For around a 100 games, B Adhiban kept losing. Game after game, he would lose and he would cry. It didn’t matter that he was just an eight-year-old. It didn’t even matter that the opponent was his mother. Losing was unacceptable and not for one moment did the young boy think of running away from the challenge or maybe just pick another sport as so many others do. Instead, he concentrated on ways to even the score.
“My mom always takes pride in telling me that I lost around 100 games to her. She was the one who was constantly beating me. I was always playing her at home all the time in my early years and she was actually very good. She was never easy to beat and I would just cry after each game,” said Adhiban in a conversation with Scroll.in.
“Eventually, after losing 100 games, I started to understand how to beat her. I didn’t keep count but my mom did. I think she goaded me to become ‘The Beast,’ that is my nickname in the chess world,” Adhiban added.
It is a story that perfectly describes Adhiban’s personality; a trait that has seen him now climb into the very elite 2700 Elo Rating club of the chess world. Only 61 GMs in the world have a rating above 2700 and the 26-year-old from Chennai is now one of them – only the fourth Indian in the pack with Vishy Anand, P Harikrishna, Vidit Gujrathi. K Sasikiran had also attained the rating once but he has since fallen out of the bracket.
He attained the rating at the recent World Teams Championship where he was superb on Board 1 for the Indian team. His performances earned him the first board gold medal. He entered the event with an ELO rating of 2683 but in the first four rounds, he beat Nils Grandelius , Parham Maghsoodloo  and Bassem Amin  to blitz his way to the milestone.
“It will probably take some time to get used to it [being a 2700+ player]. Because so far, I was just not focussing on it. When I wanted to really achieve it, it was just going further and further away and so when I finally forgot about it and just focussed on playing some good games, then it finally happened,” said Adhiban.
In a way, it may seem like it was a long time coming. But that’s how Adhiban has always been. He sometimes takes a while getting his head around things but once he does, there is no stopping him.
“I learnt chess at the age of seven at a summer camp. I had a lot of options to choose but somehow we felt that chess would be my game because my parents felt that it might work well for me. Then, my mom taught me the moves and stuff and from eight years onwards, I started to play lots of tournaments. Chennai is like the chess capital of India so in my initial years, my Saturdays and Sundays were spent in some corner of the city playing a chess tournament. The thing is that there is no shortage of tournaments in the city and if you keep playing well, one day you will become strong. That is the secret, in Chennai at least,” Adhiban said as he spoke about his initial days.
Adhiban added: “The main point from me was that in one of the first few tournaments, I was playing against a seasoned player - Sethuraman [now a GM] – who was already a big star then and I came close to beating him. Just because I lacked experience, I wasn’t able to beat him. Then, my parents tell me, in around six months, I started beating everyone. By that time, it was apparent that I had a natural flair for the game. It took me like six months… that’s it. But in those six months, I really worked hard too. I was really passionate about the game.”
Adhiban’s big breakthrough in the senior ranks came in 2013 when he qualified for the World Championships but he was stuck for a while at around 2600 until the the 2017 Tata Steel Masters came along.
“I was a complete underdog [at the 2017 Tata Steel Masters]. I had to win the challengers to qualify and the first question I was asked was: ‘Now, that you have qualified for the main group, how do you feel about facing such monsters?’ I said, ‘Yeah true, but I guess I will have to become a monster myself.’ That tournament went amazing [Adhiban finished third] and somehow ‘The Beast’ nickname started to stick. It’s basically to spread fear among my opponents,” he said with a laugh.
Now, as Adhiban is immensely proud to point out, even Anand calls him ‘The Beast.’ The nickname is very apt for two reasons, his game remains very difficult to read and the other is, his fearless drive to win.
“I am never afraid… that is one thing I am not. I never am. For example, one night I was walking on the streets of Chennai at around 11… returning from a movie. There was a street dog that barking like crazy on the route. One option at that point was to take a different, longer route but I said I would rather get bit by the dog rather be afraid. So I just walked on and the dog just moved away. Being afraid is not worth whatever happens,” Adhiban recounted.
Aggression that seems odd for a chess player. It almost seems more suited to a fast bowler. But how did he develop this mentality?
“Well, I think it depends a lot on the personality. Even when I was young, I never played for a draw… with either colour… white or black… I always wanted to win. And I think Magnus is also the same. I think the older generation is having a much harder time against us because the energy and the spirit is something they are struggling to fight against. In every event, I notice, the younger generation is taking over. The older generation also has a lot of experience and maturity but once the younger lot gets more experience, I think we will be much more dangerous.”
Who are your inspirations
Tal because it was the first book I read. Fischer has always been an inspiration and of course, Vishy, because the sport is in this position because of him. Also, Magnus Carlsen right now. He has won the World Championship so many times and I like his fighting spirit the most.
Tal remains the favourite because he would create a flurry of sacrifices and nobody would be able to understand what is going on and there are many things similar to me, he was also like a people’s favourite. It was fun to be in his company and when he was playing, everyone enjoyed his game. The same cannot be said for Carlsen because his strategy is more to wait for the opponent to make a mistake and then, pouncing on it. But Tal used to just go for it, he used to create magic, that is why he was called ‘The Magician’.
Carlsen generally takes you out of your comfort zone and he then wants to prove he is better than you. When I played him, I just showed him with the first move itself that I was ready for anything he could throw at me. But nowadays, I don’t think he is the same guy. I don’t know what has happened to him. He is barely winning the World Championship. I mean he is depending Rapid to win the title. It is not like he is trying to go out and beat them in classical chess. 2-3 years back if he was playing a tournament, he was winning it. Nowadays, it is not the same. Others are winning too. The domination is gone. I think his motivation is gone.
But despite this approach, Adhiban’s classical rating is much higher than blitz or rapid.
“For some reason, I feel that all this positive energy, spirit and aggressive approach is much more easy to incorporate into the classical game because you have more time. But in Rapid and Blitz, so far I have not been able to do it so much. Also, I feel that a long time ago, Rapid and Blitz was never thought to be mainstream. It was basically always a fun thing and I was never taking in seriously, but now it has become quite serious [it even decided the World Championship].”
He added: “Also, I have a theory that I was saving a lot of my strength for the Tata Steel Masters, which I had to play two years in a row [2017 and 2018]. So when I was playing Rapid or Blitz, I was trying to hold on to my great ideas as those games would also be published. This World and Rapid I had to skip because they announced it at the last moment and I couldn’t plan for it as I had the Asian Championship before it.”
At the moment, Adhiban trains with Elizbar Ubilava [who lives in Spain but is a Georgian citizen] and Alan Greenfield [who also trains Vidit Gujrathi]. But his ideas could come from anywhere. A friend in Sri Lanka once suggested an obscure line while talking about a game, it interested Adhiban so much that he decided to use it in a game and won. One can never quite be sure of what the 26-year-old might do on the board.
For now, he’s glad to have moved into the 2700+ club and in a way, he sees this as an opportunity to continue playing the kind of chess that has got him so far.
P.S. Adhiban’s mother is now playing chess and even has a FIDE rating. Now, she has time to play, so she is giving it a shot. Maybe, just maybe, Adhiban may have a 100 games coming his way. And this time, he might have to do the teaching.