Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 8 January, a week before D Gukesh created the record for becoming the youngest Indian to become a Grandmaster.
Appearances can often be deceiving, especially in sport.
Take the case of D Gukesh, the mild mannered, diminutive, school boy. The 12-year-old from Chennai is a chess prodigy, the U-13 World Champion who narrowly missed becoming the youngest Grandmaster in the world. While he is soft-spoken, he is remarkably self-assured and clear-headed when talking about chess… and quite the mischief-maker when not on the chess board.
“Everybody thinks that I am silent but I am very naughty actually. I tease many people, even players older than me,” he declares, deep into the conversation, once he has gotten comfortable.
But when he talks about chess, one gets to see a different side, the calm steel of an athlete who has seen the challenges and learned to take them in his stride.
In December, D Gukesh missed out on the record to become youngest Grandmaster. It was a tough time and he was understandably crushed. But what is perhaps among the best non-chess indicators of his mindset is how he dealt with it.
“In the tournament, the games which I played were not so good… After I missed the record, I was very disappointed, I couldn’t get out for two days or so. But after that I thought ‘Magnus Carlsen is not the youngest so, let’s not look at it’,” he told Scroll.in on the sidelines of the EKA|IIFL Investment Managers 4th Mumbai International Chess Tournament.
And who helped him make peace with it? Nobody, it was all his own philosophy.
“After losses or tough situations, I generally like to be alone... just tell myself that nothing is wrong,” says the pre-teen who has been playing chess professionally for more than five years now.
As expected from a chess champion, this point of view shows that Gukesh is indeed very mature for his age, a fact he himself asserts with a smile.
A chess-loving family
The son of two doctors, the Chennai lad began his journey long before he could think of himself as a chess player when his parents – Dr Rajnikanth and Dr Padma Kumari – played chess at home recreationally.
“My father and mother used to play chess at home for fun, they are not chess players. I would just sit and watch. But then my cousin brother – Dinesh, who is even years older than him – actually taught me the rules and then all of us started playing at home. Slowly I got interested in the sport, I thought it was a great game,” he recounted.
“Then when I was six-and-a-half years my school had a summer camp. My first coach, MS Bhaskar, was the coach there. He saw me play and thought that I can achieve great things so he introduced me to a chess club where I had a nice time and I improved a lot. I was there until [I achieved] 2300 rating with Vijayanand. My next coach was IM Kartikeyan, also from Chennai. I had two months with him and then he couldn’t coach because of personal issues. My next coach was GM Vishnu Prasad, also my current coach,” he added.
Gukesh singles out his school – Velammal Vidyalaya CBSE School where he is studying in Class VI – for special mention. “They are very supporting; I couldn’t have got better support than this school. I get a lot of time to practice and I go to school only for exams, they give me the notes to study.”
But the school talk brings out the child in him as well. Which is your favourite subject? “No subject!” Which is the toughest subject? “No subject!”
“Chess is like everything to me, there is nothing besides chess that I take seriously,” he states.
His statement is backed by his results. The 12-year-old achieved a Live ELO rating of 2500 at the Mumbai tournament, but missed out on the Grandmaster title as he had played with only two GMs. In 2015, he won the U-9 section of the Asian School Chess Championships 2015, which got him the title of Candidate Master. He now still has a shot of being India’s youngest GM, a record held by his close friend R Praggnanandhaa, who was 12 years and 10 months old when he became a GM.
The 12-year-old admits he is not too good with technology but uses his phone and computer only for chess.
“I play against a computer and I know the basics of a computer. I just see “follow Chess”, an app on my phone so I can follow the games of the top players and play around 10 games a day on chess.com,” he said.
The only time he takes a break from chess is to play more sports. “I don’t watch TV as much, I like playing other sports likes cricket and badminton. But I don’t get to play cricket a lot so mostly I play badminton with my mother at home these days,” he says. The Baahubali fan though likes to watch Tamil comedies to relax and is not interested in music, except maybe spiritual songs.
But his life revolves around chess. Even his friends, pranks and banter are about the game. “I play pranks all the time, but that’s only people with my age. You should have seen me during the [Mumbai] tournament, I was teasing everyone,” he laughed.
But perhaps the most memorable and insightful thing he says is inadvertent. When asked to describe how he feels when he plays chess, he automatically corrects it to “I enjoy chess”.
It is a sign that his prodigious potential is backed by the right level of dedication and self-awareness, two qualities that go a long way towards making a champion.