Just when the world of sports is limping back to some cautious activity, chess is looking to add to the gains from the global shutdown forced by the pandemic.
From the world’s elite to the lesser grandmasters (GMs), to club players down to the beginners, all found a reason to spend more time on their chess. When forced to stay indoors in these challenging and frustrating times, millions around the world took to online chess at various levels, and a high percentage among them stayed hooked.
The result was a greater following for the sport in the virtual world even as the wait for over-the-board action continued.
In the Indian context, many sportspersons made the most of this phase of “inactivity” by working on their fitness. But deep down, they all yearned to get back to the sporting arena.
The cream of Indian chess players — Viswanathan Anand, P. Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi — were seen, by turns, in the million-dollar Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, while the latter two also figured in the ongoing $1.5 million Champions Tour.
Among the Indians, none could match the strides taken by young Nihal Sarin during the past year.
Known for his tremendous calculating skills over the board, the 16-year-old from Kerala made the world’s elite take note by stunning world champion Magnus Carlsen in a three-minute blitz encounter on May 27. Before their live friendly game, watched by millions, Carlsen described the 2019 Asian blitz champion as “one of the young guns, one of the better blitz players around.” As it turned out, Nihal did this impression no harm.
These days, GM N. Srinath, the 2005 world under-12 champion, works with Nihal. – Special Arrangement
Make no mistake. Among the Indians in the blitz rankings, Nihal is third, behind Anand and Vidit. Creditably, he is ahead of P. Harikrishna, B. Adhiban, Surya Shekhar Ganguly, S. P. Sethuraman and K. Sasikiran. Even if one looks at the classical ratings, Nihal (2620) ranks a credible ninth in the country.
Nihal’s abilities in the shorter time-format played its part as India shared the inaugural FIDE Online Olympiad gold medal with Russia. Later in the year, Nihal, Rakshitta Ravi and D. Gukesh added the world titles from the FIDE rapid online competitions.
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The year also saw Nihal collect a silver medal from the Asian team championship and win Chess.com’s 2020 junior speed online championship by beating Russia’s world junior No. 6 Alexey Sarana 8-7 in the final. On his way to the title, Nihal scalped the USA’s Andrew Tang, Australia’s Anton Smirnov and Armenian Haik Martirosyan.
The third youngest player in chess history to cross the rating of 2600, Nihal won the Karpov Trophy by getting past names such as Sarana in the final (1.5-0.5), Georgian No. 1 Ivan Cheparinov (2-0) in the semifinals and France No. 2 Etienne Bacrot (2-0) in the pre-quarterfinals.
In December, Nihal clinched the Chessbase India Super Juniors Cup.
The taste of success is nothing new for the boy from Thrissur. A former world under-10 champion and a runner-up in the world under-12 category, Nihal became an international master at the age of 12 years and eight months in early 2017. Even this should not come as a huge surprise because Nihal was someone who, as a three-year-old, could identify the flags of more than 190 nations! As his dermatologist father Dr Sarin Abdulsalam puts it, “He could already speak fluently in English by the time he was in upper kindergarten, knew the multiplication tables till 16 by the time he turned six and enrolled into the first standard.”
Nihal loves the style of fourth world champion Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) and says, “I like his attacking style. But nowadays, that sort of attack will not work any more. There is so much theory. At that time there was not so much theory, but now there is a lot and many games end in draws.” – The Hindu Photo Library
As an 11-year-old, Nihal travelled to watch Carlsen play in the 2016 Norway Chess. When the media realised that a former world under-10 champion was in their midst, a series of interviews followed with the young Indian talent. When Nihal was asked about his style of play, this yet-to-be-12-year-old youngster’s response aptly reflected a maturity way beyond his years. “I play mainly according to the position. Depending on the requirement of the position, I attack or defend or play positionally.”
He loves the style of fourth world champion Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) and says, “I like his attacking style. But nowadays, that sort of attack will not work any more. There is so much theory. At that time there was not so much theory, but now there is a lot and many games end in draws.”
During Nihal’s early years, his school chess coach E. P. Nirmal and Ukranian GM Dimitri Komaroveven shaped his play. These days, GM N. Srinath, the 2005 world under-12 champion, works with Nihal.
Let’s take a closer look at Nihal’s progression in the past few years.
In December 2017, Nihal crossed the rating of 2500, nearly seven months before he became India’s 53rd GM. Between January 1, 2018, and April 30, 2019, he played a series of strong tournaments like the Gibraltar Masters, the Aeroflot Open, Isle of Man and others, and collected a whopping 74 rating points to reach 2598!
During this 16-month period, Nihal played 13 classical format tournaments and performed incredibly well. The numbers speak for themselves: he played 115 classical games, won 42, drew 56 and lost just 17! Against those rated over 2700, Nihal played nine games and drew with names such as Wesley So, Ivan Cheparinov, Vladimir Fedoseev, current sensation Daniil Dubov and Richard Rapport.
Nihal won six times against opponents from the ‘Club 2600’ — Carlsen’s second Jon Hammer, Mircea-Emilian Parligras, Adley Ahmed (twice), Aleksander Indjic and Kiril Georgiev. If you also consider his performance in the World Blitz Championship, where he finished ahead of several leading names, including Anand, Nihal’s abilities command more respect.
At the 2018 Tata Steel event in Kolkata, Nihal drew with Anand, Harikrishna, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Vidit, Sergey Karjakin and Ganguly.
In 2019, Nihal signed a sponsorship deal with Akshayakalpa, an organic milk brand from Bengaluru. Chessbase India estimated the sponsorship figure to be between Rs75 lakh and Rs1 crore, making Nihal the second-highest paid chess player in the country following Anand. – Special Arrangement
If we step back further, to 2017, the facts are as startling. Nihal collected 192 rating points during the course of which he also gained his first GM norm, from the Fagernes International. For the record, his second norm came at the 2018 Reykjavik Open and the final one at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Masters.
On June 1, 2019, when Nihal took his rating past the 2600 mark, Anand was quick to comment, “Nihal has made a lot of progress in the last year. His tenacity and focus is commendable.”
In 2019, Nihal signed a sponsorship deal with Akshayakalpa, an organic milk brand from Bengaluru. Chessbase India estimated the sponsorship figure to be between ₹75 lakh and ₹1 crore, making Nihal the second-highest paid chess player in the country following Anand.
Well-guided, Nihal is on the right path. With over-the-board action returning at the Tata Steel Masters and the world’s elite coming together under one roof, chess is likely to see a lot more competitions, including the shorter time-format games, online.
Among the current crop of exceptional teen talents, including R. Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh, Leon Mendonca and others, watch out for Nihal.