Stranded in Budapest, Indian chess grandmaster Leon Mendonca seeks solace in the violin

You are a very talented young Indian chess player taking part in a tournament in Budapest. Once this is over, you learn that your scheduled return flight to Goa is no longer available – the first to be canceled due to the outbreak of the pandemic. You have therefore been stranded in the Hungarian capital since March 2020, and you still are, more than a year later. So what are you doing? How do you manage? Here’s one way Leon Mendonca and his father face: with a Pentecostal violin performance.

So how do you do when you, a 14-year-old super-talent, have been stuck in Budapest for over a year? Well, play more tournaments: Mendonca starred in a series of events, earned 150 Elo points, and became the 67th Grandmaster of India.

Just when it finally seemed possible to return to India, there was a terrible increase in Covid-19 infections at home, and it seemed wiser to stay in a fairly safe Budapest. Leon Mendonca and his father Lyndon moved into an Airbnb, befriended the apartment owner and got used to life in Hungary.

I stayed in touch with the two, chatting often on Skype, watching the exuberant young boy I had known from Kramnik training camps grow into a more composed young grandmaster. The following are some of the things I have witnessed.

One was with a Hungarian businessman named Joe Kurta, CEO of Call a Jet, a private jet charter company. He was looking for a chess coach, and the Mendoncas responded to his announcement. Kurta offered them a generous hourly rate, but the two did so for free.

Léon Mendonca and Joe Kurta.

Violin Adventures

It’s a story I have to share. It starts with the Kramnik internship in France, where the 13-year-old presented himself with a violin, on which he trained regularly. At the time, I gave him sheet music for him and his pianist sister Beverley, and at the second 2020 training camp in Chennai, he gave us an awesome recital.

Mendonca was stranded in Budapest without his beloved violin. He decides to buy a second-hand violin and finds one in the house of Csilla Bogdan, daughter of a concert violinist. Her father had given it to her a few years before, but she had focused on the transverse flute and was ready to part with the violin. She gave Leon the fairly high-quality instrument at a special price – and a chess lesson for her son Kristof.

Leon Mendonca with Hungarian chess legend Judit Polgar.

Recently, I introduced Mendonca to Professor Vera Spillner, a very talented young woman, who is a quantum physicist and string theorist, speaks many languages ​​- and plays the violin at the concert level (listen to her play Ave Maria by Schubert). She is also a big chess lover and we have done a lot of chess activities together.

Mendonca and Spillner hit it off when they met Zoom, and a deal was struck: Mendonca gives Spillner a weekly chess lesson and she gives him violin lessons. They started with a Giuoco piano lesson for her, and refining the Ave Maria by Gounod. I listened for a while and found it wonderful how she was able to improve her stress, intonation and fingering in a Zoom session.

One of Spillner’s recommendations was: go to an empty church and play a bit there. In the vaulted area, you will see what a violin can really look like. Mendonca followed his advice, but not in an empty church.

Last weekend was the great holy Christian day of Pentecost, which is celebrated on the 50th day after Easter Sunday. It was celebrated in St. Stephen’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in Hungary.

During this ceremony, Mendonca was invited to play the role of Gounod Ave Maria for the congregation. His sister Beverley played First Preludium (on which the melody of the French composer Gounod is superimposed), and this was transmitted via their father’s cell phone in the basilica. Léon Mendonca played the violin for the people who communicated.

Hear the now 15-year-old Indian chess grandmaster play a classic Western piece for a Hungarian audience – something, isn’t it?

Frederic Friedel is the editor emeritus of the ChessBase News page. He studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, where he obtained a thesis on the theory of speech acts and moral language.

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