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Straight from the heart - P. Karthikeyan shares his story of becoming a GM

by Sagar Shah - 06/12/2018

At the conclusion of the Third Saturday chess tournament in Novi Sad, Serbia, India got its 57th Grandmaster in Karthikeyan Pandian. In addition to finishing his much awaited final norm, the 28-year-old also finished joint first at the event. Two years back, Karthikeyan breached the 2500 rating threshold. Since he had completed all of his norms, many, including Karthikeyan himself, assumed that he had achieved the Grandmaster title. However, it was later discovered that there was a technical issue with one of his norms and, due to this, he was not conferred the Grandmaster (GM) title. It took two more years after this for Karthikeyan to score another norm and finally seal the title in his name. This was not an easy phase in his life and in this interview we catch up with the man .

India's 57th grandmaster - P. Karthikeyan | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Don't mistake him for Karthikeyan Murali or Karthik Venkatraman. This article is dedicated to Karthikeyan Pandian, India's 57th GM and a fine chess player from my generation (born in 1990)! I first met Karthikeyan around a decade ago when both of us were young juniors playing in various age category nationals. The thing which struck me as something very unique about him were his confidence levels. He was absolutely afraid of no one, trying out aggressive lines and ideas against the best in the business! And he had the ability in him to beat opponents rated much higher than him by very strong attacks. Not only that, he would wriggle out of messy situations and his confidence held him in good stead against very strong grandmasters. I vividly remember his game from the Delhi Open 2009 against Yuriy Kuzubov. Karthikeyan was two pawns down and his position was resignable. The computer was shouting an advantage of nearly 3 pawns for Black. But Karthikeyan played on as if nothing had happened with great confidence! Look what happened next!

Karthikeyan vs Yuriy Kuzubov, Delhi GM Open 2009

The move g6!! became so famous that GM Pravin Thipsay wrote about it in his weekly article in the Times of India

Karthikeyan's performance was good enough to gain him his second GM norm

Karthikeyan's talent and skills were never at doubt. He was always a GM material player. But there were certain weaknesses in the way he would play. Sometimes rash, sometimes careless, sometimes just not being able to focus. At the age of 23 years he married the love of his life Harini Sankaran and within two years his son Sanjeev was born. Very soon he also became a trainer. With all of this responsibility and also being an employee at the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), I started having my doubts about Karthikeyan becoming a GM. How would he achieve it? Hasn't he put too many of his eggs in too many different baskets? But just like his confidence on the board, Karthikeyan showed immense levels of self-belief off the board and became India's 57th GM. And it was not just confidence, Karthikeyan had to evolve himself, he had to transform himself in order to achieve his aims. It was not an easy path, but he did it. I am glad he did it and I am sure he is not going to stop here. It's now time to speak about the story of this phenomenal achievement and through the interview below, I hope you are able to learn from Karthikeyan's journey to GM title.

Interview with P. Karthikeyan after he became a GM

Sagar Shah (SS): How does it feel to finally be called a GM after nearly two years of having achieved the GM requirements, but not achieving the title because of technical issues?

Karthikeyan Pandian (KP): It feels really good. Honestly, I had wasted a lot of time explaining people why I did not have the GM title despite having completed all norms. Almost every time I met someone, they would ask me about it after the usual greetings. It kind of created a bad aura around me so, since the last six months, I just used to smile and walk away when someone asked me about it.


SS: What was the exact technical issue that was stopping you from becoming a GM when you achieved your 2500 Elo in Jan 2017?

KP: Of my three norms, the norm I had made at the Delhi Parsvnath GM Open in 2009 had a technical issue. I was informed by the officials that this was considered as an Indian norm since I hadn’t played against enough foreign players. I had defeated a foreign Grandmaster [Ed- Yuriy Kuzubov, the game we saw above!] who was rated above 2600 but I hadn’t played against players from the required number of federations. But it’s all in the past now, nobody would ask me this question again. (Laughs)


SS: Where had you earned your other two norms?

KP: I had scored my first norm by winning the Asian Junior of 2007 and the third one at the 2014 National A in Kottayam, Kerela.


SS: How did your chess journey begin and who taught you the game?

KP: My dad used to play against my brother when I was a kid. Once, I asked him to teach me the game. About a year later, I began defeating him. By this point, he thought I needed professional training so he took me to late Mr. Muralimohan, who became my first coach.


Karthikeyan's first coach was Mr. Muralimohan (left)

SS: Who were some of your early trainers who made a deep impact on your game?

KP: When I was between 10 and 16 years old, I was taught by Mr. Muralimohan, who was a former secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Chess Association and a renowned chess author. He has written many good books like Endless Endings, the Endgame Capsule, Tactics by World Champions, etc. and has had a great impact on me. After this, I began working on chess on my own because of my studies. By the time I turned 17, I had already reached Elo 2200 and I had three months before beginning my engineering studies. I decided to devote this time to chess. I didn’t like the traditional way of studying chess – by reading books and solving puzzles (although, now I have begun to enjoy those things). I decided, I will do what I like the best – watch games. There were three players who I really liked: Vladimir Kramnik, Pentala Harikrishna and RB Ramesh. I began going through the games of only these three players. This was all I did during these three months and within a year, I had gained 200 rating points, touched Elo 2400 and had become an International Master.

Three players who helped Karthikeyan to become an IM - Kramnik, Harikrishna and Ramesh! 

SS: When we see you playing chess, we see that you have a very aggressive, free flowing style of play. How did that develop? Any particular books or softwares that you can point hat helped you?

KP: Just by seeing games and finding new ideas in openings. I enjoy doing that a lot and that is how I reached the 2500 rating mark. After that, I began coaching kids for a year. I read the books of GM Jacob Aagaard and solved puzzles with my students. During this time, I realized that I was unable to convert winning positions at times or was a little lazy to find the clear win. Since last one year, I have been reading a lot of chess books and solving several puzzles. Some of the books I really found fascinating were The Woodpecker Method by Axel Smith, both volumes of Gelfand’s books and some other puzzle books by Quality Chess. Through these books, I slowly understood that there are limitless ideas in the openings. While preparing for the last few tournaments, I had made it a routine to solve something before I ventured out to find some new ideas in an opening.


SS: How did your wife Harini help you in your journey to become a GM?

Karthikeyan with the love of his life - Harini Sankaran | Photo: Karthikeyan's Facebook 

KP: We got married when we were both 23 – in September 2013. I had got a job at the Railways just four months before this. I worked every day for about six or seven hours and chess preparation began to get sidelined from my daily routine. After marriage, both Harini and I travelled to several tournaments without any preparation and I ended up losing a lot of rating points. In the January 2014 list, my rating had fallen to 2342.


I had lost interest in chess around this time. After I came back from work in the evenings, I would play carrom or playstation with my family and watch a movie with my wife before sleeping. Then, at one point, I began to take a lot of interest in computers. I have a degree in IT engineering and was also working in the server room of the accounts department in the Railways. So, I began expending all of my energy into studying about computers.


While I got busy with all of these things, Harini kept telling me to spare some time for chess. She never forced me, though. She knew, I would never do it if I was forced into it. So, in her subtle ways, she tried to get me back into chess and also tried to make me lead a healthier lifestyle. But I was stupid; I resisted it for a long time. A big turning point came at the 2014 National B held in Dharamshala. Harini had joined me there in the middle of the event after having completed her women’s event. With some luck, I finished among the top 14 and got selected for National A.

In May 2013, Karthikeyan and Harini had tied the knot. The chess breakthrough came in 2014! | Photo: Karthikeyan's Facebook 

I was thrilled to have been selected, mainly because the national premier was going to be a Round Robin event. I usually play most of my tournaments in India since playing abroad is expensive. And these are always open Swiss league events. Playing a Round Robin against such a strong field was sure to be a refreshing experience and I was looking forward to it. I also knew this wasn’t going to be easy. These events can be really exhausting; I knew I would need a lot of energy to play here. So, I began practicing some very basic yoga at home. Harini’s brother then enrolled me into a ten day course of this soon afterwards. So, every day, I would go for this course from 5 to 7 a.m. with Harini and her brother.


That December, I made sure that Harini came along with me to the National Premier. I am always in high spirits when I have her by my side. And, in the end, the tournament was a success for me. I finished third and even scored a GM norm. I also got to represent the country at the Asian Individual Championships. The next year, I got selected into the National A again. This time, Harini was pregnant. But she still came along and stood by my side. And once again, I would call the tournament a success – I finished fourth. This way, Harini rekindled my lost interest in chess.

With great patience and always being by her side Harini managed to rekindle Karthikeyan's lost interest in the game of chess! | Photo: Amruta Mokal 

SS: You are also a chess trainer. Can you tell us about your students and why you decided to become a trainer?

KP: After my son Sanjeev was born, I wanted to spend more time at home. And, at the time, one of my very close friends asked for my help in training a kid named Nikhil Magizhnan. He is a great talent; very innocent and playful. I didn’t want to spoil these qualities of his, so I asked his parents to be a bit patient with him. Then I trained D Gukesh, Aditya Mittal, Pranav, Harshita Guddanti and a few other kids. Every one of them is unique. You can learn dedication from Gukesh. He enjoys working lot on chess. Aditya Mittal is very excited when we create or find something new. Pranav enjoys playing and attacking.

Spending more time with Sanjeev was the reason why Karthikeyan took his first steps into becoming a trainer | Photo: Karthikeyan's Facebook 

SS: How has ICF helped you in your journey to become a GM?

KP: It helped a lot. Especially, while taking risky decisions or sometimes spending savings on foreign tournaments, it is good to have a sense of security, knowing that, even in the worst case scenario, I would still have a job to earn from. Also, our team coach, Mr TJ Suresh Kumar is always there to help. If we go to him with a problem, he always makes sure that it is resolved. And not only us, he helps every player in the Railways. This makes ICF the best unit in the Railways. Also, we have a strong team which has been winning the inter-railway championships since the last four years.

The winning ICF team with manager TJ Suresh Kumar (on the right) in 2016 | Photo: Karthikeyan's Facebook 

SS: How do you think your life will change after becoming a GM?

KP: I have enjoyed the process of becoming a Grandmaster in this last one year. It was a great experience. Back in 2007, my three months of continuous hard work had given me the IM (International Master) title. But after that, I was simply playing the same tournaments and did not do any transformational work until recently. This time, I will try to make sure that success does not affect my clarity.


SS: Your wife, Harini is also a very strong chess player but she hasn't achieved her Woman International Master (WIM) title yet. Is your next aim that she becomes a WIM?

KP: She has three WIM norms but keeping in mind the work she has to put in to manage the kid and the house, I really can’t ask anything more from her. But if she wishes to become a WIM or WGM, I would be happy to help her in her journey.

A super-woman! Managing house, kid and ensuring that her husband becomes a GM! Can now Harini become a WIM? 

SS: If I have to ask you one of your best games from your chess career, which one would that be?

KP: I think my game against Jan Werle from the Groningen Open. This was played during my Europe trip in the end of December 2016. At the time, I was under the impression that once I reach 2500, I will be a Grandmaster.


P. Karthikeyan vs Jan Werle

Black has just moved his queen to e7 and is a full piece up. How did Karthikeyan justify his piece sacrifice?

Annotations by Karthikeyan:

SS: What are your future plans now?

KP: I want to be a part of the Indian team at the Olympiad. I know it’s a huge desire. I don’t know whether or not I will achieve it but I am sure I will enjoy the process. Let’s see where life flows. As I understand, in the material world, success depends on various factors which are not totally in your control and the chance of succeeding is greater when you have more energy and pleasant atmosphere around you. In any case, I always have the famous quote by Gautam Buddha's in my heart: "Even if I go to hell I will live well."

The year 2018 has been excellent for Karthikeyan. He became the Commonwealth Champion 2018 and now he is a GM. ChessBase India congratulates him and wishes him the best for his next aim - to become a part of the Indian Olympiad team! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Aditya Pai contributed to this article

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