For the 53rd GM of India Nihal Sarin the journey is more important than the destination
People are predicting a very bright future for Indian chess. One of the main reasons for the same is Nihal Sarin (the other one is Praggnanandhaa). Nihal became a GM at the age of 14 years, 1 month and 1 day when he achieved his final GM norm at the Abu Dhabi Masters 2018 with one round to spare. This makes the young boy, the 12th youngest GM in the history of the game. In this article we tell you all about the people who have helped Nihal to become the chess player that he is. At the same time we analyze two of his most recent games (from 2018) and show you why he is a technical and positional monster. Nihal's restlessness earned him the title of "the boy who never sits"! Well, we have now officially changed it to "the boy who never stops"!
From the boy who never sits, to the boy who never stops
On 14th of August Nihal Sarin became the 53rd GM of Indian chess. Hailing from Thrissur in Kerala, the boy scored his third GM norm at the Abu Dhabi Masters 2018 and achieved the highest title in the game of chess at the age of just 14 days 1 month and 1 day. Usually to achieve the GM title one should have cross the rating of 2500 Elo points. Nihal’s live rating as on 16th of August 2018 is 2572! This just goes to show that the boy has already surpassed the level of a “normal” GM and is very close to the next milestone of achieving 2600 Elo rating. Just to put things into perspective, Nihal achieving his GM title at the age of 14 years 1 month and 1 day makes him twelfth youngest chess player in the history of the game to get the GM title. He has achieved this title faster than some of the best players in the world currently – Maxime Vachier Lagrave, Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Wesley So and our very own Viswanathan Anand.
I first saw Nihal Sarin at the World Juniors 2014 in Pune. Not many knew about him. The boy was after all just 10 years old at that point! World Juniors is a tournament where the best players below the age of 20 from all over the globe gather to compete with each other. Nihal was just half the age of most of his competitors. There were a few other such young Indian players playing in the tournament, but anyone with a bit of chess experience could instantly sense that there was something special about Nihal. “The boy who never sits!” Nihal would make his move get up from his chair and move around. He would move from one end to another, clasping his fingers. No, he was not tensed or afraid. He was just restless. A crowd would gather around his game as the 10-year-old would make a move on the chess board in an instant and then get up. His opponents would fight hard to win the game, but deep within they would be in awe of this wonderboy!
But what was even more impressive was the post-game conference with this young lad. He would enter the commentary room which was filled with experts with years of chess knowledge (IM V. Saravanan, IM Prathamesh Mokal, WGM Soumya Swaminathan, WGM Swati Ghate and myself), and floor us with his chess erudition. The boy could not only remember the entire game, but also the plans and ideas behind each and every move that he played and also his opponent’s!
For Nihal’s parents Sarin Abdul Salam and Shijin, Nihal’s phenomenal memory and chess prowess didn’t completely come as a surprise. Says Dr. Sarin, “Nihal could recognize the flags of all the 190 odd countries by the age of three, could already speak fluently in English by the time he was in upper kindergarten, knew the multiplication tables until sixteen by the time he turned six and enrolled into the first standard.”
Nihal as six-year-old was a restless kid. In order to channelize his energy in the right direction, Nihal’s parents decided to introduce him to the game of chess. It was his grandfather who taught him the rules of the game. The boy picked it up immediately and in his second tournament itself won a trophy. The talent was clearly there and Nihal’s first coach Mathew P. Joseph Pottoore let Nihal’s father know about the same. But nothing really was planned in Nihal’s chess career. Right people entered at the right time in Nihal’s life and always took him to the next level. Coach Nirmal EP, the Kerala State Champion, started training Nihal when he was eight years old. He ensured that he worked with Nihal on removing his flaws, but with minimal interference. Nirmal let the boy’s talent flow and just directed him when things went completely wrong. This has always been the approach with which things have been done in Nihal’s life. There is never a fixed a routine or a schedule or a plan. The boy simply does the things he loves and keeps getting better at it.
Through serendipity Nihal found his next trainer GM Dimitri Komarov. Nihal made his first foreign trip a month after becoming the National Under-9 champion, to Al-Ain to play the 2013 World Youth. Komarov was the coach of the UAE team. He was making a dedicated effort to make one of his students solve a problem. However, the student was not showing much interest in finding the solution. Nihal happened to be checking out the proceedings between Komarov and his student, and this caught the grandmaster’s eye. He called the boy to him and asked him to solve the position, which was duly dispatched in a flash.
Komarov was surprised at the little boy’s ability to analyze a bunch of variations in a single go – he fell in love with Nihal, as have so many of his ‘fans’ who have come across him. Having worked with some of the best talents in the past, Komarov was in the perfect position to eliminate the flaws in Nihal’s games. But once again, care was taken that the coach never impressed his will on the kid. Says Dr. Sarin, “We never interfere in the decisions Nihal has to make. We just guide him and let him take the decisions.” From a very young age Nihal has developed an independent thought process and an ability to break down complex problems and come to a solution.
Nihal’s focus has been entirely on how he can become a better player. You can see a complete disinterest in him when you speak to him about norms, titles, ratings or winning championships. That’s why winning the national under-9 title, World Champion under-10 or silver medal at world under-12 have very little meaning for Nihal. He is obsessed with playing chess and that’s what he likes to talk about and discuss. It doesn’t really matter for Nihal who the opposite person is, whether he is a GM or a rank amateur, if there is a discussion about chess he will give it his all.
Once when Nihal was travelling with his friend and manager Priyadarshan Banjan, the 11-year-old asked, "What does it mean to be a great player?" Banjan replied,"What does ...Re3 remind you of?" Well versed with classics even at that age, Nihal instantly shot out, "Reti-Alekhine." And that's when Priyadarshan gave him an important message, "This is what being great means. You play so well that your moves come with your name written on it!"
Another important member of Nihal’s team is his recent trainer and friend GM Srinath Narayanan. A former prodigy himself, Srinath now 24 years old, says, “I first met Nihal Sarin in January 2016. I won comfortably, and it was hard to notice anything special at that time. Neither did a training session two months later show me anything extraordinary, other than a very enthusiastic little kid. The first spark was when, in June, he already outplayed me and had a clear winning position. I barely survived then, but the amount of improvement in just six months, mostly self-learned, caught my attention. Since then, I interact with him face to face about every quarter, and he never fails to astonish me with the number of new things he has learned in the intervening period and already internalized. He has an amazing intuition, not just for chess moves, but the way he trains, sees and interacts with chess, and the starting point for all this is boundless curiosity. He doesn’t follow the beaten path or accept things just because others say so, but has the ability to think independently with remarkable clarity. Congratulations on the GM title, which may be merely the first step in a thousand-mile journey, but also one of the annoying distractions around in the career of a lot of players.”
In chess terms Nihal has a positional feel which is much more superior than any of the best talents that the chess world is currently witnessing. His technique of converting winning positions into a win is excellent. His recent games against GM Sundararajan Kidambi at the Kolkata GM Interntional 2018 and Mircea Emilia Parligras at the Abu Dhabi Masters 2018 come to mind. In both the games Nihal was facing experienced grandmasters. In the endgame he was a pawn up and the chances of the game tilting towards a draw were very high. But Nihal with his immense level of stamina and energy, kept posing problems to his opponents until they broke down and lost. It’s usually the other way around, that experienced players trick their younger opponents, but Nihal is simply an exception.
If you are a ChessBase Account Premium Member you can watch Nihal's Endgame Magic Show with one of the best endgame experts in the world Karsten Mueller here. If you are not a ChessBase Account Premium Member, you should consider becoming one just to watch Nihal "teaching" Karsten Mueller a few endgame lessons!
It is extremely difficult to say what Nihal will achieve in the years to come. His current level of play points towards World Championship material. A lot of top players including Vishy Anand have predicted a bright future for the young boy. A lot of variables have to fall in place for Nihal to become the best in the world. But one thing is for sure, for the young boy it’s the journey that is more enjoyable and not the destination!
Coverage of Nihal on ChessBase India:
ChessBase India began in January 2016. At that point Nihal's rating was 2216. It has been an absolute pleasure to follow his journey. We will always be following his exploits all over the world!