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He’s got the moves

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on January 11, 2019

Catch him young: The third grandmaster from Kerala, Nihal Sarin’s love affair with chess started with a Funskool set his father got him when he was only four   -  K K MUSTAFAH

He was six when he played his first chess tournament — and needed to sit on three chairs to reach the table. Meet Nihal Sarin, one of the youngest grandmasters in India

Life, Lord Byron believed, was too short for chess. Say that to 14-year-old Nihal Sarin, one of the youngest grandmasters in the history of Indian chess, and he may recall the words of Russian chess player Irving Chernev. “That is the fault of life, not chess,” said Chernev. The young chess player from Thrissur in Kerala is that passionate about the game, which another legendary player — Bobby Fischer — called a “war on the board”.

But Nihal doesn’t quite look or speak like the great warrior that you may have in mind. He is small-built, has sleepy eyes, is a bit shy and tends to speak in short sentences. And he certainly does not see the game as a battle. “I just play for the fun of it,” he says.

We are sitting in the nondescript but neatly done-up house in Thrissur where Nihal lives with his parents — dermatologist father Sarin Abdulsalam and psychiatrist mother Shijin Ammanam Veetil Ummar — and sister Neha.

The teen from a small town where the infrastructure for developing one’s chess-playing skills is nearly non-existent has been making history: He is a grandmaster (GM) at 14; he has won most of the marquee titles meant for his age including the World Youth Championships; his FIDE rating (compiled by the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, the governing body of international chess) stands at 2578; he is ranked 319th in the world and 12th in India.

 

 

 

For observers of the game in India and beyond, Nihal’s story has several remarkable components. “He hardly loses to a player rated below him. He’s amazingly consistent. His positional understanding is beyond his age,” says the Thrissur-based chess enthusiast and consulting editor of the portal Number13, Rajesh K Parameshwaran.

But, perhaps, the most interesting part of Nihal’s journey is the fact that the player has reached unimaginable heights almost on his own. He has never had a full-time trainer, which is why his manager and friend Priyadarshan Banjan describes him as one of the most “natural” chess players in the country.

“I never thought I would reach this level. I just played my games and moved on; the interest came naturally,” Nihal, the third GM from Kerala, tells BLink.

He has been learning the intricacies of the game mostly on the internet and has honed his skills through observation and a natural flair for chess. And, at every step, there have been well-wishers who have helped him take the right turns.

“One of the most interesting factors in Nihal’s journey is the way his parents nurture him,” says Chennai-based International Master and coach V Saravanan. “They never force him to play. They leave him to have his own game. That’s quite unlike the way many other players are groomed in chess.”

The journey

As a child, Nihal showed the traits that other chess geniuses such as Viswanathan Anand or Magnus Carlsen demonstrated in their childhood, too. His parents recollect how he could recite from memory the scientific names of insects and plants when he was three-and-a-half years old.

Nihal was about four years old when his father was transferred to a government hospital in Kottayam in Central Kerala. “He didn’t have enough friends in the new environment and felt bored, and none of the typical toy games such as building blocks would satisfy him,” Abdulsalam says.

One day, Abdulsalam bought a Funskool chess set for Nihal. The boy’s maternal grandfather, who was staying with the family then and knew the game, started teaching the hyperactive child some moves just to keep him occupied.

“There was a small veranda at the back of our house and Nihal and his grandfather would sit there and play,” Abdulsalam recalls. Nihal had learnt the basic rules by then. Most days, a few minutes into the game, the parents could hear him cry out loud from the rear of the house when his “queen” was captured. They later made the boy promise in writing that he would stay calm in the face of such “tragedy”. The patient and affable grandfather continued to play with the child and taught him whatever he knew.

All for one: Nihal with his parents — dermatologist father Sarin Abdulsalam and psychiatrist mother Shijin Ammanam Veetil Ummar — and sister Neha at their Thrissur home   -  KK MUSTAFAH

 

In school, a teacher got to know about the boy’s growing fondness for chess. “Mathew sir, who we can say is Nihal’s first coach, was a teacher at the Kottayam school where he studied,” says Abdulsalam. Students above the age of 10 were given chess lessons, but when Nihal’s parents sought special permission for their son, Mathew took him under his wings.

When he was six, Nihal attended his first chess tournament — conducted by the YMCA in Kottayam. And he lost in the first round. “He was the smallest one playing and he had to sit on top of three chairs to make up for the (lack of) height,” smiles Abdulsalam. Though he lost the games, “Mathew sir” convinced the organisers to give the boy a consolation prize, which helped boost his morale.

“Such gestures play a big role in helping children gain confidence,” says Shijin, who accompanies Nihal on most of his trips abroad.

With the encouragement of his well-wishers and a spate of tournaments — most of which he merrily lost — little Nihal gradually started a journey that neither he nor his parents thought would take him places. Along the way, he was trained by former Kerala State champion EP Nirmal at the Devamatha CMI Public School, where Nihal is at present a Std 9 student.

“I was not exactly a coach to him. I just let him play the way he likes and learn. He is a natural,” says Nirmal, who adds that Nihal performs better when he is not under any pressure.

He, however, encourages Nihal to keep playing. “The idea was to play a lot. He plays something online or in a normal game and I suggest a better or a different idea or a pattern I find from the chess databases. Nihal grabs the meaning of the pattern and remembers it. I just add that particular pattern to something he has just used in a fresh game,” Nirmal says.

Nihal’s first big break came in Chennai in 2013-14 when he won the national under-9 chess championship.

“Unlike talents of the past, Nihal was not very well known. There were more famous players around him who took chess seriously and had professional training,” says manager and amateur chess player Banjan, a marketing manager in Bengaluru. “Back then, he used to play only two or three tournaments a year while most youngsters did 10-12 tournaments. It was more like a hobby for him.”

As Nihal started winning local tournaments, his parents began to take him to the more competitive events. A series of failures and mistakes followed, but didn’t deter Nihal. It was during one such tournament in Abu Dhabi that he met Ukrainian player Dimitri Komarov. Komarov mentors Nihal, and they often work together on chess problems and solutions.

Nihal’s memory is stupendous, says Saravanan. His parents recall that as a small child, he could identify the flags of 190 countries and had learnt multiplication tables of up to 16 by the time he was in upper KG. Ask him about these astonishing traits, and Nihal blushes.

“I don’t think memory plays a very big role in chess. Yes, it helps plan your moves before the game, but victory in the opening phase is all about introducing surprises,” he says. “Your opponent will surely know how you normally play, so you surprise him with a fresh move and he might do the same. Whoever has the edge in this game of springing surprises, wins.”

How does he take failures? His parents say he doesn’t care about the falls. He just moves on and concentrates on the next game. Banjan adds that Nihal finds out what went wrong in a game and devises strategies to plug the gaps. And all this he does on his own. “Nihal is a child of the internet age. Because of the internet, he is able to access high-quality information, opening ideas, analysis by other top players and so on. He plays a lot of games online and tracks almost every game being played any day — whether by two super grandmasters or two complete amateurs. The amount of information he internalises in a space of hours is awe-inspiring. And this is possibly because he is online all the time,” he says.

There was a phase in 2016 where Nihal went from tournament to tournament where players stronger than him would beat him in the opening moves. After about six tournaments, he figured out that something was wrong with his opening and that he needed to work on it. He spent a couple of months going through opening material online and analysis by top grandmasters on chess websites and databases. In the process, he ended up learning how to sharpen the first moves.

“In the past a boy from such a small town would never be able to muster the talent Nihal now has just by self-learning. The avenues were very limited. The internet broke that hurdle,” says Parameshwaran.

Nihal may have played an endless number of games on platforms such as chess.com, but he has focused on books as well. His family and friends say he reads chess books the way someone pores over a novel, as if the books tell him stories about moves and variations. His favourite volumes are about his early chess hero, the fourth World Chess Champion Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946).

It is this confidence that sets him apart. And that’s why some analysts see a budding Viswanathan Anand in him. Nihal held Anand to a draw at the TATA Steel Rapid Championship in November last year.

“I felt that he would really struggle in this tournament and he would be a bit out of place. It seemed the opposite. He seemed quite comfortable here. Not fully there, but he’s a huge talent what I’ve seen of him,” Anand told PTI after the game.

The World Blitz Championship in Russia last month heralds the coming of age of Nihal. It was in St Petersburg that he defeated powerful GM rivals such as former Blitz World Champion Le Quang Liem, Ahmed Adly, Salem AR Saleh and Alexander Motylev, as well as players such as Alexander Zubov and Nikita Vitiugov.

“His rating has been steadily climbing,” says Parameshwaran. “I don’t think Nihal is too bothered about consistency though,” a chess journalist adds. “He seems to just love playing chess.”

Path ahead

Nihal currently works on chess strategies with Srinath Narayanan, a 24-year-old grandmaster from Chennai, and Komarov. “We meet once in three months,” says Srinath, adding that he also follows Nihal’s unconventional ways. “Chess doesn’t have a curriculum. Nihal is an intuitive player, which helps him improve faster. He learns in six months or a year things that took me a decade.”

So what is Nihal looking at? Does the boy who watches Malayalam comedy films when he’s not playing chess aspire to be World Number 1? “I have to improve in a lot of departments if I have to scale up,” he says. “I just enjoy doing this.”

Published on January 11, 2019

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