The story of how M.S. Thejkumar became a GM at the age of 36 years without a chess coach
"Your dream doesn't have an expiration date. Take a deep breathe and try again" - KT Witten. GM M.S. Thejkumar has a story that can inspire millions. The amount of risks he took to achieve his dream of becoming a grandmaster in chess is just mind numbing. Every time he was close to his goal, he failed. But he didn't give up. He always came back with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. He blazed new paths, opened new doors, by believing in himself and becoming a GM at the age of 36 years. Without any formal training in chess he achieved all his six norms (three IM and three GM) within six months! This is a story of a man who believed that he could achieve anything he set his eyes upon. This is the story of India's 50th GM and Karnataka's first M.S. Thejkumar.
Interview with the Indian Smyslov - GM M.S. Thejkumar
by IM Sagar Shah
Somewhere around the early 2000s I saw Thejkumar at many rating tournaments in India. He was rated around the 2250 mark and always used to be among the top seeds of the tournament. He was good, but there were always other IMs in the tournament who would finish ahead of him. I saw nothing special about his play. But somewhere around 2007-08 things began to change. Thejkumar became a positional monster. He started winning one tournament after another and scored his 3 GM norms (even before he had scored his IM norms) to become one of India's most talked about players. I was pretty much stunned. How had this man completely overhauled his play. In a sport where stagnancy is one of the most common problems that people suffer from, Thejkumar managed to completely overhaul his game and took the chess world by storm with his meteoric rise.
Why Thejkumar was so good, I could only guess. That was until 2013. Couple of months before my marriage I got the unique opportunity to assist Thej at the National Premier 2013 at Jalgaon as his second. The field was strong with the likes of Sasikiran, Adhiban, Lalith and others, but Thej maintained his cool and gave a 2600+ performance to finish fourth. While my opening preparation did help Thej, I think during our interactions it was me who was learning more. One thing that I found quite amazing about the Indian Smyslov (I like to call him that!) was that his chess brain was always switched on. I would show him the variations that I had checked with engines and that had been played by many GMs and he would always ask me pertinent questions as to why this move or that move was not possible. There was never a time where he would have lost his focus. When Thej sat in front of a chess board, be it at the tournament hall or in his room for preparation, day or night, tired or fresh, he would always have this serious and focused look. I think it had more to do with the struggles he had faced in the past. A person who has seen the tough times would never take things lightly.
When I got to know about the struggles faced by Thej right from his younger days, I always asked him if I could interview him and let the world know about his fight. But he would always tell me, "Wait until I become a GM." Eight years! Thejkumar had to wait eight years after he had made his final GM norm to cross 2500 Elo barrier. Giving up was never an option. Although the title was delayed, it was in time to become India's 50th GM and Karnataka's first! And most importantly, Thej could no longer say no for an interview!
Sagar Shah (SS): 50th Grandmaster! How did it feel when you achieved that title in September 2017?
Thej Kumar (TK): I felt very happy as it was pending from a very long time. I finished all my norms back in 2008 when there were only about 17 to 18 GMs. So, if I would have played well back then I would have finished within 25. I am not sad, though! 50th is also a very good figure and now many people will remember it better!
SS: I would like to go back in time to when you started playing chess, when did that happen and who taught you?
TK: I first learned chess from my father who was very interested in the game and used to play at college level. Like most other children I also used to enjoy playing cricket but once I started chess I did not like any other sport. There was no turning back. I loved playing it continuously and it became a habit for me. As time went by it became a passion and I couldn't think of leaving chess ever.
SS: How old were you when he taught you chess?
TK: I was 12 years old.
SS: You were born in which year?
SS: So you learned chess around 1993 when Anand was already becoming a phenomenon in Indian chess, he was already a Grandmaster and almost going to challenge Kasparov. Did that have any affect?
TK: At that time I knew about Anand but didn't know much about chess. We used to get very less information and once in a week there was an article in some newspaper on chess which I started following regularly.
SS: Where were you living during your childhood?
TK: I was living in Mysore.
SS: Basically you got acquainted to chess at the age of 12 which is quite late these days.
TK: Compared to the current situation it is very late! My father was working in an insurance company which got shut down later and he did not have a job and my mother was a house wife. I am the youngest of three siblings. I have an elder brother and a sister. Actually at first my elder sister started playing tournaments like the inter-college championship where I used to accompany her and then my elder brother started playing tournaments along with me. Initially he was stronger than me but after sometime he quit playing chess and now he is working in a bank. So, it's only me who continued!
SS: Once you learned chess and you started getting a bit better maybe you played in some local events, what were the next steps and how did you improve?
TK: There was a person from Chennai named Jyotiprakash. He used to come to Mysore and I used to take classes from him. He was an English player (1.c4) and he always used to play that, which I didn't like so much. But I learned a lot about positional chess from him. He suggested me to read some books and that is how it all started.
SS: So he was your first trainer?
TK: No, my first coach was Upendra, who was from Mysore. After that I went to Chennai as I was playing well and there were no real good coaches in Mysore. So my father decided to take me to Chennai.
SS: For chess specially you went to Chennai?
TK: Yes and I got classes from A.L Kasi for 10 days. There I played a tournament - Limca Children's Tournament which I won and it was a turning point for me.
SS: That's when people started to take you seriously?
TK: Yes, it was a sub-junior tournament. I felt very happy winning it and I became very confident.
SS: How was your financial background?
TK: My father did not have a job and we were living at our grandmother's home. She was taking care of my studies and she used to support that way. So the financial background was not that well. As I could not play many tournaments, I had to select, prepare and then play. The situation was not great but I kept on playing.
SS: You were not the most talented of players when you were young. Would it be right to say that?
TK: I was not that talented when I started but after some point I started reading lots of books which helped me to become stronger than what I used to be.
SS: You reached a rating of around 2200 by the time you were 20?
TK: My initial rating was 2176 and later I played the National B when I was around 20 and managed to increase 76 rating points. I was around 2252 by the age 21.
SS: You were 2250 by 21, but your rating stayed in that zone for quite some time?
TK: Because after completing my B.Com degree I was not able to decide between pursuing Master degree and playing chess professionally. I chose to complete my Masters degree which reduced my activeness in chess as my college was very strict with attendance record. So for 2 years I couldn't play much.
SS: So those were the crucial years and you had to spend it in studying.
TK: Yes. By the end of the 2nd year I decided to play in the National under 25 championship in Bihar and even though I was not in touch with chess for 6-7 months. I had won the state under-25 championships and thought it would be a good idea to give it a shot at the Nationals. I started as the 11th seed with strong players like Abhijeet Gupta, Himanshu Sharma and Rathnakaran taking part, but I managed to win the tournament!
SS: Just like Limca sub juniors tournament, this under-25 victory would have been the turning point in your chess career.
TK: Yes after winning the National under 25 I thought that I can do more in chess so I became very serious after that.
SS: Please tell us how you met Jayashree?
TK: I was representing the Mysore in the All India Inter-University Championship,2001. Jayshree was also a member of the women's team and we went to the All India Inter-University Championship in Haryana. Slowly we became friends over there and later we fell in love.
SS: I remember that she didn't know that you were a very strong chess player when she first met you.
TK: Initially she thought that I don't play so well but later she was surprised to find out that I was a strong player.
SS: So basically you fell in love with Jayshree and that was one part of your life which was going well but about your chess you were still around 2250!
TK: After completing my M.Com I was not having a job so I started applying for Railways in sport quota and I got an offer from Central Railway. But, I decided not to join it as I didn't want to go so far. Instead, I chose to give coaching to a boy named Satvik. I went to Bangalore and stayed in their home for 7-8 months which helped me financially. They had a good collection of books and I used to read them in my free time. I enjoyed reading books by Dvoretsky, Yusupov and The Road to Chess Improvement by Alex Yermolinsky and because of the knowledge I gained from the books that I was able to improve my strength in positional chess.
SS: So basically no one trained you to go to the next level when you were 2250. It was just the books?
TK: Yes, I used to work on my own by reading books and only in the year 2004 I purchased my laptop. Even in the National under 25 I took only one book with me and a chess board. Ratnakaran used to tease me saying, "You became champion by reading only one book!"
SS: But was there a specific way in which you would read chess book because there are many people out there who read a lot of books, but never really improve!
TK: I don't think so. I was just enjoying reading the books and they were giving some ideas to improve my thinking, calculation skill and I used to read those kind of books and nothing much!
SS: And then suddenly this huge progress happened in your life when you from 2250 made 3 GM norms, crossed 2400! Tell us something about this phase which is maybe the most interesting one in your life.
TK: After going to Bangalore and staying there for 7 months I didn't like coaching and wanted to play. So, I came back to Mysore and I started working on my own. In that period I played and won 2-3 rated tournaments and also increased my rating to 2350. From 2003 to 2007 I increased only about 100 or 120 points and I was already 27 years old. I couldn't decide whether to continue playing chess or to look for a job. It was at this point that I decided to play the Commonwealth Championships in December and told myself that if there is no result then I will find a job and work. I played really well and got my first IM norm and then my GM norm in the same tournament and then within the next 5-6 months I was able to complete all 3 GM norms!
SS: I remember in the Mayor's cup where Humpy was playing and also Krasenkow and you played with all of these top players and made your final GM norm. You make it sound as if it was just a natural progression but many people who are rated 2300 are struggling to make IM norms, you just went out there in 6 months made 3 GM norms! How is it possible?
TK: Even I don't know how it was possible! But maybe because of reading lot of books and there was some pressure since it was the deciding tournament for me. I kept my cool and played well.
SS: Were there any external factors like your relationship with Jayashree which motivated you in your performance or it was nothing like that?
TK: Yes, it helped me a lot. When I proposed her, she told me that if I become a Grandmaster then it will be easier for us to get married because our parents will agree. So from that point I used to play and work seriously. Before that also I used to work seriously but now it had become a matter of love and life. I wouldn't be pressured from it and she used to encourage me whenever I was not playing well. She even used to contribute money to my expenses so that I could play more tournaments during our relationship period.
SS: So love actually gave you a lot of motivation to do well?
TK: Yes it helped me a lot, she was motivating me all the time.
SS: Wonderful! you were around 2470 with 3 GM norms and everything was looking good, I guess no one really assumed that you wouldn't became a GM back then so you also got married, right?
TK: Yes! (Laughs). Like in 2008 I finished all my norms and I started thinking that I should play abroad as I felt that in India it will be difficult to increase my rating. But that was a wrong decision. I had achieved everything so far by playing here in India. So thinking that it will be difficult from this point, was a wrong thought. I tried playing in Europe but my visa got rejected three times. I was not employed and this was very disappointing. I stopped playing tournaments after getting all my norms and there was a gap of 4-5 months so this affected me badly. I was not able to keep up the momentum and started losing points. I thought I would get the GM title within 1-2 years after marriage but it took a long time! (laughs).
SS: When you made your three GM norms, you were planning not to apply for your IM title right? Go directly for the GM title!
TK: Yes I was thinking of doing it. I didn't apply for IM title after getting all the requirements, but maybe after one year I thought it was better to take the IM title.
SS: I think some world class players like Kramnik have achieved this - GM without becoming an IM. You were trying to do that but it was becoming financially difficult if you are not a titled player you don't get conditions and stuff like that?
TK: Yes as I was not employed, it was very difficult to play tournaments and in July 2008 I got a job in South-Western Railways and the family pressure slowly reduced as I was working and they were happy.
SS: And when did you get married?
TK: We got married in 2010.
SS: So in 2010 you are married, you are employed and you have a rating around 2410 and now starts the important phase of trying for GM title so how did you motivate yourself to this new challenge?
TK: After marriage there was a lot of responsibility on me like whenever I wanted to play a tournament, I needed to take care of Jayashree. We were leaving separately, not with my family, so I had to ensure that she travelled with me. But having her with me was a big boost. I am not a good planner and Jayashree would fill this void with meticulous planning!
SS: You are more like a natural guy, you just flow but she brought a little bit of order and timeliness in your life.
TK: Yes, because of her I am slowly improving (laughs)!
SS: You reached 2470, but the last phase also took a lot of time, right?
TK: Yes, I reached 2470+ twice but afterwards I think I became excited and was putting pressure on myself. That affected me badly otherwise I could have made it sooner!
SS: How did you get rid of this pressure?
TK: After being near the title so many times and backsliding, I decided not to worry anymore about the title and play my natural game. I started giving more importance to selection of events. Like I went to Sri Lanka thrice and gained around 20 points. I think that made a huge difference.
SS: You have already proved yourself by playing so well in India and getting all your GM norms here. But to reach 2500, you had to use some smart moves!
TK: Even in 2015 I had been to Spain with my wife, I was around 2471 and selected some 5-6 tournaments to play in 2 months and finish the title. It was going good in the first tournament as I took my rating to 2479 but later I collapsed and became very disappointed. At that point I felt that I would never become a GM, but I took break from chess for some months and started playing again.
SS: And when did you become a GM?
TK: I became GM in September 2017.
SS: Which was the tournament where you achieved your GM title?
TK: Acutally, I needed 1.6 points for becoming a GM so I thought of playing a tournament in Goa. After playing the first two rounds I was able to complete the rating requirement and withdrew from the event.
SS: When you became a GM, Kaustubh, your son was already born?
TK: Yes he was born in April. I can say he is lucky for me because after he was born I became a GM soon.
SS: It has been some sort of a crazy journey right for a player who was so close to becoming a GM in 2009 to wait for nearly 9 years. How were you able to withstand all of this?
TK: It was very disappointing but still I kept my cool. I thought there is something I need to improve and because of that I am not able to become a GM. I worked on my weaknesses and improved in the areas where I was not good at. In 2016, I returned quite disappointed from Spain, but Jayashree advised me that I should work with a GM. I took the guidance and help of GM Aleksandr Goloschappov and that made the critical difference.
SS: When you are suffering from this period of non-success, you actually took it positively that there is something lacking in you and I should improve rather than getting dejected and disappointed.
TK: Yes, I think that is the correct approach towards improvement. I saw that I was weak in tactics and decided to work on it to become better. In this way I managed to move towards my GM title.
SS: You becoming a GM at the age of 36 is a big motivation to people out there. Do you think it is possible for players to improve after a certain age, let's say 25.
TK: Yes, I think it is possible. If you have the passion, then age will not matter. You should have the spirit and the burning desire to work more. If you are good at what you do, you should definitely be able to achieve your goals.
SS: You look like a very cool and calm guy, but you actually took a lot of risks in life to achieve your GM title.
TK: Ater finishing my M.com I decided that I want to play chess. Even if I would do a job it would be under sports quota. Now it is turning out to be a good decision [Laughs], but at that time everyone was very apprehensive. My friends questioned me for not working. Nowadays, when I meet my friends they tell me that I made a good decision by sticking to chess and not joining a job! [Laughs]
SS: You are player who doesn't change his openings. What's the logic behind that?
TK: I have played Caro-Kann for many years and the results have been great. But I don't think it is a good idea to have a fixed opening repertoire. I think if you want to be a strong chess player, you should know all the different openings and how to play them. I started reading many books to learn new openings, but somehow I have not been able to play them over the board. I am planning to shift to other openings soon.
SS: Maybe we will see Thej playing e4 very soon?
TK: Yes, it is possible(laughs)
SS: Amazing! Thej this has been a wonderful journey for you, if there was something of an advice that you have give to people out there who are reading this what would it be?
TK: I want to say that in my case I started playing chess quite late, yet chess became a part of my life. I enjoyed playing the game and took certain decisions like not joining a job because I really wanted to achieve something in chess. My advice is that if you want to achieve something in chess, if you are very much interested in the game, then put all your efforts in it and you will definitely achieve it.
SS: Go all in, is your thing. Don't play it safe, right?
TK: Yes, do your best and results will definitely come.
SS: And what are your future plans?
TK: Initially I thought that my goal is to become a GM and afterwards I will see. Now I want to set my target to the next level and try to become a super GM in the coming years.
SS: And what would you need for becoming a super GM?
TK: Financial support. It is very much essential because I need to play more strong tournaments and for that financial requirements is also very much so maybe I will look for sponsor in karnataka, so will see if any sponsor come and support me to achieve the next goal.
SS: You have achieved so many things I am sure you will achieve this one too. Thank you so much Thej for taking out time to talk to us and thanks for this wonderful enlightening interview for the readers of the ChessBase India.
If you would like to support Thejkumar in his journey to become a super GM, write to him at - email@example.com
Thej's chess career at a glance:
1993: Started playing chess at the age of 12
1994: Started playing tournaments. 1st tournament, Thej won state sub junior 3rd place.
2002: Until 2002 he hardly played tournaments because of his academics.
2003: Under-25 National Champion. Also completed his M.com
2007: Started coaching Sathvik. Began serious work on chess by reading a lot of books.
Dec 2007: Decided to have a fixed target in chess. If not attained then would go for a job. Made his first IM norm.
Dec 2007 to May 2008: Completed all his norms - not only IM but also GM. Worked very hard in that phase.
April 2008: Helped Jayashree to complete his CA Inter group one. She has finished group two in 2006.
July 2008: Employment with Railways.
2010: Got married to the love of his life Jayashree MK
2013: National B champion
2015: Spain trip was a failure and his rating came down to 2420.
2016: Planned again and started working. Took coaching from Aleksander Goloschappov. In 2016 he got 330 days from Railways because of which his schedule changed.
2017: Achieved GM title.