Away from spotlight, Gukesh and Arjun make the right moves

When the followers of Indian chess were eagerly awaiting Nihal Sarin (17 years) and R. Praggnanandhaa (16) to break new grounds, Arjun Erigaisi (18) broke into the top-50 and D. Gukesh (16) followed by moving into the top-60.

Climbing up the ladder: Currently, in live rankings, Arjun Erigaisi (right) is 49th, while D. Gukesh is 54th.   -  B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

When the present points to a bright future, it’s a sign of some good work of the past that is set to bear fruit. This surely holds true in the context of Indian chess. Riding on the strength of some quality training, a bunch of teenagers are delightfully threatening to gate-crash into a party of the elite club.

If names like Nihal Sarin and R. Praggnanandhaa have caught the imagination of the nation with some stupendous results leading to their rise, two other youngsters have quietly sneaked past this better known duo.

When the followers of Indian chess were eagerly awaiting Nihal (17 years) and Praggnanandhaa (16) to break new grounds, Arjun Erigaisi (18) broke into the top-50 and D. Gukesh (16) followed by moving into the top-60.

READ: 'We have a good chance in the Olympiad'

Currently, in live rankings, Arjun (2688) is 49th, Gukesh (2683) 54th and their race to reach the coveted rating of 2700 is well and truly on. In comparison, Nihal (2643) recently slipped out of the top-100 while Praggnanandhaa (2642) is 114th.

Raring to go: “I am super excited to play in the Chess Olympiad. I have played in a few team events, nothing comes even close to something as big as this. I don’t want to think too much about the past results. I want to enjoy the Olympiad, without pressure. I am keen to give my best,” saya Arjun.   -  B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

 

In the upcoming Chess Olympiad, the presence of this quartet has already heightened expectations. Arjun, ranked fourth in the country, will be part of India ‘A’ while Gukesh, Nihal and Praggnanandhaa, ranked fifth, seventh and eighth will turn up for India ‘B’.

With B. Adhiban and Raunak Sadhwani completing the India ‘B’ line-up, there are many chess enthusiasts who expect this young combination to play fearlessly and cause a few upsets. Of the lot, Arjun’s rise has been phenomenal. Rated 2567 on July 1, 2021, he vaulted to 2681 on June 1 this year in published ratings.

This year, in classical chess, Arjun won the Challengers section of the Tata Steel event at Wijk aan Zee, became the National champion in Kanpur and annexed the Delhi International Open to add to his exploits in the shorter formats.

Late last year, Arjun truly caught the attention of the world’s elite when he won the Tata Steel rapid crown ahead of favourite Levon Aronian in Kolkata. The following day, when the two-day blitz segment was to commence, he was given a wild card to replace an indisposed Adhiban. Arjun continued his form and finished second-best to Aronian against whom he lost in the Armageddon after failing to make the most of advantages position in the blitz games.

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“I think, all the work that I put in during the pandemic is showing results,” says a soft-spoken Arjun as he looks forward to playing his part for India ‘A’ that also has Vidit Gujrathi, P. Harikrishna, S. L. Narayanan and K. Sasikiran.

“I am super excited to play in the Chess Olympiad. I have played in a few team events, nothing comes even close to something as big as this. I don’t want to think too much about the past results. I want to enjoy the Olympiad, without pressure. I am keen to give my best.”

Gearing up: “It’s a great honour for me to represent India. It’s happening in Chennai and that makes it even more special. I just want to enjoy the experience. I’ve played a few strong team events but the Olympiad is obviously the biggest. I just want to score as many points as I can for Team India. I just want the team, and myself, to do really well,” says Gukesh.   -  B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

 

One turns to Gukesh, who shares a close bond with Arjun, for his take ahead of his maiden Olympiad appearance.

“First of all, it’s a great honour for me to represent India. It’s happening in Chennai and that makes it even more special. I just want to enjoy the experience. I’ve played a few strong team events but the Olympiad is obviously the biggest. I just want to score as many points as I can for Team India. I just want the team, and myself, to do really well.”

Like Arjun, Gukesh, too, has shown insatiable hunger to make up for the time lost due to the pandemic. After finishing second best to Arjun in the National championship and the Delhi International Open, Gukesh did one better, thrice in succession in Spain.

But just before the triple success, Gukesh had a heart-breaking last-round loss to eventual champion Praggnanandhaa in the Reykjavik Open. But Gukesh, who replaced Praggnanandhaa as the country’s youngest Grandmaster in 2019, bounced right back to win the La Roda tournament, the Menorca Open and the Sunway Formentera crown in succession.

Before touching upon the string of recent success, Gukesh revealed how excruciating it was to miss out on the Reykjavik Open title after slipping to defeat from a clearly winning position against Praggnanandhaa.

“After the game, actually, nothing went on in my mind. I was completely blank. I was only thinking about that one move I missed. In fact, I’m still thinking about it. But yes, that was really bad.

“The hour after the game remains one of the most terrible, terrible times in my life so far. I had my father with me. Usually, my father gets upset (when I lose). But looking at me, he just felt really sorry for me. He was trying to console me, which almost never happens. He was trying to console me, but I was just crying… like for one hour. The thing was, I had to play the next game in the La Roda tournament, just a day after this one.

How did Gukesh deal with it?

“Actually, there was an interesting story that really helped my mood get better. In the 2006 Reykjavik Open, even Magnus Carlsen had a similar incident. Leading the tournament, he was playing in the final round against Ahmed Adley. He was completely winning but blundered horribly. He lost the last game and finished sixth (behind P. Harikrishna). And I was told that Magnus also cried. So I learnt about the story and that made me feel better. And gradually, I started thinking about my next job, planning my strategy from then on. I always knew I was in good form. After a point, I just started believing in myself again and won the last three tournaments.”

These two prodigies, like a few others from their peers, have consistently shown that they don’t believe in going for quick draws. The previous generation of players would agree to draw a game in an equal position. But thanks to the apparent influence of Carlsen, many younger players are willing to grind it out even in dry and dreary positions.

One was tempted to ask how come they keep looking to play for a win instead of following the course charted by some of their famous predecessors and be happy with half a point.

Arjun goes first. “Yes. I think it’s Magnus. We all grew up watching his games. When I was younger, I used to try and make draws with white pieces when playing against higher-rated players. As I started to mature, I started to play for a win.”

Gukesh elaborates the point, “Magnus and his influences have played a part. A huge part of my attitude towards draws also comes from all of my coaches, starting from my very first coach, Bhaskar sir to my current coach, Vishnu sir. They have always been against ‘killing’ the game and it just became part of me, listening to all my coaches. Even when I’m not in the best shape, I try to play…, play the game and not kill the game, as much as possible. Of course, sometimes when you’re in a situation where, if you take a draw you win the tournament, I mean, those kinds of situations, I’m fine with taking a draw. But killing the game, just because you’re not in a mood, it’s really something that I am not in favour of.

Again, unlike most players from the past, the younger generation is showing some consistency in going all out for the title. Irrespective of the field or their rating, they play as serious title-contenders. Has it got anything to do with a shift in attitude of the players as compared to their seniors?

“I am not sure if that’s a change in attitude between generations,” says Arjun, and makes his point by giving an example from his recent joint runner-up performance in the eight-player Tepe Sigeman round-robin tournament in Malmo, Sweden.

“This year, I don’t think there was a big strength difference (among the players). I started well by winning two from two rounds and then to finish where the way I did..., was not good. Against Jorden (van Foreest), I missed a clear win when I had 42 minutes and just spent 15 seconds before making the crucial move. So, I definitely hope to learn from this experience.

“In this event, it was not so much about rating but more about who would be in the best shape and keep scoring. After my good start, Hans (Moke Niemann) beat me in the third. I played the next round as if I was feeling the hangover of the previous game and did not play my best (against Nils Grandelius). And missed my chance against Jorden. Maybe, if I had cashed in on these two opportunities, I could have forced a tie-breaker. But that did not happen.”

Before these boys returned to their training drill under Boris Gelfand at the Leela Palace in Chennai, they responded to the questions about favourite players from chess and, other than chess, their favourite female sportsperson, what kind of joy does chess bring them and finally, what these good friends thought of each other.

If Gukesh’s favourite is Carlsen, “because he is the best,” Arjun prefers Ding Liren, because he felt “sorry” for the Chinese when it appeared that he would almost miss on the chance to play in the Candidates.

If tennis star Novak Djokovic is Gukesh’s pick for his favourite non-chess player, Arjun goes with footballer Ronaldo. The difference in choice extends to the female non-chess players. Arjun picked Saina Nehwal while Gukesh named P. V. Sindhu.

And what do they find as the most fascinating aspect of chess?

“Chess is the only competitive thing that gives me immense joy when I win,” declares Arjun. Gukesh puts it differently, “I love everything about chess. But one thing that always amazes me is how complicated it is. Chess has been played for so many centuries and still no one has understood it. I mean no one is even close to understanding it.”

Finally, on a lighter note, what do these teenagers like about each other?

“I like Gukesh because he is handsome,” says Arjun. To which, Gukesh without wasting a moment points out that Arjun did not answer the question but adds, “I like Arjun because he is not handsome” and both boys have a laugh! Before signing off, Gukesh is quick to add, “Arjun is a very nice guy… but has no sense of humour.” And that triggers off another round of laughter!

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