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The Human AlphaZero!

by Ashwin Subramanian - 13/09/2019

Nihal Sarin stunned the chess world with his 2-0 victory against GM Jorge Cori at the first round of the World Cup 2019. People who always used to wonder how strong Nihal really is got their questions answered through his games. But how did Nihal become so strong? What are the ingredients that have helped him reach the rating of 2622 at the age of just 15 years. Ashwin Subramanian has spent time with the youngster and through his interactions with Nihal and constantly following his updates has come to the conclusion that there five factors which makes him a future World Championship contender. What are these five points? We welcome you to read the article penned down by our guest author. 

Nihal Sarin - the human Alpha Zero

by Ashwin Subramanian


In April 2018, I visited the Karnataka State Chess Championship sponsored by Akshayakalpa to meet a few of my friends and soak in the wonderful ambience at the event! After the penultimate round, I had an exciting conversation with Priyadarshan Banjan (Nihal’s highly energetic and enthusiastic manager) on various chess topics. A few months prior to this event, AlphaZero (an AI-based computer chess program developed by DeepMind) had stunned the chess world by destroying StockFish in a 100-game chess match with 28 wins and no losses! AlphaZero had “learnt” to play top level chess through “Reinforcement Learning” (a Machine Learning technique) with no opening books or endgame tablebases – solely via “self-play” and learning from each game! Priyadarshan, to my surprise, compared Nihal’s learning style to AlphaZero’s – Nihal plays a lot of super-fast (blitz/bullet) games online and learns from each one of them! Earlier this year, I got an opportunity to observe Nihal play online and also host him at our home for dinner – he was literally “unstoppable” when it came to playing Blitz/Bullet online! A typical day for Nihal with Blitz/Bullet as a way to relax between serious play or training – a warm welcome to our “Human AlphaZero”!

Nihal playing blitz at Ashwin's home as his manager Priyadarshan Banjan looks on

My first meeting with Nihal was purely accidental – in Aug 2017 I participated at the ChessMine Rapid and Blitz Open, the strongest Rapid and Blitz tournament in Indian history! I was sitting at board 68 when a small kid stopped by and told me that it was his board. It took me a few seconds to recognize him, but my heart skipped a beat when I realized it was “the” Nihal Sarin. His father accompanied him and we both decided to walk outside to look at the pairings again – and I was happy to move to the next board. I was surprised and asked Nihal why he was not on a higher board and he humbly told me that his rapid rating was “quite low”. While I got demolished by my opponent, I could barely resist constantly looking at Nihal’s game and how he crushed his! After each round, I would check with Nihal on how his game went and after a few rounds he walked up to me to ask how the round went for me – I was completely floored that he did this! And in between rounds as well as after the day was over he would play many bullet games with other kids – unstoppable! Humble, soft spoken, quiet, frank, fun loving, charming, witty, naughty – there are words that come to my mind when I think of Nihal “off the chess board” – but “on the chess board” it was evident to me as I watched him play blitz/bullet games that he is clearly a “monster” out to devour his opponent!

Ashwin, the author of these lines, with his daughter Anjana (right) and Nihal Sarin

Amazing Akshayakalpa!

Nihal signing his sponsorship deal with Akshayakalpa - an organic milk company based in Bangalore

On Sep 4th 2019, I was absolutely delighted to see an article on ChessBase India about the long-term agreement Nihal had signed with Akshayakalpa in what was possibly the biggest sponsorship deal for a chess player after Vishy Anand! Chess is a very expensive sport – the resources to learn and prepare (books, computer hardware and software, coaches etc.) are generally very expensive – and it also entails a lot of travel all over the world if one aspires to become a world class professional player! I’ve been an amateur chess player and an avid chess fan since 1990 (the Garry Kasparov – Anatoly Karpov 1990 world champion inspired me to learn the nuances of the game) – but have rarely seen strong and consistent corporate sponsorship for this amazing sport! It's great to see Akshayakalpa take a long-term view in helping Nihal in growing “from strength to strength”! Nihal will be an excellent role model and brand ambassador for Akshayakalpa as they pursue expansion within and beyond Bangalore with organic milk products that are key for “cerebral and physical growth of young children” – a match made in heaven indeed! I hope this also inspires more corporations coming forward to sponsor chess talent and help grow chess as a sport – as chess is amongst very few pursuits that helps exercise and develop all aspects of the human brain! Thank you “Amazing Akshayakalpa”!

Parenting a Prodigy!

I’ve been amazed by the unfazed support provided by Nihal’s parents (doctors) since the time they recognized his passion for chess at a tender age of 4! Nihal’s parents are excellent role models for how to nurture prodigious talent – by letting Nihal enjoy the game, never forcing anything onto him, letting him make his own decisions and embracing all the support from well-wishers such as Priyadarshan or Srinath who ensured Nihal was headed in the right direction with help ranging from tournament selection to enabling sponsorship to chess training/coaching! They’ve travelled with him until recently to every tournament he has played, working around their personal or professional constraints! Nihal does not seem to lose many games but when he does lose, they are the ones to hear about him quitting the tournament or even the sport – they have learnt to quietly ignore him and a few minutes later he is back online playing online When Nihal was asked about his mother’s role in an interview he was quick to respond “She wakes me up!” – of course his mother Dr. Shijin and his father Dr. Sarin are his pillars of strength and role models for parenting a prodigy!

Interview with Nihal's father Dr. Sarin by IM Sagar Shah
Interview with Nihal's mother Dr. Shijin by Amruta Mokal

Super Srinath:

In an interview to ChessBase India, Grandmaster Srinath Narayan fondly refers to himself as Nihal’s “enabler” – Srinath plays many important roles such as a friend, a trainer, a sparring partner, roommate, fellow traveller etc. to help shape Nihal’s chess career. Srinath was quick to realize that a conventional style would not work with Nihal and he adapted his style based on methods of Nihal’s previous coach’s EP Nirmal and Dimitri Komarov – “things flowed” since then as Srinath puts it and it seems like they have established a fantastic working model! Srinath compares Nihal’s learning style to how Sachin Tendulkar honed his cricket at Shivaji Maidan with the internet chess for Nihal to train his way – “AlphaZero Style” – by playing endlessly against stronger opposition and learning from each game! Nihal’s 2018 performance that included him becoming a Chess Grandmaster at 14 is an excellent testimonial to how well Srinath has enabled Nihal over the recent years – thank you “Super Srinath”!

Srinath - the enabler, with Nihal

2019 World Cup – Wildcard to Winner:

On Aug 7th 2019, Nihal tweeted that he was pleasantly surprised to receive a Wildcard entry to the 2019 World Cup at Khanty Mansiysk, Russia! Nihal turned 15 in Jul 2019 and was the 2nd youngest player at the event! He of course proved to the entire world that he thoroughly deserved this Wildcard entry and started in great style with a 2-0 win over Peruvian No. 1 GM Jorge Cori – who was rated 2676, well above Nihal’s 2610 rating, to move into the 2nd round! Irrespective of how Nihal performs in this event, it would be a fantastic learning experience for him! Here’s wishing Nihal the best for his future rounds at the 2019 Chess World Cup!

Nihal with his Akshayakalpa bottle at the FIDE World Cup 2019

Future World Champion!?

Magnus Carlsen recently said that “India is going to be the strongest chess country in the world” – why not with amazing super talents such as Nihal, Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh to name a few! From one Grandmaster in 1987 to sixty-four Grandmasters in 2019 (1 for each chess square!), Indian chess has indeed come a very long way! I think Nihal’s incredible passion for chess, “AlphaZero” Style of learning from endless hours of practical play, amazing Akshayakalpa’s long term sponsorship, outstanding care/support from his parents, a highly energetic/enthusiastic manager Priyadarshan and a super enabler GM Srinath, uniquely positions him to be a very strong future World Championship contender – a World Champion who will play great chess and inspire many while continuing to “relax” between games by playing online Blitz or Bullet incessantly!

About the author:

In 2018 Ashwin Subramanian, despite being unrated, participated in the ACO World Amateur Championships in the 1600-1800 rating group and won the event with 7.5/9. Ashwin is an engineering manager at Intel and at 42 is still working hard to improve at chess. Work takes away most of his time and he has a family to attend to (wife and a daughter) but he still keeps himself motivated and finds the time to work on his game.

In this video we go through Ashwin's most important games from the event where he become the amateur world champion

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