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Interview with India's 40th GM: Swapnil Dhopade (1/2)

by Sagar Shah - 03/12/2015

Swapnil Dhopade became India's 40th GM on 9th of October 2015. His story is one of immense hard work and determination. After achieving his final GM norm in the year 2012, he played nearly 350 more games in the next three years to reach an Elo of 2500! No wonder we can learn so much from this dedicated and disciplined, yet at the same time a genial grandmaster!

GM Swapnil Dhopade was born in 1990, the same year as me. No wonder we became very good friends when we met each other around 2004. When he achieved his GM title in 2015, it was a moment of joy and excitement for me as well. I immediately called him and fixed an appointment for an interview. I knew that the self-made GM that he was, his hard work and determination would inspire many readers! Here's the interview with India's 40th grandmaster and Vidharbha's very first, GM Swapnil Dhopade.

Chess still brings a smile on his face. Picture taken by Amruta Mokal when Swapnil came for a training session at our place 

SS: You faced IM Srinath Narayanan with the white pieces on 9th of October 2015 in the sixth round of the Pune rating tournament. At that point your rating was 2498. How was your mental approach before the round and how did you maintain your nerves?


SD: My mental approach changed after the fourth round. Initially I came with the aim to win the tournament as I had already won two titles [National Challengers and Keshabananda] before the Pune tournament, and I was feeling strong. First three rounds were smooth but in the fourth round, where my live rating was 2499.4, I took all my attention from fighting hard to getting the GM title! After I drew that game, I was very upset and thought I have missed it. That night I decided that I will keep playing with the same spirit of fighting hard regardless of the results and the rating. The next game I won with black and against Srinath I had the same mental approach of fighting till the end. I got a playable position after the opening. He messed up somewhere and I got a pawn. The endgame was not easy, there were some technical difficulties, but slowly I managed to win it in time pressure.


SS: When your opponent resigned the game, and you knew you had become a GM, how did it feel?


SD: I was very pleased after winning the game – not because I completed my rating, but because I felt I played really very from the start till the end in that game. Only after our post game discussions were over did I confirm with the arbiter whether I had really crossed 2500 or not. I was not 100% sure because I had stopped thinking about my rating after the fourth round.  After it was confirmed that I completed all the formalities for my GM title, I felt very relieved that finally I made it!


Here's the game that helped Swapnil to cross 2500 Elo:

[Event "13th Maheshwaranand Saraswati Open"]
[Site "Pune"]
[Date "2015.10.09"]
[Round "6"]
[White "Swapnil, S Dhopade"]
[Black "Srinath, Narayanan"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "E12"]
[WhiteElo "2497"]
[BlackElo "2464"]
[PlyCount "105"]
[EventDate "2015.10.07"]
[EventCountry "IND"]
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. a3 Bb7 5. Nc3 d5 6. Bg5 Be7 7. e3 Nbd7 8. Qc2
O-O 9. cxd5 exd5 10. Bd3 c5 11. O-O h6 12. Bh4 Re8 13. Rad1 Rc8 14. dxc5 bxc5
15. Bf5 d4 16. exd4 Bxf3 17. gxf3 cxd4 18. Rxd4 Qb6 19. Rxd7 Nxd7 20. Bxd7 Bxh4
21. Bxe8 Rxe8 22. Qa4 Qd8 23. Rd1 Qg5+ 24. Qg4 Qe7 25. Ne4 Bf6 26. Rd7 Qe5 27.
Rxa7 Qxb2 28. Qd7 Rf8 29. a4 Be5 30. Rb7 Qc1+ 31. Kg2 Qf4 32. Ng3 g6 33. Qg4
Qd2 34. Rd7 Qc3 35. Qe4 h5 36. Ne2 Qa1 37. f4 Bb8 38. h3 Qe1 39. Qc4 Qa1 40.
Nd4 Qd1 41. Qc6 Qe1 42. Nf3 Qe8 43. Kg3 Qe2 44. Qd5 Qc2 45. a5 Qc1 46. Qd4 h4+
47. Nxh4 Bc7 48. a6 Ra8 49. Qf6 Rf8 50. a7 Qa3+ 51. Kg2 Qxa7 52. Nxg6 Qb7+ 53.
f3 1-0


SS: You had completed your three GM norms around the end of 2012. After that you played almost 350 games in order to cross the 2500 Elo barrier. It must have been mental torture right?


SD: It was indeed a mental torture. There was not a single day after I completed my GM norms that I didn’t think about the grandmaster title! I was quite close on two occasions: first when I completed my third norm and second when I was around 2489! I thought I will complete it soon. But after a few months I slid back to 2418!


SS: How did you hang in there for so long without getting depressed or dejected?


SD: The main thing was that I felt I deserved to be a GM at least if not more. I think anyone would feel this after scoring five GM norms! But there were situations where my work was not giving the desired results. There were tournaments where my performance was not as I expected. Many times after such dismal results I lost hope of becoming a grandmaster. Completely depressed! But I was lucky enough to have supportive parents and friends, who didn’t lose faith in me and kept boosting me in my bad days.


SS: How did you celebrate after becoming a GM?


SD: The first thing I did after completing my title was to come back in my hotel room and lie on the bed with my eyes closed for five minutes! I just wanted to relax and feel the moment. All these years of work had finally paid off. The pressure was gone. I was totally relaxed and the moment was one of unparalleled pleasure. Later I hugged my dad, called my mom, relatives and friends. It was the best moment in my career till date! That night I went with my dad for dinner. We ordered everything, soups, starters, main course and ice cream – being a vegetarian gives you limited options! When I woke up the following day I went to the playing hall with great fighting spirit. The top 2 boards were on the stage. When I climbed the stairs I was surprised to find that there were no chessboards. Instead the organizers had arranged a quick felicitation function before the start of the round. I would like to thank Abhijit Dada [Abhijit Kunte] and Buddhibal Kreeda Trust for such a pleasant surprise. It was indeed very touching.


SS: Whom would you like to dedicate this title to? Who has been your biggest strength?


SD: I would like to dedicate this title to my parents and relatives, who supported me through my good and bad days. My biggest strength is obviously my parents.

 In this journey of becoming a grandmaster, Swapnil's parents have played a huge role.


SS: What would be your advice to many players who clearly have the strength to become an IM or a GM (they have the norms but missing the rating barrier or vice-a-versa) but are unable to achieve their target?


SD: I think a player who scores even a single IM or GM norm has the strength to become to achieve that title. There will be good or bad tournaments. We should learn from our mistakes, try to improve them, and stay focused on our mission till we reach it. Also we should try new ways of working during our practice which will make us improve our game faster. I know there are many guys out there who have completed their norms but haven’t been able to cross 2500 yet, or they crossed 2500 but didn’t make the norms.  My advice would be - don’t give up. Keep working and stay focused. I really wish to see them with their titles completed. It gives a lot of inspiration to me when I see a person struggle for a long time and then finally making it. All the best to you guys.


SS: Three tournament victories in a row – Keshabananda, National Challengers and Pune rating tournament. What exactly changed? Was it your 30 days trip to Spain a few months ago that made the difference?


SD: I think it was a combination of many things, but it was surely not the Spain trip. It all started after my poor start at National Challengers in Nagpur. After I drew my fourth round against a lower rated player in a clear better position, I called my parents and told them that I won’t become a GM. I had lost all hope. But my parents encouraged me to give my best in the remaining rounds and not to think about the results. That night I decided that I will fight hard in every game no matter what the result would be. I also deactivated my Facebook account and decided to fully focus on the tournament. Suddenly I began playing very strongly and kept winning game after game. In the last round against Thejkumar I couldn’t just agree to a draw and was forced to play because of my bad tiebreak. It didn’t really bother me that I might lose and fall out of the National Premier selection. I just went to the game in a fighting mood and won. I continued with this attitude in Orissa as well as in Pune. So I think the improvement in my attitude was a game changer. Before I used to think a lot about ratings and results, but later on I stopped worrying about them and learnt to focus only on the game.


SS: That’s a really important advice that you shared with everyone here. So, Swapnil lets rewind the clocks a bit and talk about your first steps in chess. How did start playing chess?

The time of his life when he was still not introduced to the game of chess!

SD: Once some of my friends were playing chess.  That was the first time I saw a chessboard and asked them to teach me the rules of the game. So it was my friends who taught me to play chess. Later when we shifted to a new flat in Amravati, luckily I had a neighbor who was very much interested in chess. I was around ten years old then. We used to play day and night with each other. That was the time when I fell in love with chess.


SS: There wasn’t much of a chess culture in Amravati, right? So how did you improve at the game and who was your first coach?


SD: Yes there was no chess culture in Amravati, nor was there a local chess association back then. But I think if you fall in love with chess and desire to improve, you always meet people who help you take your game to the next level. My parents started searching for some local coaches in Amravati. A major change came in my life only when I met Shri. Omprakash Kakra Sir. He was working with the Central Bank of India. Previously he had organized many tournaments in India and also has a decent rating of around 2000. I used to go to his house after dinner around 9 p.m. with my parents. He used to coach me from until 12 p.m.! Sometimes even till one! He always considered me as his son. He always stressed on having good behaviour during and after the game. He said that he had observed Anand closely since the five-time World Champion was a child, and always told me his stories and learn from him on and off the board. The most important thing was that he never charged me a single rupee for all this coaching! Sounds unbelievable right? But it’s true.

Swapnil with Omprakash Kakra sir and his wife, after becoming a grandmaster

 SS: It is said that when you were young you read a book on the best games of Karpov and that is the reason why your play is a lot like the 12th World Champion. Is it true?


SD: When I was young I once went to Anup Deshmukh sir for coaching. He told me many important things and also gave me my first chess book – an Informator. He told me to study Karpov’s games to improve my positional understanding. I purchased many books of Karpov’s games and studied them in great detail. I am not sure how much I understood back then, but his games had a great impact on me and my playing style. I liked the way he slowly built an advantage and converted it into a full point without giving his opponents any chances. Studying his games in childhood also increased my liking for endgames – I would love to trade queens and go into endgames whenever possible. So I think that subconsciously I started imitating Karpov’s style.

What a joy it is to stand with the person whom you have always idolized!

SS: I remember that in 2006 National B in Ahmedabad you had a rating of just 2070, but went on to beat many a good players, crossed 2200 Elo, and also qualified for National A. How did you achieve that?


SD: My rating had been consistently increasing till 2070, but it was not as I expected since I used put quite a few hours on chess. I thought that I should already been crossing 2200! I went to National B with my mom. I wanted to play my best chess but the qualification thing never crossed my mind. Those days I had a superstition that if I drew the first higher rated I played against I would assume I was in good form and the tournament is going to be very good for me! But in Ahmedabad I beat a higher rated opponent in the first round itself! So you can guess the confidence it generated in me! I felt that I could beat many more 2200’s in the tournament. With this attitude I kept winning many of my games. With two rounds to go until the end of the event, an arbiter came up to me and said that if I scored 9.0/13 points I would qualify for national A. I was on 7.5/11 and decided to increase my efforts in the last two games. I scored the required 1.5 pts from the last 2 rounds and qualified. I think all the hours that I used to put in chess after my school bore fruit in that tournament.


SS: From 2200 to becoming an IM, was it quite easy for you or you had to struggle a lot?


SD: I think ‘easy’ was never a part of my chess career! After I made my first 2 IM norms and crossed 2400 rating, this time it was my final IM norm which took me one and a half years. When the final IM norm was eluding me, I decided to take classes from Ramesh Sir. I learnt many things from him and immediately overcame my final hurdle and with became an IM.


When Swapnil was in Mumbai after becoming a grandmaster, one of my wife's students Avathanshu Bhat wanted to take Swapnil's interview. Swapnil agreed for the interview! What makes this chat truly interesting is that Avathanshu is just 10 years old!

 -- Part two of this interview will follow soon -- 

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