‘Drew inspiration from incidents in life,’ says Shyam Nikhil on his journey to third GM Norm

Shyam had become an IM at 18 in 2010. He had secured his first two GM norms in successive months in 2011. He also surpassed the 2500-mark in the Elo rating in 2012. But it was then that the third and final GM norm started becoming elusive.

Published : May 23, 2024 22:02 IST , CHENNAI - 8 MINS READ

File Photo: P. Shyam Nikhil became India’s 8th GM.
File Photo: P. Shyam Nikhil became India’s 8th GM. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

File Photo: P. Shyam Nikhil became India’s 8th GM. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Just like King Robert the Bruce was inspired by a spider persistently attempting to spin a web in a cave, India’s 85th chess Grand Master (GM) P. Shyam Nikhil, at one point in his 12-year wait for his third and final GM norm, was inspired by a crab on a Sri Lankan seashore.

“I take inspiration from whatever I look around. For example, I won the Commonwealth Chess Championship in Sri Lanka in 2022. The initial stages weren’t so good for me - like, I drew, I lost my second round. And then I started to win some rounds.

“So, one day I was standing on the seashore. I was just looking at the waves and I saw these crabs were on the shore. There was this crab trying to dig and keep something. So, it was doing that and the waves came and closed it (the hole dug). But still, after the wave receded, it resumed digging, and it kept on doing that.

“It felt like there was a message I was getting from that. I felt this way: ‘Ok, you just keep doing it, you just keep doing your work. Whatever the disturbances or external things, don’t take those into consideration.’

“So, I draw inspiration from all the incidents I look around, and this way I keep myself motivated all the time,” he said over a Zoom call.

He also mentioned that he had a lot of people around radiating positivity towards him. For instance, his parents have made him feel motivated by narrating stories of how they had overcome their own struggles.

“See, there’s 12 years of struggle for a norm. It’s not an easy thing to cope up with,” he says.

Shyam, 32, had become an International Master (IM) at 18 in 2010. He had secured his first two GM norms in successive months in 2011. He also surpassed the 2500-mark in the Elo rating in 2012. But it was then that the third and final GM norm started becoming elusive.

It became so elusive that he, who was initially very confident of claiming it, somehow wanted to get done with it.

With time, someone casually suggesting in wonder that he’s been taking so long for one norm, became inconvenient for him.

Even his mother’s appreciative WhatsApp messages during the Dubai Police Global Chess Challenge where he finally managed to get his third GM norm this month, made him feel that his mother was expecting him to achieve the norm and thus created pressure for him.

“My mom doesn’t sleep. She waits all night expecting my result. She just looks at the evaluation bar online and she knows what is happening in the game.

“So, after I finish every round, she used to send me a message, that WhatsApp sticker kind of thing - like, ‘Super.’

“Every day and night, there were conversations like this. So, till the end, the ‘Super’ continued and I managed to finish my norm there. See, actually, it creates some pressure. It is a support, but you can feel that expectation that she is there waiting for my result. And if I lose, it is more painful. Rather than the game, the emotional connect is a bit more painful. There were many moments like this. Because the misses were so many, right?”

There were indeed a few agonisingly close misses. Before this Dubai event, there was a tournament in France where he missed the norm by half-a-point. In the Dubai Open where he surpassed the 2500 Elo mark in 2012 itself, he couldn’t manage a win needed in one of the rounds. He said that the miss in the 2020 Delhi Open was particularly heartbreaking.

“So, I was playing against Russian GM Pavel Ponkratov. If I win that game, I will be getting my GM title. And I will be finishing second in the tournament. The prize money was quite huge. Like, ₹4 lakh as well as the GM title! So much was at stake.

“I had a completely winning position. Then, there were so many people around the table. I’m not saying it’s a distraction. But it usually happens when there is so much tension on the board.

“It’s not like cricket. Only when the crucial moments are there, people will be around. Suddenly, I really don’t know what happened and what went wrong, I lost the game on time. That was more painful.”

Had he won, he would have become India’s 66th GM. Had he won in 2012, he would have become India’s 28th GM.

There was this one time in India in 2014 when he had in fact secured his final GM norm, but it wasn’t counted due to a technicality.

“I needed a foreign norm. Like, it’s not necessarily to be played abroad. The majority of your opponents should be from foreign countries. Out of nine rounds, you must meet at least 4-5 foreigners.”

Shyam, who hails from Nagercoil, was without the financial means to support his participation in foreign tournaments until he was employed by ICF in 2017. His father was an employee with the State Express Transport Corporation (SETC) and his mother’s a homemaker.

“I have two younger brothers. The initial stages (in chess) weren’t so clear at all. I used to play only the District tournaments. After that, I started to get selected and played at the State level, which in itself was a difficult thing when I started.

“I had to travel some 12 to 14 hours to reach Chennai. So, it wasn’t easy at the earlier stages. My father used to come with me.

“After a while, I shifted my home to Madurai for training. And then to Chennai. After finishing school, I went back to Nagercoil for college. After 2012, we got to know there were many European tournaments. And there were some exposure trips. The government will send you on an exposure trip. Sometimes I got the chance. Other than that, I wasn’t able to go since I didn’t have that bank statement. You need to show enough funds in your account, which I didn’t have. I was getting prize money and all. But that won’t be sufficient to go abroad. If you go abroad, you can play some 3-4 tournaments in a row, which I couldn’t afford at that time.

“Only after joining Railways, I was able to play abroad. Since I’m a government employee, they give NOC. So, with all these documents, it is easy for me to get a VISA and travel abroad and play, which is a turning point in my life. Because of that, I got to improve a lot in the rating by playing abroad.”

Growing up in a generation when the internet and chess engines weren’t as prevalent as those are today, Shyam had to largely train manually by playing.

“When I reached 2375 Elo rating, I didn’t even have a computer. I won a tournament in Jaipur with a prize money of some ₹77,000 or something like that. So with that prize money, my parents got me a desktop.

“And at that time, there were chess engines like Fritz. It’s now considered to be very weak. There was no Stockfish.

“The internet was also not that popular. There were internet centres. Online chess was not that popular. The initial stages, it was completely on-board practice. In Madurai, I was training with Ghouse Kamarudeen in his academy. There were so many other chess players there who are currently not playing. They’ve left chess, but at that time, they were very supportive. We were there from nine in the morning to six in the evening, playing tournaments, games, and solving positions. It was all about chess, full-time.

“There wasn’t much access to the databases and all. We had a notebook for openings, we used to write the moves from the ECO (Encyclopedia of Chess Openings). So, from that encyclopedia, we have to write all the variations in the notebook and we used to memorise those as well. The playing also helped a lot. Like, we used to play from morning till evening. Even after going home, if I closed my eyes, I would see the chessboard.”

He’s benefitted by reading Mikhail Tal’s, Garry Kasparov’s, and Bobby Fischer’s books.

“I’ve read ‘My Great Predecessors’ by Kasparov. When I made my first GM norm, I needed a win with black (pieces) against a GM from Poland. He hadn’t even lost a single game in the tournament with white pieces. He had drawn some games, but he’d never lost.

“He played the English opening. I had seen Kasparov’s game with a similar pawn structure, which helped me win that round.

“I have studied ‘My 60 Memorable Games by Fischer. I’m now looking into a recent book on how to play unconventional chess.”

With the GM title having been ticked off, Shyam feels like he’s “beginning” his chess career. He mentioned that he has managed to enter the “elite zone” and now has the goal of improving his Elo rating to 2600 to reach the ‘Super GM’ level.

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