Gukesh, the chess wunderkind

Gukesh earned his first international master norm in 2017 and in just 16 months he became a grandmaster, on January 15!

Making rapid strides: D. Gukesh has his eyes firmly set on breaching the 2700 ranking mark by the end of this year.   -  S. Prasanna Venkatesan

AGE: 12.

EDUCATION: Class VII in Velammal Vidyalaya.

FROM: Chennai.

DISCIPLINE: Chess.

BEGINNING: Gukesh’s favourite sport was cricket, but his father, Dr. Rajnikanth, wanted to see his son as a tennis player. When the kid was physically “not ready” for tennis, he took up chess during a summer camp in his school and the rest is history.

Gukesh’s talent was first identified at the age of seven, in school, by his coach M. S. Bhaskar, who also turned out to be his first proper coach. Six months into the partnership, in 2013, Gukesh secured a modest FIDE ranking of 1291 and seemed like just another kid playing the sport. He stayed under the radar for almost a year after that, but caught the attention when he boosted his ranking by 370 points in just two months. There was no doubting his talent when he crossed the 2000 mark a year later.

The years 2013 and 2014 were spent gaining FIDE points and honing his game and Gukesh started backing up his talent with titles in 2015. He won multiple accolades that year, with the highlights being the gold he won at the National School Chess Championships, in the under-9 category, and getting the title of candidate master.

After that, he has gone through tournaments across the world in a hurry. Not having a strong guiding force when he got into the game has been a blessing for Gukesh, according to his father. If he was ready and finances permitted, he’d turn up and play. He earned his first International Master norm in 2017 and in just 16 months he became a Grandmaster, on January 15, 2019! At the start of October 2017, he had a rating of 2322. He played 276 rated games across 30 tournaments in that period, losing points in 10 of those before he became a GM — missing the world record for the youngest GM by just 17 days.

The best of grandmasters play around 100 games a year, but he played a little more than 200. While conventional wisdom says players should relax between tournaments, Gukesh isn’t one to be bogged down by that.

CAREER GRAPH

2015: Gold medals at the National Schools Chess Championship (Under-9 category) and at the Asian Schools Chess Championship (Under-9 category).

2016: Gold medals at the National Schools Chess Championship (Under-11 category) and at the Commonwealth Chess Championship (Under-10 category).

2017: Gold medals at the National Schools Chess Championship (Under-11 category) and at the National Under-11 Chess Championship. He won the IIFLW Under- 13 Chess Championship and also secured his maiden International Master norm by winning the First Friday IM Norm Tournament held in Malaysia.

2018: Became the world’s second youngest and India’s youngest grandmaster by securing his final GM norm at the 17th Delhi International Open Grandmaster Tournament. He also represented India at the Under-12 Asian Youth Championship and secured five gold medals across all formats.

AIM: Gukesh might be India’s youngest and the world’s second youngest GM, but he has his eyes firmly set on breaching the 2700 ranking mark by the end of this year and then becoming a world champion. If that seems like a target that’s difficult to get, he adds that he hopes to do it before he turns 22 — which would make him the youngest in history.

STRONG POINT: Endgame. At this stage of the game, everything is relevant — from the bishop’s colour and positioning of the king to the file the opponent’s pawns are at. With very few pieces left on the board and the game inching towards a conclusion — that is when Gukesh is at his best. Endgames are easy to understand and manage, theoretically, but a mistake at this stage is the hardest to recover from. There’s a reason why most top players are known for their strong endgames.

WHAT THEY SAY

Father Dr. Rajnikanth, who travels with Gukesh everywhere: Gukesh is a silent kid. He goes about his games without fuss. Not knowing the game as well as he does, my work is limited to making sure he eats well and sleeps on time, especially when on the road.

He has matured over time. When he started playing the game, he would offer his opponent a draw even when he is in a strong position. Now, he doesn’t do it any more. He now declines when someone offers him a draw.

In the past, when his school’s vice-principal told him, in jest, to bring some chess laurels for the school, he said he would become a grandmaster before he got to Class 10. I thought that he was being overambitious, but he has achieved it much earlier (Class 7)! I still feel 2700 is a big ask, but we’ll see.