Our teen chess geniuses and the wonder years : The Tribune India

Viswanathan Anand

OUR own R Praggnanandhaa has become the youngest player to beat Magnus Carlsen since Carlsen became the world chess champion. This will give Pragg, who’s only 16, a lot of confidence — ‘I have done this once and I can do it again,’ he will think.

Praggnanandhaa is one of our best hopes. He’s mentally strong. When he has tough tournaments, he loses games but he does not lose heart. He comes back, he fights. This time he beat Magnus, who had come up with three wins in a row. He interrupted a very good streak. Pragg has been having a lot of difficulties, but that is because he is competing against the best in the world at the senior level now. He’s being tested. This exposure is very good for his game.

Pragg is among the young players I’ve been working with at the WestBridge Anand Chess Academy since January 2021. He, Arjun Erigaisi and D Gukesh are all under 19 and are competing very fiercely. I think them being peers could have a big impact on chess in India, similar to what happened in the former Soviet Union, where the juniors would drive each other up.

Working with juniors is wonderful. I try to be realistic with them. We are all human beings, we will react emotionally in most situations. So, for me, it’s about passing the wisdom to them, rather than strategies, which keep evolving in this sport. I try to share with them how I approach a problem, how I work on it, and they can incorporate things that work for them.

I try to share with them that once I too was a teenager, traveling the globe. At that time, I didn’t know many people. I experienced it and it turned out to be a lot of fun. I try to reassure their parents that this will turn out OK, so do not worry.

The kids recognize that I’m a multiple-time world champion, so in the beginning, they were surprised to see me sitting there and analyzing games with them, but they got used to it and talk freely now. They are respectful kids and I am over 50, so there is a bit of ‘sir’ and ‘uncle’ during conversations!

They need to grow but they need to experience things. Chess gives you the opportunity to meet interesting people, travel. The important thing is to have other interests, to make friends, to have the ability to put chess aside for a few hours a day – switch off for some time. It is very important.

There are eight Indian GMs in the top-10 right now, and the average ELO rating of India’s top-10 is 2671, the fourth-best in the world. Vidit Gujrathi is in the top-25, P Harikrishna was in the top-15 for some time, touching No. 10 at one point.

It is true that we’ve had many promising players but they could not push on. Sometimes, luck matters too. Many players had to take up a job early, or they had obligations. They tried their best, but some may not have pursued it all the way. But many of the earlier generation GMs seeded the present generation. Many of them started their academies, became coaches.

I often tell people that yes, I was very talented, I was very good – but I had lots and lots of breaks as well. My parents were supportive. I was a very talented junior but many talented juniors did not win the Junior World Championship, I did. I became a Grandmaster, and that opened doors for me. I was invited to tournaments, and I got my chances and I took them.

We’ve had many good players but the first generation after me was perhaps a good 100-120 ELO points behind me. The younger ones will eventually hit 2700 ELO ratings. I think many in my academy and a couple of those who are outside are heading in that direction. I hope to help make it happen.

I’ve been the top player in India for 35 years. My time at the top will end. It will be tough. The day it happens, it will be a bit of a shock. I have experienced it before, when I lost my world title or the day somebody overtook me in ratings… You find new ways when the world passes you by! The last couple of years have left me slightly bemused as to where I am in chess because I had to take a long break. I’ve had breaks before, but not like six months. I will play some tournaments later this year and I am trying to get ready for that. I have never been this inactive for this long.

I am also at a stage where I can see that it is nice to assume new roles. I have been doing a lot of coaching, mentoring, taking on lots of other assignments and commentating. You always learn, you try new things. I will cope.

As the first GM from India, I’m often told by players they were inspired by me. The baseline has shifted for the new generation. They will always be compared to my results. Many of them are starting at a very high stage. Pragg, Nihal Sarin, Gukesh and Arjun are capable of becoming 2700 ELO players, which means they will play top tournaments. We are a few steps behind the world’s best, but I am confident we will get there.

(As told to Vinayak Padmadeo)

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