One in a million - Darpan Inani, the strongest blind player of India - Part I
Darpan Inani is the strongest blind player in India. Rated 2053, he has been a bronze medalist at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Belgrade. In 2010, he became the youngest player to win the National Blind Championship at the age of 16 years, a record which still stands. We caught up with Darpan for an elaborate interview. In this first part, Darpan talks about his journey as a chess player, his disability, his struggles and the people who helped him through. Darpan Inani is a player whose story is inspirational. Read on to know more about him and his achievements.
Sagar Shah (SS): Darpan, first of all tell us about your blindness. Was it from birth or did it happen later?
Darpan Inani (DI): I was born as a completely normal child. But at age three, I was afflicted with the Steven Johnson Syndrome, a rare skin condition which affects one to two people per million per year. This was just four days after I had started going to school. I caught fever and later conjunctivitis. Later it was discovered that this was the Steven Johnson Syndrome. This had happened because of an injection called Gentamicin which was given to me. I was hospitalized for around two months and was in the intensive care unit for somewhere between 20 and 25 days. The doctors had said it would be difficult for me to survive. They had given me some steroid and had told my parents to be hopeful. Rashes and blisters began to form on my body and soon the entire upper layer of the skin had peeled off. My body produced a lot of heat. Even my nails had peeled off because of this. My eyes had turned so dry that even my tears would dry out if I cried.
But as days turned to months, the medication began to work and the disease subsided. In about two or three more years, I had almost fully recovered. My skin and nails had regrown by this time but the dryness in my eyes still remained and left me without sight. This blindness had ensnared me in an instant. Within just a day after the reaction had occurred, I was unable to see. And this was complete blindness. I did not even have light perceptions; I couldn’t even see shadows.
Another impact of this syndrome was that it left me with a very badly shrunk food pipe. The esophagus of a normal person is about 14mm wide. But in my case, the esophagus was only 4mm wide. And this was something I suffered from until three years ago. I had to undergo several dilations and now the width of my food pipe is around 10 or 11mm. Now, I have to go for these dilations every year in order to avoid letting it shrink again. But I feel this is much better. Until three years ago, I had to confine myself to a liquid diet. If I was given solid food, it had to be mashed first. I am just glad that it is close to normal now. 10 to 11 mm is much better than 4. I just have to ensure I get the dilations every year. In the case of my eyes, unfortunately, nothing was successful.
SS: How were you acquainted with the game of chess. Who taught and how did your journey begin?
DI: I started playing chess quite late. I was 13 when I started. It was the same with my formal education, actually. I was eight when I started going to school. I had joined directly in the third grade. So once I had settled myself academically, I mean, once my academics were going fine, my parents began to look for some co-curricular activities for me. For this, they once went to the blind welfare association and there they found out that chess could also be played by the visually impaired. They also saw the specially designed chess board.
My father bought it immediately and began teaching me the basics. He taught me everything he knew which was basically just how all pieces moved. He did not know the castling rule or the en passant. Some days after this, there we got to know about a ‘blind versus sighted’ match being organized in Baroda. There, I played against a player called Zaheer Bhatkar. When he castled, I complained. I thought he had made an illegal move. He explained to me the castling rule. I lost that game but found a lifelong friend in Zaheer.
Zaheer was impressed by my zeal. He also helped me find a good coach in Baroda. He is about 14 or 15 years elder to me but we share a very special bond. Usually, when I lose, I don’t like talking to people but after my games, I always make it a point to call Zaheer bhaiya, no matter what the result is. Sometimes, I call him even before I call my dad. He is not very strong – just about 1500 Elo strength – but he is very passionate about the game. And he encourages me like no one else does. He also helps me while with tutorial videos. Since I can’t watch these videos – like the ones by Daniel King, etc. – he helps me understand them. He was the one who guided me when I started and he has been there all the way since.
After one month of coaching, I played my first tournament. This was an open event but they had age category prizes there. I was the only blind player in the tournament and I won the first prize in the under-14 segment. The feeling was incredible. And that first trophy encouraged me a lot to excel in the game. It kindled an interest in the game in me. I thought if I could win at the district level in just one month of training, I could definitely achieve a lot more. Perhaps, if I hadn’t won that trophy, I would not have continued playing with the same interest.
Then, I went on to play at the state level but in the first two or three years, I wasn’t aware of tournaments organized exclusively for the blind or visually impaired. I had always prepared to play against the sighted. This is also why I am so inspired by playing chess. It gives me an opportunity to play and integrate with the sighted players or mainstream chess without any hurdle, without any modification of rules or dispensations. There are, of course, sports like blind cricket and so on. But there, the blind players play amongst one another or the disabled play against disabled. Like I had told you before, in the first two years of my chess, I wasn’t aware of the existence of blind chess. I always played with the sighted and that gave me a moral boost when I realized I can play with the sighted and beat them. There is no other sport which could give me this opportunity.
If chess had not given me this opportunity, of playing on an equal footing with the sighted players, without any modification or dispensation of rules, I would not have clung to chess for so long. But then, chess is about vision, not visibility. Of course, there is time pressure and other things but one could improve on those with practice. What I lack is the apparent visibility, not vision. And this holds true for all blind people in the world. And this we should keep in mind. Chess already illustrates this but we should also keep this in mind for every aspect of life – the difference between visibility and vision.
SS: How difficult was it to improve at chess? Tell us about the struggles you faced to become better at the game.
DI: It was definitely a lot of struggle to improve at chess as a blind player. It’s one thing to play blindfolded and completely another to learn the game being blind. It’s still easier if, let’s say, you lose your sight after you’ve learnt the game. The top players of the world, or even an average player today can play a game of chess blindfolded. But to learn the game being blind has its own difficulty. All the features of Fritz or ChessBase are not accessible for those who are completely blind. Accessibility is the biggest issue.
Secondly, when you’re learning the basics of chess, when you’re solving puzzles, people with complete or partial sight can look at the board or magnify on the screen it if need be. But a completely blind chess player has to have a chess set by his side and he also needs someone to set the position up for him. Initially, I used to solve puzzles from a software called CT-Art. Back then, my mother would sit by my side and set the diagrammed positions up for me.
Even for the coaches, it is not easy to train blind players. It is an unfamiliar situation for them as well. So they, too, at times, are apprehensive as to how they will teach or how their blind student would grasp. In my case, I was refused coaching by a few coaches in Baroda because I was completely blind.
Overcoming time pressure is another challenge. While we do imagine the position in our mind and we don’t touch pieces often, when we are 3 or 3½ hours into the game, it gets very difficult to play with merely 30 or 40 seconds on the clock while our sighted opponents do it more easily. But this can be overcome with practice. Now I am comfortable with playing with little time on my clock.
About how I overcame these obstacles and how I improved, it was through concentrating on my weaknesses and practice. For example, to overcome the time pressure hurdle, I began playing blitz and bullet games on Playchess. My mother used to sit with me and make the moves using the mouse. Now, this is something that I would like to request you. On Playchess.com, I could not make moves using the keyboard. I or any blind person could click on the formula or click on the seek button but I can’t play using the keyboard. If you could add this feature of allowing the moves to be entered with the keyboard, it would be great. No other tweaks or modifications would be necessary as far as playchess.com is concerned.
I think there is only one chess server – I think it is called freechess.org – that comes with winboard, where blind people can play. But I don’t think many good players play there. Not at least as many as the ones you would find on playchess.com or chess.com. So, I think these servers – which are the most popular servers, at least – should introduce this feature which will enable players to enter moves using the keyboard. Like, if I just type in 1.e4 and press enter, it gets played on the board.
When it comes to accessing other software like Fritz, I have had to spend hours to figure out how I could use it with keyboard commands. Zaheer bhaiya had given me the CD of Fritz 8 at that time but since he did not have to use keyboard commands, he did not really know how to use them either. Moreover, nobody in the blind chess community really used these software.
Software like MS Word, there are books and tutorial videos that describe the layout of the screen and teach you how to use keyboard commands. Maybe something similar with Chess software could help a lot of blind players. Also, these commands can be long. Sometimes, I would need to insert two or three commands to do a thing which a sighted person could do in a single click. But, okay, I was curious at the time and I enjoyed this process of exploring and figuring out. But even these limited features are only available in the older versions of the software. Like, the versions newer than Fritz 9 are not as accessible. So I am not using any higher versions of Fritz than Fritz 9 even now. And even in Fritz 9, I could not use all the features but whatever I could use or whatever resources I have, I try to make the most of them.
This is how I improved at chess. I couldn’t devote much time to chess because, as I said, I had started playing at the age of 13 and I had my board examinations in a couple of years after this. And then, Shekhar Sahu sir’s contribution was the greatest in taking my game to the next level. He understood me well. Maybe, I was the first blind student for him but he got comfortable with me quite quickly. He understood my working patterns well and provided me with books and other materials in the format that I wanted.
SS: Who have been the people who helped you in your chess journey?
DI: As I have stated before, Zaheer bhaiya has been the backbone of my chess career. Whenever I want to study from a video, he makes time from his busy schedule to help me. Then, my parents, obviously. They have been very supportive of my chess career. As you might know, my mother travels with me to every tournament I play. I mostly play in open-to-all tournaments and my mother accompanies me everywhere. There were only two events where she had not accompanied me – one was the Olympiad in Chennai and the other was the World Junior Championship for the Blind in Serbia, where I won the bronze medal.
And of course, she sits with me to write my score sheet. So if my game lasts four or five hours, she also has to sit through it beside me. She has been the main force behind all my chess ventures. My father, while he isn’t visibly involved in my chess like my mother, he is very supportive of it. Also, since I don’t have any sponsors, he is the one who is supporting me financially. I need not even mention the emotional and moral support. That just goes without saying. Without the support of my parents, I just would not have able to reach where I have.
As far as my coaches are concerned, my first coach was Mr Mukund Bhat. He taught me the basics and laid the foundation. I learned from him for about a year. After Mr Bhat, I have been under the tutelage of IM Shekhar Sahu and he has been my coach ever since. Very recently, about a month back, I had taken a session from GM Srinath Narayanan. My association with him hasn’t been too long but these are the people who have helped me in my chess journey.
Part II of Darpan's journey will follow soon!