Chess is one of the world’s most popular games, played by millions of people worldwide at homes, clubs, by correspondence and now online as well.
Chess is not merely a pastime; several valuable qualities of the mind are acquired and strengthened by it.
In around 25 countries, chess is taught as a compulsory subject to enhance children’s powers of calculation, intuition and concentration.
The World Chess Federation has 182 members — a number superceded only by the FIFA.
For the last three decades, one name is dominating the chess scene in Pakistan. It would not be wrong to say that Mahmood Lodhi and chess are synonymous in Pakistan. It might surprise many that the most successful Pakistani player in the brainiest of all the sports comes from Gujranwala, a city known for strength sports such as wrestling and weightlifting.
Lodhi has won the national championships 14 times since winning the crown for the first time in 1983; no one else has won it more than four times. His worst position on the national circuit other than the 10th in his maiden appearance in 1982 is the second place (five times).
One would expect a chess veteran of such a stature, now 54, to be carrying a very serious demeanour. It was a pleasant surprise to find Lodhi a very jovial person with an unending supply of jokes and humorous anecdotes.
“My interest in chess began at home. My father, an army officer, used to play with his friends. I was only 12 when I started. My first notable success came when I won Gujranwala’s district championship in 1977,” he told ‘The News on Sunday’ in an interview.
“Next year I was Punjab No 2 and the national under-19 champion in 1979. The debut in the nationals came in 1982. The very next year, I was crowned the national champion for the first time.” About the early family support, Lodhi says, “I got encouragement at home, but at the same time my father gave me a warning. As early as 1982, he told me, ‘You have one year. Excel in chess or you have to do some menial job.’ I got myself immersed in the sport; used to think and practice a lot, all by myself.”
Once he won the nationals in 1983, there was no looking back. Lodhi went on to win the national crown for seven successive years. In 1990, he slipped to the second position. There were no nationals the next two years. He regained the title in 1993. The year 2014 saw him winning the nationals for the 14th time, and also completing yet another hat-trick. Such has been Lodhi’s domination.
It must be mentioned that the nationals have not been held every year due to various reasons: sometimes due to internal scuffles; on other occasions for lack of funds.
From 1994-96, there was no national championship as the officials and players remained entangled in court battles.
Since 2002, the championships have been mostly held biennially.
“I haven’t done anything else. Though I come from a landed family, I have been lucky to earn livelihood via chess. In 1985, I joined the sports department of the Agriculture Development Bank of Pakistan, now called Zarai Taraqiati Bank. My sole job was to play chess. Jamil Nishtar, the then chairman of the ADBP, was a great lover of sports. I stayed there till 1988 when they closed the sports department after the death of Nishtar,” he said.
“After some time, I received an offer from PIA, and remained with them till 2002. That year, I was dismissed along with some other sportsmen, including squash legend Jehangir Khan. I was asked to do some day job in PIA but I couldn’t give up chess.”
Lodhi is currently an International Master. He has come close to becoming Grand Master which is the highest a chess player can achieve apart from becoming the World Champion.
He came second in a Spanish chess tournament in 1997. “There were more than a dozen grand masters competing there,” Lodhi tells of his biggest achievement.
He won quite a few international events in Bangladesh, mostly in late eighties. Another tournament victory came in Dubai.
One of only two International Masters from Pakistan (Shahzad Mirza is the other), Lodhi hopes to become Grand Master in near future. “To achieve this, I have to do well and gain points in international events where there are quality players. Though I have had sponsors in Data Steel Mill and PARCO for the last few years, more is needed,” he says.
Lodhi’s favourite player is Garry Kasparov. Regarded by many as the greatest of all time, from 1986 until his retirement in 2005, the Russian was ranked world No 1 for 225 out of 228 months.
“He added so many variations to the game. I am fortunate to have met the legend. I regard him my spiritual guide,” Lodhi says. “Regarding the present chess scene in Pakistan, I think Dr Naeem Mirza, the secretary Pakistan Chess Federation, is trying hard. But the problem of two parallel national bodies which emerged in 2013 is still there,” he said.
“I have long desired to have a forum for the players. Finally, the Pakistan Chess Players Association (PCPA) was formed in 2012. The aim of PCPA is to facilitate the Pakistan Chess Federation.”
It would be a great boost for Pakistan chess if it can have its first Grand Master. He is hopeful. “I came close in the past. If I compete regularly in international events, the goal can be achieved within next two years,” he says.