Improvement personified

Rakesh Rao

Noted coach Evgeny Vladimirov watches Parimarjan Negi making a move.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

HE is on the right track making the right moves. Just 12, chess prodigy Parimarjan Negi already holds two International Master (IM) norms and scores consistently over 80 per cent in his school exams. He is learning the finer points of the mind game from the noted Kazakh coach Evgeny Vladimirov and trains for over seven hours a day. In other words, if someone wants to know how to balance chess and academics, Negi is a fine example to follow.

This Delhi boy caught the eye of the chess world when, in 2002, he became the youngest Indian to attain world rating. The following year, he became the youngest Indian to hold an IM norm before his 11th birthday. Not surprisingly, he went to break Surya Shekhar Ganguly's record of being the youngest from the country to beat a Grandmaster.

Last year, Negi added a bronze medal from the World Under-12 Championship to gold medals he won in the Asian (Under-10) Championship in 2002 and the Commonwealth (Under-10) in 2003. Later in 2003, he made his first IM norm in Germany and this April added another one in the Dubai Open. He will become an IM once he adds another norm and raises his rating from 2349 to 2400.

A fair idea of Negi's growth as a player could be had from the fact that in April 2002, his rating was a modest 2061. Next April, it became 2117. In April 2004, it moved to 2167 and within the following 12 months the rating jumped to 2349. Negi is also assured of a further 18 points from the Dubai tournament.

Away from chess, Negi has earned invitations to address school children outside New Delhi. It is not surprising to note that some academicians and educationists feel that this boy is capable of inspiring his peers. He speaks softly but leaves a deep impression. This chubby-cheeked kid's monk-like composure is already the envy of many senior practitioners of the cerebral sport.

"I think he is far more mature than his age," says his Kazakh coach Evgeny Vladimirov, who had coached P. Hari Krishna a few years ago. "I think he is more mature at 12 than Hari was at 15," says Vladimirov. "As and when he becomes an IM, I am sure, he will not even notice it."

The word `Parimarjan' means `improvement'. In that respect, the youngster has truly lived up to his name. Blessed with immense talent, coupled with the ability to work long hours over the board, Negi was spotted by Indian Airlines' G. B. Joshi who coached him for many years before Vladimirov arrived on the scene.

This January, at 11, Negi became the youngest Indian ever to be invited to play in the Corus `C' championship, an event held concurrently with the premier Corus Championship at Wijk aan Zee, where Viswanathan Anand has won four times. In fact, Anand commented, "The `C' tournament was very tough. I think Parimarjan played well. This was his first international event and I am sure he gained a lot of experience. He is very calm and composed and that I think is a very good quality. I am sure the event helped Parimarjan get a lot of recognition."

So impressive was Negi's performance and persona that `New in Chess', one of the most respected and sought-after periodicals on the game, carried his annotated game against the eventual champion Vladimir Georgiev. The magazine described Negi's annotations as "remarkably honest analysis of missed win." He was also offered free lifetime subscription of the magazine. In fact, the ICC website, where the leading players of the world play, has given Negi a free `handle', which is otherwise given only to GMs, IMs, WGMs and WIMs.

Before these encouraging signs, Negi received timely boost from his school Amity International, Steel Authority of India, Godrej, Indian Airlines, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and more recently Airport Authority of India. From time to time, Negi's participation in tournaments, travel and coaching have been taken care of by these sponsors.

In a game where the champions are becoming younger and younger, Negi's calibre has been noticed more in the West than at home. The Russian Chess Federation has invited him to play in a select field of 12 players in the `Young World Stars' tournament in St. Petersburg from May 14 to 25. The field offers Negi a fine opportunity to go for a Grandmaster norm.

"More than the result, the experience of being part of such a field is itself a big gain," says Vladimirov, who will accompany Negi during the event. "He is capable of some exciting results but I think he really has nothing to lose in St. Petersburg. He should just go out and play his natural game and not bother about the expectations from him," says the seasoned coach who was once part of Gary Kasparov's trainers' team and travelled as the coach of the Indian team to the 2002 Chess Olympiad.

Vladimirov first saw Negi in a group coaching camp at Kozhikode in 2002. "When I had a personal session with him, he was only nine. I was quite impressed with his maturity. I would not say that he was extremely bright at that time, or he knows something spectacular. When I was associated with him, then sometimes I used to forget how old is he. We used to discuss matters like we do with persons of equal age. That was very interesting indeed. Of course, at that time, he had many flaws in his chess but his maturity, eagerness to study and spontaneity were obvious. All this created an impression that this boy was superior in many ways. At the age of nine, sometimes you won't always spot real talent. But systematic approach and maturity cannot stay hidden. Those are signs of a good chess player."

Vladimirov, who returned to coach Negi in 2004, says, "We stayed in touch from time to time and spoke on different topics. Normally, if my students are remarkable in some ways, I watch their progress. Once our mutual work resumed, I had two short camps and one long camp. Call it coincidence, after the short camp he won the National sub-junior title and after the long camp he won the bronze in the World (Under-12) Championship. For the public, results at this age might appear important but it is not so significant for me. I just watch how the person is developing. And, on this count, Negi has made a lot of strides."

However, Vladmirov does admit that there are a lot of areas to work on. "All his flaws are typical for his age, despite his maturity," says Vladmirov. "He is a very balanced person and player and the prospects are bright. It is very satisfying to mould such a promising talent."

At this stage of his career, Negi is not worried about chasing norms in a hurry. "I want to improve the quality of my game. Norms and ratings are bound to follow. If I am close to a norm, then I'll certainly try to achieve it but I don't want to see too far ahead of the game in hand," says the youngster reflecting the maturity that is so striking.

Unlike children of his age, Negi stays away from watching television. In fact, his home does not have one. When away from chess, Negi prefers to read books of knowledge, like the ones published by Reader's Digest and Time. Without doubt, Negi's latent talent is being nursed in the right ambience. A combination of hard work and a bit of luck should see Negi bring in a lot of joys to global chess lovers for years.