Making rapid strides

IT is truly amazing to note that despite the absence of any methodical coaching system in place, chess players from Delhi are making news. After the Asian junior girls champion Tania Sachdev and the Asian under-10 winner Parimarjan Negi, it is now the turn of seven-year-old Sahaj Grover to swim against the current.

RAKESH RAO

IT is truly amazing to note that despite the absence of any methodical coaching system in place, chess players from Delhi are making news. After the Asian junior girls champion Tania Sachdev and the Asian under-10 winner Parimarjan Negi, it is now the turn of seven-year-old Sahaj Grover to swim against the current. The reigning National under-7 champion has the honour of being the youngest Indian to gain international rating as per the latest World list.

Sahaj Grover, who, at seven years and five months, became the youngest rated chess player in the country. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Sahaj, with a rating of 1944, gained the honour following his commendable show in the Rajiv Gandhi international rating round-robin tournament held in New Delhi in February. At that time, Sahaj was precisely seven years and five months!

Certainly, Sahaj is among the youngest ever to gain a rating in the World. Whether he is indeed the youngest in the world, the confirmation is awaited from FIDE, the world body.

Usually, chess prodigies are deemed to be different than `normal' kids. It is assumed that these whizkids are of serious nature, moody and prefer to keep to themselves.

But Sahaj is delightfully different.

Sahaj has his usual share of quarrels with elder brother Naman. He keeps his mother happy by "eating, almost everything." He is attached to his teachers and loves mathematics. Of course, Sahaj can sit in one place for seven to eight hours, provided he is facing a chessboard.

Sahaj's journey into the record books started as a three-and-a-half year old when he watched his father, Vijay, teach Naman the early moves over a chessboard, a birthday present.

Gradually, Sahaj's interest in chess grew and Vijay did not miss it. Before long, the youngster started winning against a baffled `Papa'. Within a year, before his fifth birthday, Sahaj had won the third-prize in a local competition.

Encouraged by coach K. C. Joshi, who trained Tania Sachdev early in her career, Sahaj played his first "serious" tournament, the Delhi State under-19 championship. Here, Sahaj was made to sit atop the table in order to reach the pieces on his opponents' back-rank. A win and two draws kept Sahaj's interest alive.

Soon, Sahaj started honing his skills at the Botwinnik Chess Academy where he came under the influence of veteran C. S. Sharma and coach Karun Duggal. Yashbir Sharma, the former President of the Delhi Chess Association, remembers resigning immediately after getting his queen trapped on the 12th move! Embarrassed yet immensely impressed, Yashbir presented Sahaj with a magnetic chessboard.

Armed with a fair amount of ideas, Sahaj played an age-group tournament in Sangli in 2002 and finished seventh in a field of over 100 participants.

Sahaj (left), with his good friend and reigning Asian under-10 champion Parimarjan Negi.-- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

But what made Sahaj's confidence grow by many folds was his silver medal-winning performances in the British championship under-8 and under-10 sections in Torquay in 2002. Though the competition in the championship is not of any great standards, it is just right to encourage kids in the age-group. Sahaj, in fact, went on to beat the eventual under-11 champion, as well. Since then, Sahaj has not looked back. In the previous year, Sahaj, at five, was the youngest competitor in the British championship.

Luckily, Kulachi Hansraj Model School was generous to subsidise the travelling expenditure of its `star' student to the tune of Rs. 75,000, besides felicitating Sahaj in a well-attended function.

Sahaj, who plays aggressively like most children in his age-group, gained immensely from G. B. Joshi, who coached him briefly. Thereafter, former National junior champion Gurpreet Pal Singh took over the mantle.

The pupil and teacher share a fine equation. Gurpreet knows the extent to which Sahaj needs to be pushed. He is firm but not needlessly strict. Sahaj, in turn, values the advice of Gurpreet `Sir' and follows them. In fact, Gurpreet was one of Sahaj's victims in the Rajiv Gandhi tournament. Gurpreet, obviously embarrassed, was all praise for the youngster for showing tremendous character and not getting overawed by the situation.

In the National `B' championship held at Jalandhar last year, Sahaj had to wait for a few rounds before opening his account. But in the second half of the tough tournament, Sahaj had some very good wins over his more-experienced rivals. Nevertheless, it was a great learning experience for the youngster.

However, when the organisers decided to give Sahaj a prize for being the youngest competitor in a field of around 250, he was not particularly pleased. "Why are they giving me a prize when I have not done anything special?" was how Sahaj reacted. Even at such a tender age, Sahaj showed the maturity to understand that the prize was not for his performance but for being the youngest.

By nature, Sahaj hates to be treated differently than other kids of his age. He loves to earn his "prizes" rather than getting it just like that.

"Like any mother, I would buy him things or eatables of his choice. But he insists on getting it as a "prize" for winning a match or for a well-played game," says Dimple, Sahaj's mother who accompanies him to all tournaments.

Not surprisingly, Sahaj has been the undisputed champion in his age-group for the past two years in Delhi. Last year, he claimed the under-10 championship in the All India Rajesh Shah memorial tournament at Nainital.

So far, Sahaj's progress has been quite satisfactory. Luckily, he has found a front-runner in Parimarjan Negi, the 10-year-old bundle of talent and the youngest-rated Indian in the last April rating list.

"He keeps an eye on Parimarjan's game as well as his scores in every tournament they play together. It, kind of, motivates him. As luck would have it, both won their first National titles on the same day, at the same venue in Lucknow (in December 2002)," says Dimple, who prompts Sahaj to duplicate Parimarjan's methodical approach to chess.

There is no dearth of motivation, encouragement and well-wishers for Sahaj. In order to make the most of the God-given talent, the Grovers want their son to gain the best of training and play in the right kind of tournaments. However, finance is a constraint.

Vijay, a cloth merchant, is desperately seeking sponsorship in order to meet the expenditure pertaining to his son's chess. "Sahaj's coaching, travelling expenditure and other expenses amount to quite a bit. I don't want my son to suffer on this count. I hope, some corporate support comes up soon so that Sahaj's progress continues unhindered," wishes an optimistic father.

No doubt, given the right guidance, Sahaj has it in him to conquer higher peaks. Sahaj's next major challenge awaits him at Kozhikode where he will try to break into the medal-bracket of the Asian age-group championship. The promise is there and the performance is awaited.