Algorithms: Four Moves In, We Are All Blind

A black and white still from the film Algorithms, showing two people playing chess. There is a window behind them. The young man on the left is touching his chess pieces, while the one of the right is holding a chess piece from the top.

Algorithms, directed by Ian McDonald and produced by Geetha J, explores the world of chess players who are visually impaired.

I immediately googled ‘Algorithms, the documentary’ when a friend of mine asked me to watch it. The trailer was a bit slow for my taste and the central theme seemed to be chess – a game I had never cared about. It was the music and some of the beautiful heavy contrast monochrome shots that made me book a ticket, and I am glad I did. The experience of watching Algorithms, directed by Ian McDonald and produced by Geetha J, helped me engage deeply with chess, with the chess player characters, and most importantly, the coaches featured in the film.

I always thought of chess as an archaic game, meant for intelligent, foxy people. I never bothered to understand it. It lacked colour for me, literally and otherwise. In this documentary, Ian McDonald makes chess look like a game-changer in the world of people with visual impairment. Blind chess seems way more exciting than chess, because the vision and the patience required for chess places sighted and non-sighted individuals on par, which may not hold true for all sports. I was also interested in the chessboards used in blind chess, as they are meant to be played by touch – using textures, shapes, and dots.

The three players showcased in the film are endearing characters. What I found most interesting about them were their reactions to stress and the fear of losing. Every time Sai Krishna, the boy from Chennai who started playing chess at 4, lost, the fat teardrops slipping from his eyes would make me go “Aiyyo!” Darpan, the smart Baroda boy with Fast-track glasses, on the other hand, would deal with the situation in a more confident way. He would go to the extent of quitting the game for a couple of days after each loss out of anger, but of course getting back to it later. Anant, the third player, whom we see very little of, has no losses beyond the one major loss – not getting a chance to involve himself further in blind chess. He is from Bhubaneshwar, son of a working-class couple, who cannot be convinced that studies and chess can go hand in hand.

three players

Though the parents of all three players seemed to be immensely supportive, it is the attitude of the coaches that felt truly inspiring. To me, someone who is deeply interested in pedagogy and learning practices, the way they drove the players towards not victory, but improvement, was phenomenal. Mr. Jadhav was especially fantastic when it came to encouraging his students, even when they seemed to me to let him down. He wasn’t faking his encouragement, but listing out realistic possibilities for each and every player. As a visually-impaired man who chose to focus on guiding others in blind chess rather than his own career in chess, Mr. Jadhav is immensely far-sighted, and his vision for blind chess is rich and colourful.

Does the film gets its politics regarding disability and representation right? First, it does raise the question: “Wait, a film on chess players who are visually impaired? How will they watch it once it is done?” McDonald answers this concern on his website: “The paradox of using a visual medium to image those without sight that weighed heavily on us lessened with the complete trust we gained by being with the community through the years. Four years later and with over 240 hours of footage, we began to compose the first ever feature documentary on Blind Chess.” I also discovered a short film on McDonald’s YouTube channel: titled “Out of our Hands”. Unlike the documentary, this short film is colourful, and suggests the start of this project by the filmmaking couple McDonald and Geetha J.

I was still confused about the politics of the images in Algorithms. If it was shot in colour, why was it turned monochrome? Was there anybody from the visually-impaired community involved on the other side of the camera, in the process of film-making and image-making? Where are the female chess players? The only blind girl shown in the film was Sai Krishna’s sister. Did she not play chess at all? And what about other factors that encourage or discourage sports based on mental strength as opposed to physical strength? These the questions I had remain unanswered.

What I did gather though, is that McDonald has tried to capture moments of togetherness that make the film a meaningful representation of a neglected world. As Mr. Jadhav reminds the players before a game, “Our competition is not amongst ourselves, we are competing with the sighted.” Though McDonald’s style is observational and fly-on-the-wall, he manages to go into the depth of various debates. For example, he twice tackles the debate of whether partially-impaired people who use regular chess boards should be allowed to compete in the blind chess competitions or not.

Watching Algorithms made me want to understand chess better, to revisit ideas of winning and losing, to learn from teachers like Mr. Jadhav who put so much energy into the big picture of blind chess.