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Chess Enlightenment with Surya Shekhar Ganguly

by Tanmay Srinath - 08/07/2020

The advent of COVid has pushed us into the comfort of our homes. While other sports struggle to stay relevant, chess has become more popular than ever! The top players in the world have also reinvented themselves, turning to writing books and streaming. Recently, a great champion has been giving back to the game that he loves most dearly. He is the Bengal Tiger Surya Shekhar Ganguly, 6 time National Champion and Anand's second. Surya's YouTube Channel, Surya Chess Talk, started around 2 weeks ago, has grown from strength to strength, with content as diverse as In Conversation with, where he speaks with the absolute chess elite like Anand and Aronian on various topics, and Fun Learning and Unlearning, where Surya speaks in depth about some of the finer aspects of how one thinks during a chess game. Tanmay Srinath takes you through his mesmerizing learning experience with one of India's greatest champions! 

In my last few months of lock-down I have managed to keep myself really busy, both on the chess front and otherwise. Education is one sector that didn't rest, and my college managed to keep me fruitfully engaged with a lot of work, which is why my journalistic endeavors slowed down a bit. However, I did manage to bring out my current magnum opus - Meeting the Indian Fischer Parts 1 and 2, and I will soon be coming out with another 2-article series. Why is this relevant to my current article? Simple - my interaction with Surya, as he likes to be called, began with this! 


I have never had the pleasure of meeting stalwarts of the game like Surya, but modern social networking means that I am able to connect with him and a lot of other players at the click of a button. Initially, I approached Surya to request from him a few memories he had of playing my coach Shivananda B S. His points were included in part 2, and since I was very grateful for the time he had given me at the point, I promised myself that I will try to follow whatever work he was doing. 


Thus when Surya launched his YouTube channel with a 4-part interview of Vishy Anand (one part includes his wife Aruna as well), I was fascinated. First of all, as an average chess player (for now!), I am really looking forward to any interaction that I can manage with the absolute elite. Another point of interest here was that Surya has been Vishy's second on numerous occasions, so I was pretty sure that Surya's questions would be very pertinent. Thus, I eagerly went through every one of his videos, and came out a changed player (and person!)

Two of the GOATs fighting it out - Anand and Karpov. | Photo: Chessbase India Archives

If there is one thing I need to mention about Anand, one thing that distinguishes him from all the chess legends he stands with, it is his absolutely natural and organic feel for the game. I managed to send in one of my questions to Anand, regarding training methods to develop deep and accurate calculation abilities and be able to see the whole board clearly. His answer clearly surprised me, and I quote- "Again, I would give the same answer I would give Soumya (Swaminathan). You can't train such skills - I mean he puts it verbally which is nice, but you can't train in chess by breaking it down into such small bits. Basically it has to happen at a much more fundamental level. In the end, it just means that you just keep checking lines, positions where you are not good at. So for example if you are not good at playing with or against an IQP, just study 20-30 games of such positions. What ever you are describing will happen naturally after that. But I am a bit skeptical that you can train yourself to think in certain patterns."

Two of the most gifted individuals in chess - Vishy Anand and Peter Svidler. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

If you don't understand Anand's answer immediately, don't be surprised - I didn't either! It took me quite a lot of deliberation and a nice non-chess book Relentless (not promotion, I really read it and loved it!) to fully comprehend the profoundness of Vishy's reply, not to mention a quick chat with my coach. Basically what Anand wants me and all the others to build is a wealth of chess knowledge - patterns that you have seen before, positions where there is a plan you have studied and so on. What he describes as natural is simply not visible to us because we have not seen such a pattern before. What is the only move to Anand looks bizarre to us. I remember seeing such a situation in the Alpha Go-Lee Sedol match, where Lee played a stunning move, and something neither the commentators nor the machine understood. Quizzed after the game, Lee said that he felt that was the only move in the position! While Go and Chess are not necessarily the same, you get the point right?


This is the video I am talking about. Also note the number of top chess players in the chat! Sethuraman, Adhiban, Deep Sengupta, Padmini Rout - the list is endless!


This is what I am talking about. When a top player speaks, he shares his path and experience. This is something a regular book or a fun video won't give you. What is also amazing to me as a complete outsider is how much of time and effort Anand has poured into this. 4 hours of his time? Well he is a multiple time world champion! Getting 5 minutes of his time personally will be tough for us, but Surya being Anand's good friend and second gives us 4 hours+ of pure chess enlightenment - it can't be worded any different!

These two have managed to take chess to a whole new level! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

I thought this was a one-off! Turns out I was mistaken! Surya also got one of his good friends, a certain Armenian Artist called Levon Aronian, to do a 2-part interview/talk show!


What baffled me and all the viewers was how vast and deep Levon's knowledge of chess and life is. The guy just knows everything! While Anand's interview was a bit more serious (not that I am complaining!), Levon's was filled with the kind of humour you rarely get to see nowadays - he managed to make me laugh without doing anything special!

The sage of wisdom in top level chess! | Photo: Chessbase India Archives

His love for Indian culture is very nice to see as well! For example, he mentions that he has learnt a lot from Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, one of the foremost spiritual gurus not only in India, but also in the world for his practical 21st century advice. He also says he has read a lot of Osho Books, Osho being Acharya Rajneesh, a 20th century mystic and philosopher. He is also a fan of the Indian Film-maker Satyajit Ray, and loves Bengali music! He also gave up eating most animals (he eats fish, so is called a pescetarian) because of enjoying vegetarian food in...Goa!! I also learnt how much I am to learn about our fascinating and rich facets of Indian culture, listening to Levon speak about everything from ragas and South Indian music to Sadhguru to how a westerner showed him the interesting bits about Indian culture. Basically, two of the most instructive hours of my life! Also, what was very nice to see is that in part two of this show, Levon actually recited a Russian Poem! It was heart-warming to see him mention that he does it only for Surya! 


Let me add one more important point here. In this tough times, spirituality, faith and patriotism are very important components to ensure we are emotionally stable. All these help in making us well rounded personalities. If we can learn one thing from Levon Aronian, it is his philosophical attitude to life. After a heart-wrenching personal loss a few months back, one can expect Levon to have become a shadow of himself. But, luckily for us, this is not the case! Levon with his oceanic knowledge (I can't mention this enough!) and avid reading habits have ensured that he has stayed emotionally strong during this testing phase. In particular, I marveled one of his catch phrases, and I quote - "I believe that I was given the wonder of life, and suffering is part of that mission!!" One can't imagine the amount of strength it takes for a person to be this positive, especially when he is tested in various ways!


To sum up what we can learn from the chess elite, I will quote the interviewer Surya himself: "I wanna prove a point that not anything sincere about chess should be tagged as 'elite'. There's always immense scope of learning for everyone from these legends if we don't keep them away tagging 'elite'!" Can't agree more!

Also, one more thing to mention - Surya's next guest from 11-12 July will be the one and only Technical King of Indian Chess Pentala Harikrishna, and Surya's childhood friend! Now isn't that a must watch!

Just how many boast such a million dollar smile! Hari will be next on Surya's 'In Conversation with..' | Photo: Chessbase India Archives

Here is Part 1 of 'In Conversation with Levon:

Two friends from the same generation doing what they do best! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

I would not like to reveal too much from what Surya is doing, but just to give you a glimpse of what he did in his fun learning and unlearning series I present the following position:


Ganguly - Spoelman Wijk Ann Zee 2011

White to play here. What will you do?

This position made a big impact on me. To watch Surya's explanation, a must for all improving players, check out the video below:

To finish my article, I would like to quote the man on the mission himself! Surya Shekhar Ganguly on expanding his frontiers:

"I want to bring some quality chess content to my audience and my chess playing fraternity. I want to interview top players on my show and show the audience what it takes to get there. One amazing quality in them is how humble and modest they are despite reaching the top!

We only get to see them as chess players usually. I have been fortunate to talk/work with many of them and I know how great they are as human beings also. One idea was to bring the other side of these players to the audience. I have also started a solo show where I will be discussing various topics of chess.


Generally I felt that this was largely missing in YouTube as far as chess is concerned. I am very happy and grateful that most of the top players are always very active in the chat section of my channel. It gives me immense satisfaction when I see distinguished players in my chat, and it motivates me to work harder than ever!"


Truly inspiring words! It is heartwarming and very nice to see when top chess players want to give back to the game. That way, Surya is truly a nice person! Any other person with his accomplishments would have concentrated on other things, but being what he is Surya is giving us valuable time and knowledge, and this should be appreciated! I thank him, and wish him all the success in this new adventure!

Player, Second, Trainer, Interviewer....Surya Shekhar Ganguly has found new ways to enthrall us spectators! | Photo: Wijk Ann Zee

You can subscribe to Surya's Youtube Channel here.

You can watch a few highlights here:

About the Author

Tanmay Srinath is a young chess player from Bangalore, Karnataka, currently pursuing both chess and engineering at BMSCE Bangalore. Tanmay is also a Taekwondo Black Belt, who has represented the country in an International Tournament in Thailand. He is a big fan of Mikhail Tal and Vishy Anand, and sincerely believes in doing his bit to Power Chess in India!

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