Published: 12th June 2018
This Kerala lad won his first tournament when he was 6. And there was no looking back!
When he was a kid, Nihal's favourite chess books included ones on Alexander Alekhine’s best games. Now, he says that he has read several books and there is no particular one that is his favourite
When Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian chess grandmaster, and current World Chess Champion was two years old, he could comfortably finish a fifty-piece jigsaw puzzle. By the age of four, he knew the names and populations of most of Norway’s 430 municipalities. He used to build elaborate models with Lego bricks, sometimes even working for as long as six hours on a model. By the time he turned 13, he (by his own admission) had around 10,000 games stored in the database that we call our mind. He also earned the prestigious title of grandmaster at this age.
In the ordinary world — one that is definitely not populated by chess masters — a person with such extraordinary talent would be hailed a genius. When young Nihal Sarin from Kerala was just six years old, he found himself in that very same world. "Nihal was unique. He was curious and keen to win. And I saw in him the characteristics of a potential future World Chess Champion. From the very beginning, he had razor-sharp memory, keen observation, and of course, the talent to 'feel' the right moves. Apart from all that, he is an inspiration to chess lovers all over the world," says the 13-year-old chess prodigy's first coach Mathew P Joseph Pottoore.
Checkmate: Chess comes naturally to this 13-year-old prodigy
Nihal learnt to play when he was around six. His grandfather taught him the moves. "It was a good way to spend my energy and time. I found the idea of moving pieces beautiful. Soon, I discovered the joy of actually playing chess and winning. Of course, I have always enjoyed playing chess. It is a fun sport to play," says Nihal. His parents, both of whom are doctors, recall how at the age of three, their son could recall the flags and names of 190 countries. He could remember the scientific names of all the butterflies mentioned in a particular book. He was never forced or asked to learn these things, he just did. Even now he browses through magazines and recalls specific things with extraordinary accuracy and clarity.
Nihal's first tournament was in Kerala at a local one-day event in 2011. Since then, he has won the National Under-9 title, World Under-10 title and finished as runner-up at both the National Under-11 and World Under-12 tournaments. At the age of 11, he had already crossed the 2200 mark and started looking for his norms.
"When he was eight, he took part in a tournament where there were several senior players. He was among the youngest playing. In the final round, he played the top seed Linda Rangarajan, who was rated around 2150. Linda needed at least a draw to become the champion. Since Nihal was rated about 700 points below her, many seniors advised him to take a draw by being solid. I told him that while it is good to listen to seniors, he had to make his own decisions. And he chose to fight. In the end, he won and tied for first place. Those final seconds are still one of my proudest moments," says Nihal's father, Dr Sarin Abdulsalam.
When asked how Nihal manages both studies and chess, his father adds, "Nihal was and still is showing lots of promise in chess, but we don't give him an option between studies and chess. For now, until he is capable of taking his own decisions, both of these go hand in hand. He's been playing the pros for some years now and chess is obviously his primary focus at the moment and we are happy with that."
So who inspired the young prodigy? Nihal says that nobody, in particular, inspired him or advised him to play the game; he just found it very pleasing and enjoyable to make moves on the chess board, create strategies and plans, and thus think ahead, which gave him a different kind of adrenaline rush. The 13-year-old is currently the world’s best U-14 player and number two in the U-18 rankings with an ELO rating of 2532. He is the second youngest International Master in Indian history and the third youngest in the world, currently. He is also a former winner of the U-10 World Championship and a silver medallist in the Under-12 category. All these achievements seem even more inspiring when we remember that Nihal started playing only seven years ago.
After I learnt to play chess from my grandfather, I was lucky to be in a school where chess was taught as a subject. My first successes were the usual ones — win state-level tournaments, national-level events, and world youth medals. Then I began to beat grandmasters. I keep playing as much as possible and I try to win all the games
Nihal Sarin, child chess prodigy
And though he makes it sound easy, we wonder what he found to be the most challenging.
"The most challenging part is to play open tournaments where there is no age bar and anyone can play anyone. I have played against several strong senior players. I now play about 10-15 tournaments every year, most of them in Europe, as I get to play against strong grandmasters in these tournaments," says Nihal. Playing chess on the internet is also a major part of Nihal's routine, as he spends most of his leisure time playing games online. "I play Blitz on chess.com to relax. For theoretical training, I read as many chess books and magazines as possible. It is good to play Blitz in my opinion. Playing with such time constraints is beneficial to your game as you get to learn new patterns very quickly," says Nihal.
GM Srinath Narayanan, who also works with Nihal as his training partner, says that the game comes naturally to Nihal, "To me, Nihal appears to be a normal 13-year-old kid who just loves to have fun. It just so happened that chess became his channel of outlet for having fun. Once it caught his attention, he got completely immersed in a world of his own. This is quite natural for him, as it is for any child who gets fascinated by something new. It was also quite important that the environment around him let this flow naturally without any impediments. So Nihal just does that – he gets fascinated by chess, pays complete attention when he's playing and learns a lot from every single move he makes, naturally."
Nihal is very interesting because I think of him as someone who is tactically gifted, but who needs a bit of balancing. But tactically, many people have given him puzzles and have seen that he solves them very quickly
Viswanathan Anand, India's top grandmaster
As if being a prodigy isn't enough, Nihal is also trying to give back to the society what he has earned, by making efforts to popularise the sport of chess at the grassroots level. He occasionally performs simultaneous exhibitions. At the age of ten at Thodupuzha, Kerala, he played simultaneously against 112 players of all age categories. Do you really need three chances to guess to one all the matches?
And finally, when asked if chess will be a part of his future or if he has alternative careers in mind, he says, "Well, I think it is clear that I can play chess well. So why not be a professional chess player? But I am only 13 years old and there is a long time before I am forced to make these decisions. So far, I am happy with the way things are going."