Gukesh Dommaraju felt the pressure after his final match at the FIDE Candidates on Sunday night, in Toronto, Canada. He needed an outright win, using black pieces, against world No 3 Hikaru Nakamura to secure the title. But after 71 moves in the match, they agreed to a draw.

Gukesh still had the lead, but an outright win in the game between world No 2 Fabiano Caruana and two-time champion Ian Nepomniachtchi would mean that the Indian Grandmaster would have to play nerve-wracking tiebreaks against a more seasoned opponent.

Accompanied by his father Rajnikanth and second, Grandmaster Grzegorz Gajewski, Gukesh hung around the playing venue after his game for a bit before deciding to head back to the hotel. The pressure of watching Caruana and Nepomniachtchi slug it out in a seesaw battle was hard to handle for the 17-year-old from Chennai – the second youngest player to compete at the Candidates after 16-year-old Bobby Fischer featured in the 1959 edition.

To switch his mind off, Gukesh went out for a walk with Gajewski. But just minutes later, his father came running for them.

“It’s over,” Rajnikanth told his son.

Caruana and Nepomniachtchi had agreed to a draw after a 109-move battle. Gukesh had become the youngest-ever player to win the Candidates. And with the title, he will become the youngest player in chess history to play a World Championship match when he takes on reigning champion GM Ding Liren of China later this year.

“Those 15 minutes [when he went back to the hotel] were probably the most stressful of the entire tournament,” Gukesh said during the post-match press conference to loud laughter across the room.

“Probably the walk was the turning point,” he added with a chuckle.

Self confidence for the win

Not many had given Gukesh a chance ahead of the tournament. He was not in anybody’s list of favourites. Former world champion Magnus Carlsen had even predicted for him to “more likely have a bad event.”

To be fair, the predictions were made with good reason. Gukesh was not even the strongest Indian in fray as per ratings – Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu held that tag. There was a lack of experience as well since this was his debut in a high-pressure tournament. But eventually, none of it mattered. He was always self-confident and it was very evident.

After his fifth round win over Nijat Abasov, a fan at the tournament asked Gukesh who he was most afraid of playing.

“No one,” the teenager shot back without hesitation.

It was this confidence that carried Gukesh through to the title in Toronto – the same self-belief he has carried with him throughout his career.

“He [Gukesh] was always this confident,” said GM Vishnu Prasanna, Gukesh’s earliest coach, in a conversation with Scroll. “He liked pressure and has always thrived in such situations. He knows how to fight back from a loss.”

That mentality was well on display at the Candidates. Gukesh’s campaign was not flawless. He had committed several errors due to time pressure that took him from a winning position against Alireza Firouzja in the seventh round, to a devastating loss.

“If I had to pinpoint a moment [from the tournament] where I felt ‘this could be my moment,’ it was probably after the seventh game, after I lost to Firouzja,” said Gukesh after his title win.

“I was surely upset after the loss but during the rest day I felt so good. Even though I just had a painful loss, I was feeling at my absolute best. This loss just gave me so much motivation.”

This eagerness to fight, coupled by his maturity beyond years, is something that impressed Prasanna when he first Gukesh, then 10, at a coaching camp in 2017.

Gukesh was so impressed by the camp that he asked his father to approach Prasanna to coach the pre-teen.

Prasanna agreed and thus began a five-year long association. Under Prasanna’s tutelage, Gukesh, then 12 years, seven months and 17 days old, became the second youngest chess Grandmaster at the time – he was only 17 days older than what Sergey Karjakin was when the Russian player became GM.

That record was broke in 2021 when American player Abhimanyu Mishra became the youngest ever GM at 12 years, four months and 25 days.

“Gukesh was always mature beyond his age even as an 11-year-old,” said Prasanna. “He was somewhat similar only in terms of his focus and the clarity for what he wants.”

Gukesh and Prasanna parted ways in 2022 after the Chess Olympiad in Chennai, following which he started working with Gajewski, but the two continue to be close.

“Winning the Candidates was definitely our goal,” said Prasanna. “It was not an easy thing to achieve but right before the tournament he was in a good shape.”

Learning from mistakes

While Gukesh’s run at the Candidates included five wins, eight draws, and a solitary loss, he did not have a smooth build-up to the event.

Though he had ended Viswanathan Anand’s three-decade reign as the India No 1 in September, Gukesh was struggling to put up performances when it mattered. He saw the likes of Praggnanandhaa, Vaishali Rameshbabu, and Vidit Gujrathi secure their spot at the Candidates, while he kept missing out on qualification.

It was only in late December when he won the 2023 Chennai Grandmasters before enjoying a decent outing at the FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Championship that Gukesh qualified for the tournament in Canada as the FIDE Circuit runner-up.

“Last year he had poor reaction to losing when things were not going his way,” said Prasanna. “But he learnt from what was happening and turned it around in his favour.”

Gukesh’s quick learning ability was on display at the Candidates as well, as he often took his opponents by surprise, playing lesser known moves to steer the game towards unknown territory. Even in the final round game against Nakamura, the Chennai lad was not afraid of playing unpopular moves as he showed with his bishop to e7 square just five moves into the match.

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This is something he has learnt along the way over the years, Prasanna added.

“It is something he has acquired in recent times,” said Prasanna, the 34-year-old Grandmaster. “It is also a signature of his second [Gajewski], who is known to dig out such lines.”

The one aspect which separates Gukesh from the rest of his rivals is his calmness and his drive to achieve what he wants.

It was on display even at his post win media interaction on Monday, when Gukesh chose to hold his cards close when prodded about his team and training routine.

“I have different kinds of routines, not everything I’ll reveal,” he asserted, while also thanking his team without revealing their names.

Gukesh knows his job is not yet done. He knows the importance of secrecy as he now readies himself for the World Championship battle against GM Ding later this year – the date and venue has not yet been decided.

On Sunday night in Toronto, after he became only the second Indian, after Anand, to win the Candidates, social media is flooded with the video of a pre-teen Gukesh’s interview, where he expressed his desire to be the youngest chess world champion.

Five years down the line, a 17-year-old Gukesh is just a step away. He is the chosen Candidate.