Chess Moves: The Indian Behind the ‘Indian Opening’

How a now-forgotten ‘Brahmin in the mofussil of Calcutta,’ unbeaten on his turf in the mid-1800s, went on to change the royal game

Chess Moves: The Indian Behind the ‘Indian Opening’

Sometime in 1851, a local chess player in a pastoral hamlet outside Calcutta in pre-independence India chose, as his first move in the game, to move his black pawn just one square forward, instead of two.

This was “faulty style,” according to the British players of the time, since pawns are allowed to begin with a double-step. Yet, over 170 years later, when the 16-year-old Indian grandmaster Dommaraju Gukesh (better known as “Gukesh D”) played the very same opening against the Italian-American grandmaster Fabiano Caruana at the 2022 Chess Olympiad in India, the teenager won his eighth consecutive game, defeating the higher-rated Caruana with an opening sequence of moves known today as the “King’s Indian.”

Contained within this period of nearly two centuries is a fascinating but forgotten story of how this so-called “Indian” opening got its name. The story begins with a distinguished British chess player, practicing as a barrister in 1840s Calcutta, desperate to be challenged by a strong player in India. A colleague informed him that a “Brahmin in the mofussil (province) of Calcutta” was unbeaten on his turf. Thus began a rivalry at the Calcutta Chess Club from 1848 to 1860 that would — though none knew it at the time — end up bequeathing a formidable arsenal of “Indian” defenses to the world of chess.

The chess principles exhibited by this unknown player, Moheshchunder Bonnerjee, against well-trained European opponents in the 1850s were dismissed at the time as “suspicious.” Yet they went on to define the contours of the so-called “hypermodern school” of chess seven decades later in post-World War I Europe. From the advent of hypermodernism in the 1920s up to the present day, Bonnerjee’s innovative ideas about attacking the central squares from afar using the bishops have only grown in acceptance. Over the decades, world champions and grandmasters have polished his signature tactic of allowing the opposing white pieces to take control of the center squares with pawns, only to then attack them with their black bishops and knights.

It is now 175 years since Bonnerjee’s first recorded matches appeared in British chess publications of the time. Today, the ancient sport of chess is enjoying a renewed vogue in India, thanks in part to the holding of the 44th International Chess Federation (FIDE) Chess Olympiad in India’s “chess capital,” Tamil Nadu, in August 2022. Despite a growing pantheon of Indian grandmasters and international masters, over the past three decades, the sport has largely remained associated with just one person in India — five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand. Bonnerjee’s 19th-century exploits are all but forgotten in the pages of time.

A vital driving force behind any sport’s popularity is its ability to tell stories — tales of hope, resilience and success. Cricket in India achieved this with an “against all odds” victory during the 1983 World Cup in the United Kingdom. The cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle has famously narrated how the story of the Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, considered one of the greatest in the history of the sport, is essentially the story of India’s growing confidence following the economic liberalization of 1991. If chess is to similarly step into a new era of popularity, penetration and power in India, it will have to do so through stories.

The current decade has brimmed with young prodigies like Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh D, Rameshbabu Vaishali, Arjun Erigaisi, Divya Deshmukh, Raunak Sadhwani and Nihal Sarin. While their exploits on the board are scripting stories that will propel the sport into the future, India’s past already contains a treasure trove to remind us of its rich legacy.

The story of the “Indian” opening in the world of chess is a prime example. Opening repertoires are often named after the person who invented them or the region from which they originated — hence the Sicilian Defense, the French Defense, the Berlin Defense, the Ruy Lopez and the Grunfeld Defense. An exploration of the origin of the Indian Defense reveals a story that could someday make for a Bollywood blockbuster.

Chess enjoys the unique distinction of producing more literature than all other mainstream sports combined. Apart from its over-the-board enjoyment, it also offers a wealth of purely theoretical, aesthetic and scholarly delights. A journey down the rabbit hole of chess nomenclature reveals intense duels over who gets to have a new opening or a so-called novelty (a move not previously regarded as conforming to textbook theory) named after them. To have a novelty named after you means chess immortality.

The “Indian” opening was not always acknowledged as such. Simply put, the tactics swam against the conventional wisdom set forth by 19th-century European chess masters. The prevailing theoretical concepts, developed by pioneers such as Wilhelm Steinitz and Siegbert Tarrasch, laid down a somewhat monolithic vision of how the game should be played. “Always try to control the center squares with your pawns,” said one of the commandments. Bonnerjee, however, chose to control the center with his distant bishops and knights instead.

The story’s first protagonist is John Cochrane, who hailed from Scottish nobility, served in the Royal Navy and later went on to become a barrister in 1822. A distinguished chess player in Britain, Cochrane was the highest-rated player in the U.K. when he moved to India to pursue his legal career in the 1830s. He returned to the U.K. in 1841 after his first stint in India and spent two years in his homeland playing his best matches from 1841 to 1843. He then returned to India for a second time in 1843. It was during this period that he started searching for strong players in the region.

While detailed historic evidence is patchy, a tapestry of letters, publications and anecdotes supports the story that, during his time in Calcutta, Cochrane was told about local chess players residing in the outskirts of the city. He is recorded as having met Bonnerjee around 1848. Little is known about Bonnerjee’s early life, occupation or address, but his games with Cochrane over a period of 12 years, from 1848 to 1860, remain immortalized through the British barrister’s regular letters and writings to London.

In his book “A Century of British Chess” (1934), the chess writer and historian Philip Sergeant quotes from a letter written by a member of the Calcutta Chess Club in 1851: “The only player here who has any chance whatever with Mr Cochrane, upon even terms, is a Brahmin of the name of Moheshchunder Bonnerjee. Of this worthy, Mr Cochrane has himself remarked that he possesses as great a natural talent for chess as any player he ever met with, without one single exception.”

The Calcutta Chess Club, which boasted a roster of about 40 members in 1848, had Cochrane as its president. According to the letter, Cochrane chanced upon “a local philidor” who had “never been beaten.” When he then lost to Bonnerjee, this club member brought him to Calcutta to meet Cochrane, requesting him to play against the local champion.

While chess was the subject of wide-ranging intellectual parlor discussions, serious inquiry and analysis across the European continent, in India the game enjoyed a rather leisurely disposition. Played with unique Indian rules, chess or “shatranj” was more a social hobby than a furiously competitive exercise. Bonnerjee, in that sense, was a serendipitous discovery. “Until the early part of last year, Moheshchunder had never been 20 miles from his native village in the Mofussil, as the interior of India is designated. He had never played with a really good player, and was scarcely acquainted with all of the European rules of the game,” the letter goes on to state.

While we do not know what his profession was, we learn from other correspondence that Bonnerjee may not have been a person of means and led a rather simple life. In 1852, The Illustrated London News described him as “a Brahmin of considerable skill,” adding, “We are sorry to hear, through recent communication from Mr Cochrane, that indisposition has for some time incapacitated Moheschunder from pursuing the game.”

Nonetheless, Bonnerjee would go on to play hundreds of games against Cochrane throughout the 1850s, losing many but winning some.

“After his return to India Cochrane sent home frequent specimens of his play for publication, and kept himself more constantly before the world; his opponents were mostly natives, the best known of them being Moheshchunder Bonnerjee and Saumchurn Guttack,” wrote the Chess Players Chronicle in its 1878 obituary for the celebrated chess master. Cochrane’s correspondence from 1848 to 1860 regarding his games with Bonnerjee in Calcutta informed players back home of a peculiar opening strategy deployed by the Indian players, which the Calcutta Chess Club member’s letter described as “faulty styles of opening, of which indeed [Bonnerjee] is not even now cured.”

The key difference in the playing styles of Cochrane and Bonnerjee arose on account of the latter being accustomed to the rules of Indian chess. Among half a dozen variations between the European and Indian rules, one in particular stood out for its impact. In European chess, a pawn may travel two squares in its first move, whereas under Indian rules it could move only one square. This minor but crucial variation, untested in the West, laid the foundation of what went on to become the Indian Defense.

The most interesting consequence of playing the single pawn move was two-fold. First, the opening contradicted the established wisdom of taking control of the board’s central squares with pawns. Second, the follow-up to the pawn move was to bring the bishop to a position known as “fianchetto.” In this, the bishop moves to the second file, controlling the longest diagonals and attacking the center from afar. This would later evolve into a revolutionary idea, giving birth to what came to be formally defined as the school of “hypermodern chess” more than 75 years after Bonnerjee played it. As recently as last year’s Chess Olympiad, we saw the fianchetto played in the King’s Indian Defense by Gukesh, who brought his black bishop from its home on the last file to the second-last, controlling the longest black diagonal on the board and attacking the central squares, exactly as Bonnerjee envisioned.

At what point were these novel openings first referred to as “Indian”? The first mention of the phrase “Indian Opening” was observed in “The Chess Congress of 1862,” edited by J.J. Lowenthal. In a game between two renowned chess players of the time, Valentine Green and Louis Paulsen, white advanced its pawn just one square, rather than two. Commenting on the peculiarity of this curious move, the editor wrote in a footnote: “Our efforts to trace this move to its inventor, by examining the various works treating upon the principles of the openings, have been fruitless. We find no mention made of it by either ancient or modern writers. Mr Green, however, informs us that this opening is common among the native players in Hindostan. We propose, therefore, to name it ‘The Indian Opening.’”

At the same time Bonnerjee and Cochrane were playing in Calcutta, future giants of the sport like Paul Mophy in the United States, Louis Paulsen in Germany and Wilhelm Steinitz in Austria were making their first important strides in competitive chess. As their stature grew worldwide and their styles were closely scrutinized, Steinitz — who reigned as world champion from 1896 to 1904 — also earned recognition as a chess theoretician.

As the world transitioned to the 20th century, so did chess. Steinitz and his contemporaries left behind a significant body of theoretical principles that were then further expanded by the likes of Siegbert Tarrasch. Soon after, following the end of World War I in 1918, the chess world witnessed the formal contours of a new school of chess — the “hypermodern” school — that bore resemblance to the principles first exhibited by Bonnerjee. The chess.com website states that, in the early 20th century, hypermodernism challenged the long-held idea that the center needed to be occupied by pawns in the opening. The author explained that hypermodern players, instead, demonstrated that the center squares could be successfully controlled indirectly from afar by other pieces like the bishop.

Proponents of this new school included such masters as Aaron Nimzowitsch, Richard Reti, Savielly Tartakower, Ernst Grunfeld, Efim Bogoljubow and Gyula Breyer. Nimzowitsch, a Latvian-born Danish master, was considered among the top three players in the world in the 1920s. He wrote the highly influential chess theory book “My System,” which set out the contours of hypermodernism. Grunfeld, an Austrian grandmaster and prolific chess writer, was widely held as a master of openings and contributed richly to the literature on opening theory. According to Conrad Schorman’s article in ChessBase, two popular openings in particular, the Nimzo-Indian and the Grunfeld-Indian — both quintessential hypermodern defenses developed by Nimzowitsch in 1914 and Grunfeld in 1922, respectively — had already been played in the 1850s by Bonnerjee against Cochrane.

The stray leaves of novelty that first gusted in a breeze from Calcutta appeared to have built up into a global galeforce. “The Indian Defenses … were largely taught to European players by the example of Moheschunder and other Indians, to whom fianchetto developments were a natural legacy to the game,” wrote Sergeant in 1934, affirming the influence of the Indian style on hypermodernism.

The imprint of the Indian Defense system is writ large on this school, thanks in good part to Tartakower, who remembered and recognized Bonnerjee’s games against Cochrane and accorded the nomenclature “neo-Indian” to one of his games in “My Best Games of Chess 1905-1930” (1952).

Over the last half-century, defenses of the Indian system have become commonplace. Apart from the Nimzo-Indian and the Grunfeld-Indian, the Bogo-Indian was named after the Russian-born German grandmaster Bogoljubow, one of the world’s top players in the 1920s. Additionally, such openings as the King’s Indian, the Queen’s Indian and the Old Indian have been played countless times.

From elite grandmasters vying for the world championship to upcoming talents at local tournaments, chess players all over the globe have moved pawns, knights and bishops across the board in the same way as Bonnerjee did in 1851.

Little could the unassuming Moheshchunder have known that his Indian-rules opening would go on to be replicated in some of the most famous and celebrated encounters of all time. Bobby Fischer’s classic match against the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War in 1972 saw the Nimzo-Indian being played. In 2000, the Grunfeld-Indian made an appearance at the World Championship bout between Vladimir Kramnik and Garry Kasparov. As India is almost certain to dominate world chess over the coming decade, perhaps Bonnerjee himself will at last earn his rightful pride of place in the annals of chess history.

This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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