KOCHI: Viswanathan Anand is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Indian chess . "The next best is possibly PT Ummer Koya ," says former Kerala chess champion MB Muralidharan .
On the face of it, that is quite an outrageous statement because unlike Vishy, Koya wasn't a king of the game. If anything, he was a pawn - about his modest beginnings in Kozhikode, up until his youth, when he performed, among many menial jobs that of an areca-nut peeler, hotel waiter and a water-pump operator.
But as in the game, it is the pawn, the humblest of the pieces on a board that has powers so unique that it can gain promotion, to even the most powerful member of the game - the queen - once it reaches the eighth and final rank. Though the rules allow it, it is quite an arduous journey to accomplish and only a pawn with some serious ambition, courage, vision, and luck can manage it. Ummer Koya had all of it, and that is how he became the vice-president of FIDE , the world chess body, and held on to it for a decade (1996-2006).
On Tuesday, when their adventurous former official, aged 69, breathed his last, to a prolonged illness, at his residence at Panniyankara in Kozhikode, north Kerala, FIDE remembered Ummer Koya as "a cornerstone for the development of chess in his country."
The All India Chess Federation, where he had served as joint secretary (1985-89) and secretary-general (1989-2005), reciprocated: "Indian chess achieved glorious heights during his tenure. He was instrumental in establishing age category chess championships at the national and world level. He set standards in the organization of chess tournaments in India."
Ummer Koya was a visionary who saw great potential for chess in India and himself, and left no stone unturned to achieve the goals.
He was loved - for making chess big in India, by getting major events to the country (India hosted - the World Chess Championship in 2000, Chess World Cup in 2002 and four world junior championships in 1993, 1998, 2002 and 2004 - during his term), introducing big prize-money events at a time when such tournaments were few and far between, and, arguably, for promoting chess literature. He was the founder-editor of AICF Forum, a monthly magazine that was popular among chess players.
India No. 2 Pentala Harikrishna was one of those big players that benefitted from a spur in the national chess activity during Koya's tenure.
"He worked very hard to improve Indian chess by arranging coaching camps, exposure trips for juniors and seniors, world juniors in India, round robin events and many open events. He had a vision to make India a super power in chess. I personally benefitted from various coaching camps with GM (Yevgeniy) Vladimirov. Among other strong events, World juniors which was held in Kochi in 2004 was very important for my career," said Harikrishna.
Women's chess also received a shot in the arm when Koya was at the helm. Former national women's champion,
Nisha Mohota, believes, Koya "raised the level of chess and chess players in general during his tenure."
"He conducted chess tournaments, including women nationals in star hotels. He introduced exposure trips for Indian team and gave players a chance to go abroad and compete with stronger players of the world..." Nisha wrote in a Facebook post.
Ummer Koya's contributions weren't limited to adminstration, he famously introduced the "Koya System", a tiebreaker method that was adopted by FIDE in round-robin tournaments.
Then there was the Ummer Koya, who was loathed. At least three state associations, including Tamil Nadu, the home state of veteran administrator Manuel Aaron, who is also regarded as Koya's mentor at the AICF, had moved the Madras High Court when Koya was then president Kirsan Iljumzhinov's trusted lieutenant at FIDE. They accused him of 'misfeasance and malfeasance'.
Meantime, he had also become unpopular among a set of players. Koya had infuriated major players in the country like Dibyendu Barua, Abhijit Kunte, Surya Shekhar Ganguly etc with a couple of questionable revisions. Hiking player registration fees and more notoriously, levying a 10 percent cut on all prize money earned by players, were some of the bad moves that he made. Even Vishy Anand, who was a global superstar already, was reportedly upset.
The voices of dissent grew louder and with court cases in motion, Ummer Koya's influence had waned, after 2006. He, however, continued the legal battle, and remained optimistic of a comeback, but that was when the grim reaper came calling.
Ummer Koya had lost both his parents when he was still a kid, he was raised by his grandparents and it was his grandfather's passion for 'chathurangam' (ancient strategic game considered the precursor of chess) that had rubbed off on him.
He leaves his wife Najma Koya, daughters Nasiya Nona and Nadiya Nona, both named after iconic Georgian player Nona Gaprindashivli, who was the first woman Grandmaster, and son Nigel Rahman, aptly named after British GM Nigel Short, who incidentally, sits in the chair of the Fide vice-president, that he once adorned.