Saturday, 1 May 2010

Dark tales

The Cu Chi tunnels of South Vietnam on the outskirts of Saigon remains firmly etched in my memory. It was one of the highlights of my visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2003 when I went there as a member of the Malaysian contingent to the SEA Games. The other highlight was the visit to the War Museum in downtown Ho Chi Minh City itself.

It's estimated that the tunnels at Cu Chi is some 75 miles long. These tunnels are themselves part of a much larger and complex network throughout Vietnam. During the American/Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975 (the Vietnamese call it the American War while the Americans call it the Vietnam War) the tunnels were used by the Viet Cong guerillas for hiding during combat with the American army, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters.

Today, the Cu Chi tunnels is a war memorial park and a popular tourist attraction. It is possible for tourists to crawl around in the safer stretches of the tunnel system but of course, with an experienced guide tagging along. The original tunnels were very narrow - but big enough for the small-sized Viet Cong guerillas to crawl through - but the tourist part has now been enlarged to accommodate the larger size of western tourists. The tunnels are still mostly in pitch darkness but there are now a few low-wattage light bulbs installed at regular intervals in the tunnel.

Crawling in the pitch dark tunnel is not for everybody. I tried it but had to surrender my attempt at the second exit point. What happened was that as I went deeper and deeper into the tunnel, I felt a sudden pang of anxiety and gloom. It wasn't only the enveloping darkness; I could feel the tunnel walls and ceiling closing in, hemming me inside with no possibility of going backwards but only forward. From a semi-crouching position, I was soon on my knees and crawling. I was gasping, as if I couldn't breathe properly. It wasn't a pleasant sensation. In the distant, I could see a dim light but it seemed miles away. Eventually, I reached the light and decided at that point to clamber out of the tunnel. Boy, was I relieved to see daylight!

I'm relating this story because on Friday, the world chess championship match between defending champion Viswanathan Anand and challenger Veselin Topalov was plunged into momentary darkness. It wasn't the venue of the match itself but much of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. So for about 15 minutes or so, the fifth game of the match was played in semi-total darkness until a power generator was wheeled into the hall.

It may sound like a funny incident but it was not. When you have two players fighting for the highest title in the world, the last thing they'd need is a disruption to their games. However, both of them weren't in the least affected by the power failure. Chess players, especially those at their levels, would be able to analyse their games without sight of the board. There's such a thing as blindfold chess. I have a story about it here, so you can go and have a look at it later.

This also wasn't the first time that a power failure had affected a high-profile match. Way back in 1971, the (then) American grandmaster, Bobby Fischer, before he became the world champion, was playing the Candidates final match in Buenos Aires with Tigran Petrosian, a former world champion from the old Soviet Union and the lights went out during their very first game. The clocks were stopped while the organisers tried to restore the lights. In the meantime, Fischer continued sitting at the board in semi-darkness, pondering his move. Petrosian objected that his opponent shouldn't be thinking about the position while the clocks were stopped. The referee asked him to leave, but Fischer said he preferred to stay and that the referee could re-start his clock. Any player would prefer to play with lights on but Fischer was in trouble in that game and didn't want to pull himself away even if it meant analyzing in the gloom. Fischer won that game and eventually won the match with Petrosian to challenge Boris Spassky for the world chess crown one year later. The rest, as they say, is history.

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