues with his consignments but said this was a loss they had to bear, keeping in mind the fact that they had old relationships with the buyers that they couldn’t let suffer.
According to exporters, commercial shipments were being sent at Rs 150-200 per kilogram pre-COVID. After the lockdown, prices for US air shipments shot up over Rs 500. For Chopra “shipments that cost us Rs 50,000 in pre-COVID times jumped to Rs 2 lakh by the end of 2020.The US prices were even worse. It shot up from Rs 350/kg to Rs 700/kg. Naturally our profits took a beating.”
En Passant: Two Squares Forward but Back to Square One
En Passant holds a curious place in chess laws. A peculiar move whereby a pawn that surges forward two squares at once can be captured by an enemy pawn on the horizontally adjacent square. Similarly, while a spike in demand during the lockdown brought cheer, labour woes and slashing of export incentives meant the opportunities couldn’t be exploited.
“We started getting bulk orders during the first COVID wave, boosted greatly by the web-series Queen’s Gambit but we struggled to meet the demand,” The Chess Empire’s Rishi Sharma said.
However, exporters say that the environment has been rendered more challenging owing to changes in export incentive policies. Chess manufacturers fall under MSME, a sector that accounts for 40 percent of India’s international trade. With rising input costs and eroding profit margins, the slashing of export incentives have dealt a major blow to the chess set manufacturers’ bottomlines.
"As far as subsidies are concerned, that is zero. In fact, the minimum MEIS (Merchandise Export from India Scheme) we used to get has been reduced from 5 percent to 1.5 percent. This is impacting us as we are speaking. The handicrafts and sports sector has been hit majorly because of that."Aditya Chopra
The other long-term struggle for manufacturers has been about creating greater interest in the domestic markets. While their entire production is export-based, Sharma says if they were to depend on the Indian market, they wouldn’t be able to sustain profitably.
“In handcrafts, we face a lot of difficulties in finding new labour. There is little interest in learning this craft. If we stop exporting and only cater to the Indian market we will be out of business in 6 months,” Sharma said.
He appeals to the government to step in and promote awareness within India so that “people, especially the next generation, get to know that Amritsar is the hub for the world and supplying to all corners.”
A New Indian Opening
In chess an “Indian” opening is characterised by black opening with its knight in response to white’s d4 pawn. Popular openings such as the Nimzo-Indian, the King’s Indian, and the Bogo-Indian all deploy the black knight to the f6 square.
A question that arises is the kind of impact the Olympiad can have. Bharat Singh Chauhan, secretary of the All India Chess Federation (AICF), is confident that this tournament will help chess grow.
“Actually, we have been promoting chess silently. We have been working at the grassroots level,” Chauhan said, adding, “The Olympiad will definitely impact in a big way. We expect a huge number of new players. I think it will grow like cricket in our country after the Olympiad.”
According to Chauhan, the COVID-19 period, leading up to the Olympiad, has had major challenges for the AICF as well. “The economy is bad due to COVID-19 and still we were able to organise it in four months and get money from the government and the corporate sector.”
Will the Olympiad have an impact on chess set manufacturers as well?
Chauhan says there is an expo centre at the Olympiad and many vendors have booked their spaces there. “Actually that is not our domain. We cannot make any professional dealings with anyone, but wherever we get the chance, we promote our own industry,” he added.
The manufacturers, however, aren’t betting on a boost from the tournament yet.
“Every time there is a big tournament and chess is in the news, things tend to sell. Maybe in the southern states it helps, but the moment you come to north India, there is hardly any awareness at all. There is no hype or help,” Aditya Chopra said.
Both Rishi Sharma and Aditya Chopra, who are carrying forward the legacy of their families as well as of Amritsar have one fervent wish – to see their products sell in India.
“Even though we are completely an export house, sometimes, when Indians enquire, we are ready to sell at discounted prices,” Chopra said, adding, “We do it to create awareness and interest as it is still very low, and we fervently wish that chess grows in India.”
Amritsar’s prowess also lies in its ability to craft the most intricate knights. They hope someday the fingers that make these knights will get similar recognition as the ones that move them on the board.
(Sushovan Sircar is an independent journalist. He tweets @Maha_Shoonya.)