If you haven’t paid close attention to the Indian chess scene, Vidit Gujrathi’s name might not even ring a bell for you. But it should.

Between India’s everlasting love for Viswanathan Anand and the plethora of young geniuses, the 24-year-old might have slipped under the radar because his rise up the charts has been consistent and not flashy. Along the way, he has already learned some important lessons; lessons that are now empowering him to fight against some top-level opponents.

The 24-year-old became an International Master at 14, a Grandmaster at 18 and now has an ELO rating of 2711 – the third highest among all Indians behind only Viswanathan Anand [2779] and P Harikrishna [2726]. At the recent Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2019, he beat Vladimir Kramnik and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov [ELO rating 2790] to showcase that he is now perhaps primed to take the super elites in the world of chess.

Scroll.in caught up with the youngster to find out how he is approaching the next phase of his chess career:

On the face of it, it looks like your progression up the ranks has been very smooth...

I don’t think it has been smooth. I’m glad it looks that way. The good thing about my play is that it is more or less consistent but there are no big jumps either. It is not like I will gain 50 ELO points overnight. In that sense, I am steady. But there are some players who will do that — they will gain 50 points or lose them depending on their form. For me, it remains more or less similar but there are some factors which could influence things… it may mean -0.5 or +0.5 and that can make it a great tournament or a mediocre tournament.

Gujrathi's progression chart.

So after 18, when I became a GM, till around the age of 20 — I was more or less like a GM with a rating of 2650, which is decent because I became a GM at 18. But I felt like I was stuck there. But at that point, I started working with Anish Giri [ELO rating 2797]. That was a game-changer because I started to realise how top players really work.

So what is the difference between the way the top players work and the regular GMs?

Giri is considered to be one of the most hardworking players at the elite level. He works on a bigger scale. They have regular training camps. Again, they are elite players, so, they get lots of funding. They have a team, which is also different from working alone or just one coach. It makes a huge difference when you have a team. You divide your work and gives you ideas. So it really helps. I think if I had to define it in layman’s terms — when you don’t feel like working and you still do… that is the biggest difference. At the smaller level, I have seen that if they don’t feel like working, then, they just stop. But here, they just keep on working.

Their time management is top notch. You won’t find them wasting time. That’s why they are able to put in more efforts. Their priorities are very clear and they don’t do any menial work at all. Their schedule is such that they don’t waste energy. They know how rare their skill is and if they concentrate on the right things, everything else will fall into place.

What is a regular session with this ‘study’ group like?

It is very different from player to player. I have worked with a few of them so I know. Nowadays, the most common example is opening work. For example, they will have a team and specific lines will be assigned to individual’s… can we find a novelty… a new idea in those lines. And, sometimes, when we get stuck, it helps to have lots of people. They really go deep in the line and find ideas. The whole point is to get to the core idea of the line and know it much better than the opponent.

The other things can be ‘playing partners’. You have someone as a sparring partner and you play games against them. For example, for his match against Kramnik and Topalov, Anand used to have various sparring partners. He had Magnus Carlsen over… he had Anish [Giri] over… so they used to play a lot of training games before the World Championship. So, this is one form of training which happens at the top. But these guys are not the regular part of the team so they don’t know the opening ideas. They just play games to try it out. This is the best way to warm-up before the tournament. Carlsen, for example, had Daniil Dubov to help him and he recently became the world rapid champion. So, it helps both players.

Vidit Gujrathi [far right] with Anish Giri. Image courtesy: Vidit Gujrathi/Facebook

How has your play evolved from when you first became GM to now?

I hit 2700 for the first time in 2017 but the last year was a bit rough. I ended up playing too many tournaments. So that was bad planning on my part. To maintain consistent energy levels for such long periods is not possible, especially, when one considers the quality of players. But the important thing is to learn from it. Basically, I could have used more structured planning. Now, I have someone helping me with the scheduling but I just wish I had done it before.

I was very close to 2700 for a while but I seemed to be lacking the psychological will to pull through. For example, I was 2690 for a while and there were a few games if I would have won, I would have gone above 2700, so I put extra psychological pressure on myself during the games. But I realised soon that if I keep thinking about the results, it won’t happen. The moment I let go, I felt able to play my natural game.

Game-wise, my openings were not good when I was around 2600. It was completely average. So that’s why in my first World Cup, I struggled in the first round itself. My opening ideas were not good — they were not at a higher level. I know there are some who say opening preparation is overrated but at the top level, you need to have it. You can’t expect miracles to happen at this level. You end up over-stretching to try and pull yourself back into the game.

There is this saying in the chess world that Magnus doesn’t prepare openings but that is all very good propaganda. I think it is over-hyped. He doesn’t have his conventional methods but in his games he doesn’t come out of the openings with a worse position. I think his opening style is very practical. Sometimes, he focuses on surprise value. It may objectively not be the best approach but he’ll still do it and he knows who to do that against. This unpredictable factor in the openings helps him.

Image courtesy: Vidit Gujrathi/Facebook

So what is the Carlsen impact... is he the best player around... is he the ‘Blitz champion’ or the ‘Classical’ champion?

I think he is the best player around, he has been world No 1 for seven years and to have such dominance! I have played him with white and it is very different to see someone up close and to see them from behind. We played in the same event so, I knew exactly what the pressures are. We are on a different starting point but it is quite an achievement to win such a big event (Wijk aan Zee) seven times.

I had read an article on Dubov where he was speaking about Carlsen’s attitude for everything… for anything is that he never complains. When they play football, for example, the opponents (the street players) start playing rough. So he tells his team, why are you complaining. So he can go to any lengths, he hates losing. His attitude is perfect, he builds his fighting spirit from it, it gives him an edge and people often underestimate how big a difference it makes. This is something that he has cultivated over time I feel. He is simply not afraid, at least that is what I feel.

How big is the psychological factor when you play the elite players?

I love playing against the top players. It gets my adrenaline flowing. I know that I will improve if nothing more. Also, there is no pressure for me when I play good players. It’s like if I face Carlsen, there is no pressure, on the other hand, if I face some prodigy, then I have nothing to gain from it. But I still motivate myself. When I play Praggnanandhaa, for example, I am extra motivated. I want to get the edge and keep it.

Your mental outlook seems to be evolving as well...

The more relaxed I became, the easier the game seemed to become. When I was just below 2700, I was too stressed about crossing the mark. When I was there, I was too stressed about maintaining it. But when I dropped back below 2700, I just felt super relaxed and I told myself ‘I don’t give a damn about this.’ Then, suddenly I crossed the mark again in the next tournament. I have noticed that if I care too much, my attention goes into unnecessary things and that stops me from performing at my best. This is something I am also working on… on a daily basis… to keep myself cool to stay composed. That is the key thing. Whenever I get too excited or nervous, it affects my game. I keep trying to find a state of equilibrium.

What next for you… you have never looked like you are in a hurry…

[But] I am in a hurry. Because now I played the Tata Steel tournament last month…

And you beat Vladimir Kramnik… he retired at the end of the tournament…

And I get all the credit [laughs]. But it seems like a nice story… nice timeline. Jokes aside, when I played these top players, I realised there is no big difference between the strengths… there may be small differences here and there but I didn’t feel I was lacking too much. That gave me confidence that I am able to beat them. I had good positions against Mamedyarov and Kramnik and others too. So I don’t understand why I can’t overtake them. I just think that if I play the right events, it is just a matter of time. My strength, I feel, is already 2740 and above. I just have to play more consistently and in the right events, which is very important because of the rating system. If I am playing weaker events, it is just very hard to increase the rating.

With black, for example, you are at a disadvantage [that is a fact]. And it is not easy to beat a Grandmaster [who has an ELO rating of around 2600] with white, who wants a draw. They can get the draw quickly and you will lose three rating points. And you can’t do anything about it. Whereas at the top level if you get a draw, both players don’t lose anything. If you win, you gain. If you lose, you lose. It is very objective. But here [in weaker tournaments] because of the big rating gap and the flawed rating system, the points can fluctuate a lot.

Are you getting invitations to the top tournaments?

Not as much as I like. I really want to play such events more. I am not motivated to play the smaller events any more. I mean, I have played them and I don’t think I can learn anything from it anymore. I have done my part. And I feel this is the right time given how I am playing to get the invitations. For example, there is this Tata Steel India Rapid and Blitz [from November 20-27] this year and I want to play that. But it is part of the Grand Chess tour and I don’t know whether I will get an invite for that.

How does one one go about procuring these invitations?

I don’t know the internal process but I guess there is a tournament director and a committee that takes decisions.

It almost seems like being a top GM is a tactical battle at many levels. It is not just about what you do on the board…

Definitely. You have to think about a lot of stuff. I mean I would like it to be just about chess but that’s not possible at the moment.