Kerala has long enjoyed a reputation of giving the country quality athletes, footballers and volleyball players. With every passing generation of parents, priorities have changed and the once-famous supply chain of talent has taken a hit. While the focus of most children stayed firmly on sporting disciplines blessed with better profiles, two young chess players from the State have quietly firmed up their places in the country’s top-10 list.

At 24, S. L. Narayanan has done extremely well to stay ahead of the nation’s teen-brigade that includes Nihal Sarin, 17, among others.

In terms of their National rankings, Narayanan and Nihal hold the sixth and seventh spots. As a result, they get to play for India and make their Chess Olympiad debut at Mahabalipuram, Chennai, in July.

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Raring to go: “I’m very excited to get a chance to represent India in the Olympiad. It’s such a great opportunity for us to have a chance to play against so many strong players,” says Nihal.

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Nihal, better known than Narayanan for his results in the chess world, goes almost unnoticed when in Thrissur, his hometown. In his own admission, he is not offered any special privilege. Same is the story of Narayanan, who stays about 275 kms away, in Thiruvananthapuram.

With hardly any demand on their time in “God’s own country”, these exceptionally talented and hard-working players spend time with family and resume their training in earnest.

Their journey to join the country’s elite players took contrasting routes. During Narayanan’s early chess-playing days, if his parents made huge sacrifices to let their son stay in pursuit of excellence, today, this player supports his chess through the prize-money earned and through the hard-earned salary of his elder sister.

In contrast, Nihal’s meteoric rise got him the attention of the sponsors and he continued to get the right breaks with his steady growth. Despite coming from the same State, armed with almost the same playing strength and placed next to each other in India’s rating list, they are hardly in each other’s company. In fact, they spent more time together during the Indian team’s Olympiad preparatory camp in Chennai than they normally do on the circuit. But it was all worth it since, besides other teammates, the camp was under Israeli Grandmaster Boris Gelfand. Team’s mentor Viswanathan Anand spent half a day with the members and discussed many chess aspects. He illustrated many points with the help of some of his games.

“They shared their wisdom with us. We, in turn, tried to rectify what is wrong in our thought-processing, etc. Anand Sir and Gelfand Sir were showing typical mistakes, which we would have also made but the magnitude for us would have been greater. Anand Sir gave us an idea, from his perspective, so that we could learn from it without actually entering that stage (in tournament games). We don’t have to commit such mistakes to learn, when we could learn directly from his experiences. This could hasten our progress, I think,” said Narayanan, about how it was for him to learn from the two veteran Grandmasters.

Nihal was quick to add, “He (Anand) showed a lot of mistakes that we could have easily made (during tournament play). It just explains the thought process. And it’s good to know that we are not the only ones committing these mistakes.”

Members of India’s B team — Nihal, D. Gukesh, B. Adhiban, R. Praggnanandhaa and Raunak Sadhwani — clearly lack the experience of playing in team events. To top it all, expectations from this young team are high with Adhiban, 29, being the oldest of the lot.

Nihal agrees and explains, “I am not very experienced but I think it’s best to just play your own game. You just give your best. If everyone does the same then it does not matter. I think it is more important for the team members to share a good rapport. We all share an excellent rapport since we are all very good friends. It’s a great feeling.”

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Hoping for medals: “I think our India ‘A’ team is balanced. We have already started working together. I think it could, individually, help the players as well as work towards team bonding, a lot. Of course, we are hoping for some medals,” say Narayanan.

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Narayanan, part of India A, has a different take on the Indian teams.

“With age comes experience. Therefore, I think it adds a different feeling to the team. So I think our ‘A’ team is quite balanced. That will motivate me, in some sense. At the same time, among the younger players (in India B) almost everyone is a fighter. They lack experience as compared to the ‘A’ team members. But everyone is improving very fast. So, for them (India B), it could be an acid test.”

Elaborating further on India A, Narayanan said, “It feels really good. Like I said before, we have experienced players. We have Vidit, Harikrishna, and Sasikiran. At the same time, Arjun (Erigaisi) is there, plus me. We have already started working together. I think it could, individually, help the players as well as work towards team bonding, a lot. Of course, we are hoping for some medals.”

Looking ahead to their Olympiad debuts, playing for different teams, Nihal and Narayanan appeared thrilled.

“I’m very excited to get a chance to represent India in the Olympiad and it’s great for Indian chess that it’s happening here. There are so many prodigies in India right now, more than any other country. And it’s such a great opportunity for us to have a chance to play against so many strong players,” said Nihal.

For Narayanan, “It’s a great opportunity. Personally, for me, I haven’t yet played in any Olympiad. Even at an event of such a calibre, I haven’t played. Therefore, it gives me a sense of excitement that it’s happening in India, and some sense of responsibility, as well. For the upcoming generation, too, it will be motivating to see the top players in India.”

About the specific preparations closer to the Olympiad, Nihal said, “I don’t really know how we can prepare specifically for the Olympiad. If you’re playing a good tournament, then you’re preparing for chess, in general, that is also helpful for the Olympiad.”

The two remain products of different upbringing and chase their goals differently. But once under the Indian flag, Narayanan and Nihal can be expected to be similarly tenacious in their approach. After all, they are in the scheme of things as India aims for its best ever Olympiad performance.