I remember Sarath Aiya first as a chess player and then as a coach. I know him as a man who single-handedly took chess out of the so-called elite schools or, to put another way, out of the circle of domination by schools such as Royal, St. Thomas’ and Trinity and later Ananda. Dharmaraja was not a ‘name’ in the seventies. It was, after 1980 or so. That’s thanks to Sarath Eriyagama.
In the early seventies, there were only a handful of schools playing chess in Sri Lanka. Apart from those mentioned above, there were two or three big-name schools in Kandy, St John’s and Jaffna Hindu from the peninsula and the occasional ‘outsider’. Today there are hundreds of schools playing chess in all parts of the country. Few will remember and fewer still will acknowledge Sarath Eriyagama’s role in all this.
I am not saying that no one else did anything for chess in Sri Lanka of course, but few can claim to have done anything close to what he did to popularize the game. He coached many schools in Kandy. He took the game to other parts of the country or went out of his way to help uplift the game if someone wanted his assistance. Matale will remember his name. Kegalle too. Kurunegala owes much to him. Other parts of the Central Province too.
He played a key role in setting up the Central Province Chess Association whose activities over the past several decades have unearthed a wealth of chess talent and helped hone the skills of countless players. He was also instrumental in setting up the Schools Chess Association. If I remember right, this was at a time when for some reason there was some tension between the Chess Federation and himself. Anyway, today, that institution, for all its flaws, plays a key role in chess development and is clearly in the forefront of promoting the game in places far away from the capital.
I wonder how many players acknowledge what Sarath Eriyagama did to turn them into who they are. Not many I am sure, because students rarely acknowledge the contribution of teachers. I know for a fact what a thankless task Sarath Aiya has set himself, the abuse he has suffered and the costs that no one bothers to count or compensate.
He has been coaching Kandy High School for 18 years now and I learnt that KHS has been placed among the first 3 in over 200 tournaments since he took over. That alone is enough by way of ‘lifetime achievement’.
Tireless. Ageless. Committed. That’s Sarath Eriyagama. He loves chess, clearly. May his tribe increase!
An Old Royalist