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The man who never gave up - Shailesh Nerlikar (21.05.1977 - 10.03.2018)

by Sagar Shah - 13/05/2018

Shailesh Nerlikar was one of the most special players who graced the game of chess in India. He was 100% disabled suffering from an illness named Quadriplegia and multiple contracture. He could not sit or stand. Lying on the bed he learnt the game of chess! His bones were brittle and his health was always an issue, but he didn't let them come in way of his dream of becoming a GM. Shailesh fought hard, but on 10th of March 2018 he passed away. IM Sagar Shah who spent a good deal of time with this legend, shares his experiences with you. At the same time you are invited to take part in the Shailesh Nerlikar Memorial tournament to be held in Pune on the 20th of May 2018. 

I first saw Shailesh Nerlikar in Sangli in 2003. I was just 13 years old and sitting at the closing ceremony of the event. He was lying down a few rows ahead of me. I caught a glimpse of him and suddenly my body started to feel uneasy. What was wrong with him, was my first question.

Shailesh Nerlikar with his mother Sarala

My reaction was similar to many other people who met Shailesh for the first time. They would feel pity for him and try to stay clear of him. Shailesh suffered from an illness called Qudriplegia and multiple contracture. Shailesh was born as a healthy boy. He didn't have any health related issues, but an overdose of medicine by the doctor led to his present condition. Shailesh's bones were brittle and he could not move them. He could blink his eyes, talk and turn his body with great difficulty, but that was about it. Leave alone running or walking, Shailesh could not sit. He couldn't do the basic activities on his own. He had to be constantly dependent on his mother or someone else for every little thing.

One of the first passport size photos. Shailesh was born on 21st May 1977

Shailesh in the centre with his siblings

As you can see, by the age of five quadriplegia was already setting in

That's how you would normally see Shailesh at a chess tournament. The stick was used to make himself as independent as possible by pushing the pawns near to himself

The night when I first saw Shailesh I couldn't sleep. How do I put my mind at ease, I asked myself. I decided that the next time I met him I will approach him and talk to him. Sure enough in the next edition of Sangli I got a chance to see Shailesh again. This time I did not let the opportunity pass. I went to Shailesh and greeted him. "What's your rating?", he asked in his thin and pointed tone. "It's 2053", I replied. "Come, sit down. I want to show you my game!" And just like that Shailesh began to show me his game where he had played his favourite opening - the Saemisch variation against the King's Indian. Shailesh didn't make it awkward for me in any way. He just spoke like someone who had absolutely no disability. We started to analyze variations together and my affinity towards him began to grow. No longer was I concerned about Shailesh's condition, I just loved being around him. Every time my game would get over I would go towards Shailesh to ask him about his result and we would analyze his game. Win or loss, Shailesh was always upbeat. After all Shailesh had faced many defeats off the board. The checkmates on the chess board were not going to take his enthusiasm away.


When Shailesh was around five years old quadriplegia and multiple contracture began to set in. The world around him was collapsing. The boy could not walk, nor run and it seemed as if his life was ruined. But a beautiful game opened up the horizons of his imagination once again and gave Shailesh a reason to smile. Chess. Nerlikar realized that chess was a game that he could practice, excel, and play at par with normal opponents. He had some serious obstacles to overcome like lying on the side while making his moves, always having to seek the help of someone to make the moves, not being able to go to the washroom in between the game. Often Shailesh would complain about his head spinning with pain because of the angle at which he was looking at the board. But for Shailesh the pain in his mind was always less as compared to the strength of his dreams. He wanted to become a grandmaster and he was dead serious about it.

Shailesh started playing in many different tournaments all over India

I started to help Shailesh by looking through his games and teaching him new openings. Our work was not regular, but Shailesh always looked forward to it. He would tell me, "Sagar jaldi se GM ban jao, taaki tum mujhe bata sako ki GM kaise banna hai." (Sagar, become a GM soon, so that you can share with me the way in which I can become a GM!). Often I would think to myself, does Shailesh really believe that he could become a GM? And then this doubt would evaporate once I heard the conviction in his voice every time he told me that. He was able to convince me and align me in his dream of becoming a grandmaster. Such was his power.

Shailesh's family played a big role in always motivating him to pursue his dreams. His mother lifted him around until she was nearly 60 years old. She had back pain but would hardly complain about the same.

Shailesh Nerlikar got his rating of 1743 in July 2006. Perhaps, it was the happiest day of his life!

It was not empty talks by Shailesh about becoming a GM. He would seriously think about what are the things lacking in him and try to objectively decode them. Being objective about one's drawbacks is so difficult, but Shailesh was able to analyze his weaknesses on his own. Once when he was going through a rough phase in his chess career, he wrote this mail to me:


1] boock leke boardpar practics karte samay 15 mi me.mansik thakan aati hai aur need lagati hai. (When I work with a book on the board within 15 minutes I feel mental tiredness and sleepy)


2] tmt me jab high rated lagata to dar k mare pet me dard hota hai aur boardpar harne se pahle man har manta hai aur 1800,1900,2000,2100 so k rated lagte to mai boardpar boocks moovs to karta hoon par man me jitneka hosala nahe hota hai. (When I face higher rated opponents over the board, my stomach starts paining and I feel like giving up. Against 1800, 1900, 2000, 2100 I make the book moves on the board, but I don't really believe that I can beat them)


3] is 2015 year me lokal tmt me lowar rated bacchese 3 re ya 4the raund me loss ke baad fhir se 8 aur 9 ve raund me loss hota hoon aur ek baat hai ek baar 1/2 bacchese loss hota hoon to agle 2/3 tmt unse draw ya loss hoti hai yh sab man kachre tarha baith jata hai man kisi player halka leta to bhi jitne kathnai hoti hai jitta hoon par us jit me dum nahi hota hai. (In 2015, I have lost to a lot of lower rated kids in local tournaments in either 3rd or 4th round or 8th or 9th round. Once I lose to a boy, I would again lose or draw with him in the next tournament. All of this is settled in my mind like rubbish. Even when I take someone lightly I am not able to beat him easily.)


4] tmt se pahele man me kahta hoon k 9/10 raund 7 point karuga par rial 4/5 hi pointe hote ha.i (Before the tournament I say that I will score 7.0/9 or 10, but I am able to score 4/5 points only.


5] position solv karte wakt 1 veriatin dekhane k baad  man usi me duba reheta aage  dekh nahi pata hai. (When solving a position I am often immersed in one variation and cannot think ahead).


6] tum jab advanc opening line sikhate  ho to wo match game me mai aply nahi kar pata hoon mai 3/4 yeare k pahele k shailesh ki tarah soch hai (When you (Sagar) teach me advanced opening lines, I am not able to apply in the games, I still think like what I was 3 or 4 years ago.


From all the years of training people if I have learnt something - it is extremely difficult to be objective about one's weaknesses. This is because we have an ego, an image of ourselves in our mind, where we think we are good at almost everything we do. To break that ego and to dissect your shortcomings as a third person is something not many are able to do. Shailesh was an exception!

Speaking to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in 2012

Being felicitated in Kolhapur in 2015

There were many people who helped Shailesh in his chess career. Some of the ones I know were Kapil Lohana, Atul Dahale, Halsagar Chincholimath, Arindam Mukherjee, Surya Shekhar Ganguly. There were many other local players like Utkarsh Lomte sir, Bharat Chougule, Pravin Thakare, Chandrashekhar Koravi, who tried to support Shailesh in the best possible way that they could. I am sure I am missing many names here and I apologize for the same.

Letter from India's super GM Surya Shekhar Ganguly, who was Shailesh's very good friend

Shailesh travelled all the way from Kolhapur with his family to be a part of my marriage celebrations in Pune in 2014

If you thought Shailesh didn't have a life outside chess, you were mistaken. He would love music and had a phenomenal memory about the songs he liked. He loved cricket, watched many matches, and was a movie buff. He also fell in love and was a one-woman man. He was never able to convey to her the feelings he had in his heart but he was so passionate about her. He would send me the poems or messages he had written for her on her birthdays. They were full of life and feelings. Shailesh hoped that the girl would love him back, but was not desperate about it. He was happy in his one-sided affair! He did the best he could from his end. How the girl would react was not in his hands!

World Disabled 2015, Dresden, Germany

Somewhere towards the early 2015 Shailesh called me and said, "Sagar, I have never travelled outside India. This is my chance. The World Disabled Championships are taking place in October in Dresden, Germany and I would like to play in it." I was apprehensive at first. The logistical issues to be scaled were huge. But Shailesh, with his infinite positivity, was able to convince me that going to Dresden was the most important thing in his life.


First things first - how are you going to travel in the flight. An initial check made us understand that Shailesh had to take a certificate from a doctor that he was fit to travel.

Step one - tick!

Next, I contacted a few airlines as to what the cost of travel would be. This reply that I received from Lufthansa put a big blow to our enthusiasm:


Letter from Lufthansa

"Dear Mr. Shah,

Thank you for your query regarding a Stretcher travel for Frankfurt, Germany and back

1. Lufthansa does have a direct flight from Mumbai to Frankfurt and the flight numbers are MUMBAI TO FRANKFURT ON LH 757 and FRANKFURT TO MUMBAI ON LH 756.


2. The fare for the Stretcher passenger would be calculated separately – one from Mumbai to Frankfurt and the other one from Frankfurt to Mumbai. The fare will be INR 10, 46, 233 /- ( Including all the applicable taxes ) in M - Class ( subject to availability of seats in M - Class ) and the charges for the Wenoll Oxygen on board will be EUR 300 equivalent to be paid in Indian Rupees plus 5.60 % JN Service Tax ( This is a mandatory requirement and it needs to be on board for any Stretcher passenger ). The fares are all subject to change and it is applicable on the day of the actual issuance of the tickets.

The fare for the return sector from Frankfurt to Mumbai will be INR 9, 71, 636 /- ( Including all the applicable taxes ) in M - Class ( subject to availability of seats in M - Class ) and the charges for the Wenoll Oxygen on board will be EUR 300 equivalent to be paid in Indian Rupees plus 5.60 % JN Service Tax.

3. Along with the Stretcher passenger one doctor and one attendant must also travel who may be booked in any discounted economy class on the same routing subject to seats availability."


That was a total of Rs.20 lakh just in travelling! While I had lost faith, Shailesh ploughed on. Air India was not forthcoming via mails, but Shailesh had already found the best connection:

Travel to Frankfurt and then a train to Dresden!

Through some of his contacts Shailesh managed to reach the Air India officials who heard his plea and were ready to reduce the fare and accommodate him on the flight. At the same time an institution named BARTI (Babasaheb Ambedkar Research and Training Institute) decided to sponsor Shailesh for this trip. Kapil Lohana, a prominent trainer in Pune, volunteered to go with Shailesh as his helper and coach. It was just amazing to see how everything was falling in place. It was all because of Shailesh's will power. Here are a few people who Shailesh had personally told me to thank way back in 2015 in my article. I wasn't able to do it back then, but I do it now.

Director of BARTI, Dr. Parihar, who made it possible for Shailesh to play at World Disabled Championships with his support

Shaikh sir and Gajmal sir from BARTI

Shri Ramtekke Sir from BARTI

With the extremely supportive Air India staff

Travelling from Frankfurt to Dresden in Eurail

The opening ceremony of the world disabled

It was an unbelievable exposure for Shailesh. He met so many people from so many different countries. Our dear friend Karsten Wieland from Germany took so many pictures and sent it regularly to us. In the end Shailesh scored 2.5/7. But the points were anyway secondary! Shailesh had already scaled mount Olympus by reaching Dresden. Here is one game where Shailesh played excellently in the opening as black and could have won the game if he had not touched the wrong knight. This is the game that Shailesh always remembered as the missed opportunity.

Shailesh featured in one of the German newspapers

One of Shailesh's major finds at the event was the chair with wheels. No longer did her mother have to carry him around!

The man had made his country proud!

Shailesh and I always joked about death with each other! After I became an IM, he said, "Tum to ab IM ho gaye ho! Mujhe yaad nahi rakhne wale. Mein mar jaunga tab yaad karna mujhe!" (You have become an IM now, you are not going to remember me. So please do remember when I die!) And after he came back from his trip to Dresden, I would joke with him, "Ab to aap bahut bade aadmi ho gaye ho. Mein mar jaunga tab yaad karna!" (You have become a big man now! Do remember me when I die!)


Shailesh passed away rather unexpectedly on 10th of March 2018. Health wise he was doing fine, but his chest started to pain in the night. He was rushed to the hospital, but he couldn't survive. His family and friends were devastated on hearing the news. No one had expected this. It came out of the blue.


Personally for me it was a big loss. In the last six months before Shailesh's death I wasn't able to stay in touch with him. It was because of my growing work. And Shailesh made it a point to ask my whereabouts from my friends. He didn't want to disturb me. How I hope he had disturbed me. As a 14-year-old I had gone to Shailesh's board to just exchange a few words with him. That decision changed my life! Shailesh's presence taught me so much about fighting spirit and never give-up attitude. We all learn it in textbooks, but here was a living example. You are my hero, Shailesh. And I will miss you, forever.

Tournament held in the memory of Shailesh Nerlikar:

Shailesh was born on 21st of May 1977. On 20th of May 2018 Victorious Chess Academy will hold a one day rapid tournament at Sanskruti Lawns in Pune. Below are the circulars attached. ChessBase India urges you to participate in big numbers and make this tournament a grand success! It would be a fitting tribute to this legend called Shailesh Nerlikar.

Entry fee is just Rs.300

Many prizes to be won!

Kapil Lohana, who travelled with Shailesh to Dresden as his coach, is organizing the event!


This video shows how Shailesh practices chess on his own!
Story of Shailesh on Zee 24 taas
Shailesh and his mother on the show Zindagi na milegi dobara

If you have a memory about Shailesh, that you would like to share, please do so in the comments section below.