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This Delhi teenager’s big chess ambitions include teaching the game to blind children

Devanshi Rathi coaches visually-challenged students at a training institute in New Delhi.

Devanshi Rathi coaches visually-challenged students at a training institute in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

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Through her Project Checkmate, Devanshi Rathi hopes to coach more students

I was hyperactive as a child, so my mother enrolled me for chess so I could put my energy into something constructive.” Devanshi Rathi says this calmly, not even cracking a smile. It is difficult to picture this quiet 18-year-old who speaks in measured tones and responds thoughtfully to every question as a rambunctious child. She was eight then, she says, and chess was popular in school.

She learnt the basics with the school coach, and did well in tournaments. A year later, the coach recommended she train with an international-level teacher. Her family retained the services of International Master Vishal Sareen and she progressed rapidly, representing her school in team and open events, then in Delhi State tournaments, and quickly from there to rated championships.

By 2010, she was playing ratings championships in Asian age-group events. “In 2015, I played in the Commonwealth, and again in 2016, when I won a bronze in the under-18 girls’.” She delivers this information only in passing; she’s keen to talk about something else.

When Rathi was 14, in a tough grandmaster tournament in Delhi, she played against a visually-challenged boy, and lost. “It was an eye-opener for me,” she says, conscious of her choice of words. She knew what chess had done for her, and she now knew it had opened doors for this lad; so why couldn’t it help other youngsters like him?

She soon found there weren’t enough resources to suit the needs of the disabled. “Coaches don’t want to spend so much time with them. Even associations working with the visually-challenged to promote chess don’t have trainers. There is a lack of people from the able-bodied community wanting to help, and not much support from corporate sponsors. So visually-challenged players lose their ambition.”

Rathi began through a local NGO, training underprivileged children with visual disabilities, organising small tournaments and quizzes for them, taking them to local tournaments; she applied methods her coach used with her, inculcating independent thinking, not rote work. A friend put her in touch with the National Association for the Blind (NAB), which had a lot of chessboards, but no trainers. So she began Project Checkmate with NAB students. She works with a few of the more promising children closely, with regular one-on-one coaching, and has taken them to rated tournaments for exposure. She has also written a couple of small books for the children she teaches, in formats they can easily access.

She pays for everything with her tournament winnings and cash gifts from family members on festive occasions. What about hanging out with friends, shopping, other teenage pleasures? “I always liked to do things on my own. I can stay for hours in a room, just thinking. Anyway, my chess took up so much — I was literally on the road every day — I didn’t get too much time to socialise. But the friends I made in school have stuck with me, and they know my personality. If I go out, it’s for lunch or early dinner: that’s about it.”

Self-sustaining

Her family is well-off, and she is aware of her privilege — getting the best education (when we spoke she was preparing to leave for college in the U.S.), being able to afford anything she wants. She also sees herself as a custodian of what they have built, perhaps becoming part of it. She has also inherited, she says, a desire to give back: both sides of the family have a tradition of philanthropy.

But she realises her initiatives cannot depend on an unending supply of money from her alone: it must become self-sustaining and scalable. She encountered the concept of social entrepreneurship while researching the U.K.’s Queen’s Young Leaders Award last year. (She went on to be one of the runners-up for the award this year.) Earlier this year, she registered the Devanshi Rathi Foundation as a non-profit. She’s frank about being a novice. “I don’t have a sustainable model. In Berkeley (where she now studies), I will be able to interact with professors, understand how to develop this. I’ll take some time, but anything you do in this space takes time, which I’ve understood just with registering the foundation.”

She will also continue to teach. “It will be tough in the beginning, what with a new place to adjust to, but I have already planned out the next few months with them. I’ll be chatting with them online, and I’ve started a chess league at NAB. The students I teach one-on-one will also teach other children. And when I’m back, on breaks from college, I’ll do more sessions to make up.”

She scaled back her own chess a bit last year — from four to five hours a day to “only two” — partly because she had her Class XII exams, but also to give time to Checkmate.

But she still has personal goals. “I don’t want to give up my hopes of being a title player, at least a WCM (the world chess federation’s Woman Candidate Master ranking), if not more. But that’s a long way off. I still have time.”

peter.griffin@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 5:01:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/this-delhi-teenagers-big-chess-ambitions-include-teaching-the-game-to-blind-children/article25194888.ece

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