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The story of SL Narayanan - devoted to the game of chess

by Saishyam Srikanth - 23/07/2021

Born on 10th of January 1998, S.L. Narayanan is 23 years old. His current rating is 2624 and he is currently ranked no.9 in the country. Narayanan's story begins from the point where he saw his mother playing chess in a tournament and has now reached a point where he is crossing swords with the best in the world. From his father leaving his job, to his sister leaving chess - this Kerala GM has seen too many sacrifices both on and off the board. Apart from exceling at chess, Narayanan also scored 1200/1200 in his 12th grade examinations! This article is a tribute to a brilliant mind in Indian Chess. Know the story of of S.L. Narayanan.

S L Narayanan: A Grandmaster who fought his way to the top!

Many years ago, when this youngster was a restless kid, his mother took him to her office on a day when she also happened to be playing a chess tournament. He sat near his mother’s board and watched her game intently. This was when one of her colleagues insisted that the child should try to learn the game. Fast forward to the present day and one realises that this was the moment when the chess bug struck S L Narayanan. Today, Narayanan is one of the top ten chess players in India and finds a place amongst top 200 players in the world. 

Family: The Biggest Support System

S L Narayanan’s chess career is a testament to his family’s commitment to the sport. Narayanan says, “My father was a PWD contractor. Then, he left his job and till now he has no job. He has been traveling with me and supporting me. So, that says it all.” Speaking about his mother, “My mother also (has been supporting me).  Till last month she was the sole income earner of my family.” Throughout his career, his parents have been trying to help him achieve his dreams and have been ready to sacrifice their own to help him reach his full potential. 


The grandmaster from Kerala also has a sibling who has backed him fully. He tells me, “My sister was also a player. But my parents understood that it wasn’t easy to support both of us. So, they said that one of us has to sacrifice and focus on studies. She took that sacrifice. She was very strong (at chess) till some point. Once, she played in the open section at the state juniors. I was much stronger according to the rating at least but she finished in the top 5 and I was like 20 or something.” Looking back, the sacrifice that Narayanan’s sister made has paid off. Today, Parvathy works at a bank, and she has been able to bring more financial stability to the household through her academic efforts. 

 Narayanan, his sister Parvathy and their parents, Sunilduth and Lyna

Education and Coaching

The Indian talent began his schooling at St. Thomas Residential school and studied there till he was in class 8. The school was completely supportive of his endeavours till 8th standard, but it would’ve been difficult for them to continue supporting him through the years where he had to give public exams. So, S L Narayanan felt that it would be better for him to change schools. “The principal at St. Thomas Residential school. whose name was Rajan Varghese gave me the contact of another School's principal. So, I joined St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School (and studied there) from 9th till my 12th standard.” 


The Grandmaster scored 1200/1200 in his 12th standard exams and was given admission into Mar Ivanios College on the basis of these marks. There’s an interesting story to how he got into college. Narayan recollects, “I told them at the time of joining, that I won't be able to attend the classes, but I will write the exams. ‘If this condition is okay for you, then I will join.’ They were saying it was fine because they thought I won't be there for 2-3 days, and I’ll be there for most of the days but just the reverse happened. I just attended two-three days in one semester.” Eventually, the institution got used to this aspect of Narayanan’s college studies and were very supportive of his efforts to the sport. 


Narayanan began learning chess from former Kerala State Champion, P Sreekumar. He then went on train under IM Varghese Koshy and one of India’s earliest chess stars, GM Praveen Thipsay. As he was getting closer to the Grandmaster title, he worked with GMs Alexander Goloshchapov and Avetik Grigoryan who helped take his game to the next level.


Narayanan isn’t able to train as often as he wants though. The main reason for this is financial. “Training is so expensive. Earlier, the government was supporting to some extent (during the period before he became a GM). Nowadays, there's nothing, so through some loans and microfinance we are trying to manage. Till now it’s running on the edge but still its fine.”

Hobbies and Goals

The Indian talent enjoys reading and it also helped him prepare for his exams when he was studying English literature in college. He recently enjoyed reading Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography, Playing it My Way and the biography, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Narayanan also used to play badminton but doesn’t get much time for this anymore due to his busy schedule. When the grandmaster needs to relax, he meditates and practices yoga. Even at tournaments, he used to dedicate time to this. He even briefly tried his hand at Vipassana but admits that it’s very difficult for him to follow the Vipassana method since it takes about an hour to complete. 


On the board, Narayanan’s next target is to cross a rating of 2700 and through this he says that he will get the chance to play in the Olympiads and many other tournaments. The GM believes that he has a balanced style of play but knows that he has to keep working on his craft. “At some point, some weakness will appear for sure (in one’s game). So, some weaknesses will always be there in your game. Any player has to try and hide that weakness by improving their strength.” To achieve this goal of his, he spends time analysing his games and trying to rectify the mistakes, while also working on his overall chess growth. 

 Narayanan along with his idol: A man who has inspired countless chess players!

When Narayanan is really motivated, he works for 8-9 hours on his chess every day and is not bothered by anything else that’s happening around him during that time. Yet, it’s not humanly possible to be driven all the time. The GM says that he trains for 4-5 hours even on days when he is not motivated and tries to mix up his training schedule on those days. On those days, he trains for a while, plays some games online, watches some chess streams etc.


Like many youngsters around the world and in India, Narayanan admires the Indian Legend, Viswanathan Anand. He notes, “For every Indian, he is someone to look up to, if it were not for him, I don't know if I would be playing chess or (doing) something else. Because we have a role model in India like him, we can follow his path.” The grandmaster is also inspired by Magnus Carlsen for the way in which he has revolutionised and changed the way the sport is played. 

Successes on the Board

At the World Junior Chess Championship in 2016, the Grandmaster from Kerala represented India and won a bronze medal after triumphing in a crucial final round game. Talking about the experience of winning the tournament he says, “It was a really great feeling. It was a strong tournament, the champion was Xiong Jeffery, and the silver medallist was Artemiev (Vladislav), they are now 2700+ players. I also didn’t expect much because even Maghsoodloo (Parham) was playing there. If he had won, his (last round game), he would have been third. That tournament was really nice. I was the sole Indian who finished on the podium. And it was also conducted in India so it would have been kind of a shame if no Indian finished on the podium.”

On the podium of the World Junior Championships at Bhubhaneshwar

In 2012, at the Commonwealth Chess Championship, the Indian youngster had a brilliant tournament. Though he ultimately had a very good result, the tournament didn’t start all that well for him. What happened at this event? “I drew the first game against a 1600 rated player and I was playing very bad. I had played a World Youth tournament in Slovenia and came directly (to the Commonwealth Championships). I had some really bad food in Chennai, I ate mutton biryani or something, to get energized but I was kind of bedridden after that. So, the first round was really terrible and at some point, even my father couldn't understand what was going on. After the first-round draw, he thought I should withdraw but I told him to just give one more chance and I continued playing and won four games in a row. I don’t know what really happened, but I was just playing too good.”


S L Narayanan could have even won the open category of the tournament if he had won his last game against the eventual champion Sergei Timiakov. During the tournament, Narayanan beat the likes of GM Adhiban Baskaran and Srinath Narayanan who was an IM at the time. His performance earned him the Under-16 gold medal. But it was a couple of years after this that Narayanan’s turning point in chess arrived. In 2014, he took home the top prize at the National junior championship and from that moment he has been growing continuously as a chess player.

Team Kerala at the Junior Nationals in 2014 – A blurry photo of a lasting memory!

Sometimes though, rather than the joy of victory, one feels the relief of victory. This was what the Indian grandmaster felt when he won the Ellobregat Open, 2019. Narayanan always believed that he had what it took to win a strong open tournament but somehow things had never worked out for him at these tournaments. At the Ellobregat Open he was in the zone and played with confidence and came through in the clutch to seal his victory. Despite losing his first playoff game, he won the second playoff game and forced an Armageddon encounter against GM Bartel Mateusz. In the Armageddon game, Narayanan managed to triumph and earn a tournament clinching win with the white pieces. 

A special moment: A picture clicked after Narayanan won his first tournament on foreign soil

Looking into the Future

Narayanan has been playing online chess competitively even before the pandemic and won a Titled Tuesday event in 2019 with a field that saw participation from Super GMs such as Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So. “At that event, from what I remember, I couldn't even dream of finishing at the top because it was so strong. I was trying and trying to win a titled Tuesday event and by chance, I was in Switzerland for the Basel open. In Basel, it was a very convenient time for me to play. (Titled Tuesday’s typically take place at Midnight IST) So I thought, “Here, I'll try, at least something better will happen”. And luckily, that day, I won the tournament.”


Despite the fact that he has been playing online chess competitively for a long time. He doesn’t enjoy it that much, simply because there’s always the risk of running into someone who is using unfair means. In the first few months of the pandemic, the Indian youngster remembers that he played against some players who would perform incredibly well, and this made him wonder if his level was dropping. It was only much after these games that he realised how people could be using unfair means while playing. While he acknowledges that FIDE is enforcing better checks for tournaments with high stakes, the smaller tournaments still aren’t that strongly monitored. 


What a nice memory! Little Narayanan up against top GM Parimarjan Negi

Post a year of playing only online chess, Narayanan got the chance to play Over the Board chess in March at the Bangladesh Premier League. “That tournament was a relief for me. I Was preparing a lot and there were no tournaments, so I didn’t know what to do, I mean I didn’t know where to play this preparation.” In addition to this, while he was playing online tournaments, he had to ensure that he didn’t show his full preparation online, and this even meant losing some games. This new era of chess heralded by the pandemic has its own set of challenges and we see these clearly in Narayanan’s case. 


The virus has also hit the India No.9’s search for a job. He has been trying hard to find a job over the past two-three years, but nothing has come to fruition. He hopes that he’ll get a job soon which will give more financial backing to pursue his chess. Narayanan has got support for his chess from outside his family only once when he worked at a camp with GM Goloshchapov to train for the Grandmaster title. The state government funded this camp and Narayanan’s dream of becoming a GM was achieved. It is clear that Narayanan when given the right opportunity can achieve his dreams. The sooner he gets a job, the better it will be for his chess.


Flashback to many years ago, when S L Narayanan was a young chess player without any titles. This was when he played his first game against a GM (Parimarjan Negi). The untitled sportsman couldn’t even afford a laptop at the time and went into the game with zero preparation. Surprisingly, he held Negi to a draw and managed to take points from his first ever encounter against a grandmaster. This is a glimpse into the brilliance that Narayanan has shown from a young age. 

Despite the various constraints that he has faced, the Grandmaster from Kerala has been steadily climbing the ladder of Indian chess. That kid who watched his mother play is one of the best Indian chess players today. We can only hope that Narayanan continues his ascent to the top and becomes a 2700+ GM soon! 

Enamoured by the game of 64 squares

About the author

Saishyam Srikanth is a journalism student who is currently studying in the final year of his bachelor’s programme at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru. He has been a sports fan from the time he can remember and one day, aspires to translate this love for sport into a career as a media professional.

Previous coverage on SL Narayanan on ChessBase India


He is India no.9, his Elo is 2616, yet can't find a job and his confused about his career
S.L. Narayanan's excellent handling of the exchange Ruy Lopez structure
S.L. Alekhine
Top players don't just analyze openings, they also analyze middlegame structures
Naryanan on his game against Vidit Gujrathi at the Aeroflot Open 2018



He has crossed 2650 Elo, but is still looking for a job

S.L. Narayanan wins Ellobregat Open 2019

S.L. Narayanan becomes India's 41st Grandmaster