C. Unnikrishnan (left) engages a young player in a game of chess

We first heard about Marottichal from the History Channel. A quiet village, about 20 km away from Thrissur in the south Indian state of Kerala, Marottichal is nestled among fresh green hillocks, waterfalls and canopied trees. Once famous for its bountiful natural beauty, the village is drawing visitors from all over the world for a completely different reason these days — chess.

Chess is believed to have originated in India well before 6 AD. The strategic game was called Chathuranga or the four divisions of the army — namely, the infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariots.

However, in modern times, interest in this strategic board game dwindled in the country. There was a long dry spell until a little boy from Chennai in the late 1980s created the buzz. Vishwanathan Anand, breathed a new lease of life to this spectacular game by becoming the first Grand Master of the country in 1988. Once the stage was set, a host of new players joined in. Soon, children and adults began to take a keen interest and to date, in just three decades, India has produced 55 Grand Masters.

Today, Marottichal is not only proud of 100 per cent chess literacy but is also proud of holding the Asian record for the most number of people playing chess from the same village.

The 52nd Grand Master is, however, very special. Another boy from Chennai — 12 years old Pragnaanandha — became the world’s second youngest Grand Master.

While Indian children are becoming Grand Masters and many more aspire to play it at the international level, one man decided to do something different with chess.

He did not strive to become a Grand Master like other chess players. Instead, he decided to use this game to rid the society of social evils. He came up with the brilliant idea to teach chess to the villagers and the rest, like they say, is history. His name is C. Unnikrishnan. And, this is the man we wanted to meet — the chief architect of the only ‘chess village’ in India.

The drive to Marottichal is scenic — lush green trees on the sides of serpentine roads with oxygen-rich air is almost dreamy. This little dot on the map is a perfect example of beauty with brains. No wonder people are drawn here to watch people play chess at tea stalls and road sides. Bored of waiting for a bus? No problem. You can play a quick game with anyone around.

We reached Marottichal in the afternoon. Catching this place at a sleepy time meant empty streets and closed shutters of the road side shops. We walked around, hoping to spot someone and ask if we were in the right place. A young man approached us. “Is this the ‘chess village’”, I asked him.

He laughed. “Yes. You should probably meet Unni mama [uncle]!”

Armed with directions, we walked along a beaten track to a little house overlooking beautiful hills and a small banana plantation.

We woke up Unnikrishnan from his afternoon siesta. A bleary-eyed man, with ruffled hair and a beard greeted us. He motioned us to wait in the little airy sitting area outside the house. A chess board with its pieces neatly arranged lay on one of the three tables as if waiting for a game to begin. We settled in the couple of blue plastic chairs meant for the players to sit and play and waited for Unni mama to return.

C. Unnikrishnan is a tea stall owner. As a boy, when Bobby Fischer made international headlines, he was smitten by the 64 squares. He not only learnt how to make the “right moves” in chess, but he also took chess to a whole new level. Until now, he has personally coached nearly 700 people to play the game, thus giving a new identity to this village.

Unnikrishnan stepped out wearing a loose shirt and a mundu (a white sarong). The first thing he did as he greeted us was invite us to play the game. My son Sid immediately agreed and a quiet battle began on a board amidst green surroundings and chirping birds.

As he played, Unnikrishnan spoke about his past. While working in Bengaluru, he used to play random chess with his friends during his free time. A few years later, he moved to Kerala and set up a tea shop.

At that time, Marottichal was rife with alcoholism and gambling. Unnikrishnan decided that to wean the men away from alcohol, he would encourage them to engage themselves with something more serious. The plan seems to have surely worked for this wonderful village. On a normal day, people walk in to his little restaurant to not just have tea but also play chess.

But why chess?

“Kids learn chess easily. Any other sport requires a lot of equipment. Chess needs just a board and some coins,” he said and paused to ponder his next move.

He scratched his head, made his move on the board and began again, “anybody can play it, anywhere and at any time of the day”, he said cheerfully.

He’s right, of course. The game of chess transcends not only race, religion and age, but also gender, physical disabilities and location. Most major tournaments have people from every walk of life battling it out on the checkered board because chess is all about sharp eyes, quick and clever thinking.

As the present game progressed aggressively on the board, I went through the many newspaper clippings and magazines that have featured Marottichal and Unnikrishnan.

For the kind of publicity he has attracted, Unnikrishnan is simple and modest. “People from all over the world come to see if it (everyone playing chess) is true. They all ask, like you did, why chess and I say — why not? Chess improves concentration and also teaches you to fight — not just on the board but also fight the hardships of life”, he said.

Some time after the game concluded, Unnikrishnan invited us inside his house. A photograph of Bobby Fischer caught my eye. Next to it were photos from Mission Sampoorna.

The residents of Marottichal are very proud of Mission Sampoorna. On January 31, 2016, 1,000 people from the village played a tournament. The chess boards were arranged on the streets and stretched up to 1.5 km. Unnikrishnan recalled with a tinge of pride, the excitement and all that happened on that eventful day. Film stars and members of the press had flocked to the little hamlet.

Mission Sampoorna was a dream that the villagers trained for 18 long months. Their goal was to achieve 100 per cent chess literacy. On that particular day, the young and old alike battled it out on the 64 squares of black and white.

Today, Marottichal is not only proud of 100 per cent chess literacy but is also proud of holding the Asian record for the most number of people playing chess from the same village.

Marottichal today does not bear any resemblance to its past when men whiled away their time on drinking alcohol and gambling. Of the 6,000 people who live in this village, almost every one knows the game and nearly 4,000 of them play active chess. The village is so famous that it has even got a mention in a Malayalam movie called August Club.

In this era of digital connectivity and short attention spans, playing chess — which requires concentrating on a checkered board for hours together — is no small feat and the people of Marottichal do just that. They play chess to beat boredom and other ills that plague the modern times.

In chess language, Marottichal has just made the opening move and there is still a long road ahead. According to Unnikrishnan, the people have set their eyes on the next record now — Guinness. “That is going to be difficult. The kids have all started playing. We need more funds to set the ball rolling”, he said.

“And, that is something — kids playing chess instead of watching TV or playing video games — that could be a record by itself”, I laughed as Unnikrishnan shook his head perhaps wondering if there is such a threat to the cerebral capital of Kerala.

When we left, our heads were buzzing with names of legendary chess players — Fischer, Kasparov, Spasky. “This is giving back to the society — learn a good thing and use it for the betterment of yourself and others,” I advised my son, when a lady stopped us on the street.

“Who are you?”, she asked.

“We came to see the village and also meet Unnikrishnan”, I told her.

“He is my brother,” she said.

“We also hold the Asian record”, she announced proudly.

“Congratulations,” I smiled.

“Want to play a game?”, she asked.

Well, that is something, visitors should be wary of. If you cannot play chess, then maybe you should take someone along who can!

“Sorry. I am in a hurry”, I said, “maybe next time” and fled to my car.

Sudha Subramanian is a Dubai-based author and freelance writer.