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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Meet Harshit Raja, India’s 69th chess Grandmaster

The 20-year-old Harshit Raja from Pune has several notable achievements spanning over his professional years. He won silver in U-13 National Chess Championship in Jamshedpur in 2014 and gold in the SGFI Nationals held in Tamil Nadu the same year.

Written by Ruchika Goswamy | Pune |
Updated: August 6, 2021 11:10:25 am
Harshit Raja (Express Photo)

Every chess player works towards achieving the Grandmaster (GM) title. On August 3, Harshit Raja turned GM after he drew his game against Dennis Wagner at the Biel Masters Open 2021. Raja, who achieved his final GM norm with one round to spare, is India’s 69th Grandmaster.

The 20-year-old from Pune has several notable achievements spanning over his professional years. He won silver in U-13 National Chess Championship in Jamshedpur in 2014 and gold in the SGFI Nationals held in Tamil Nadu the same year. He represented India in World Youth Chess Championship U-14 in Greece in 2015. The next year, he was honoured with ‘Best Upcoming Player’ in Maharashtra Chess League in Pune. Raja became an International Master in 2017 and was the honorary recipient of the Shiv Chhatrapati award in 2019.

Raja, who is pursuing a dual major in economics and finance from University of Missouri, talks about his career, GM title, pandemic and his plans for the future.

How it all began

I was seven when I got formally introduced to chess. Once upon my return from school, I found my elder sister Twisha learning chess under coach Kapil Lohana. At that moment, I got hooked to chess and started learning under my coach. In 2008, I participated in the U-7 nationals, where I had a great result with 8/11. After this, I knew I could have a very promising future in chess. Subsequently, I trained under several coaches and participated in various national and international tournaments and received many accolades.

Due to my passion for chess, I also had the opportunity to visit over 20 countries through tournaments and experience a wide range of cultures. I grew more as a person with the exposure I received and followed the games by Russian GM Vladimir Kramnik. I also read a lot of autobiographies and self-help books to aid my mental game.

My parents Harnish and Rakhi Raja created a very supportive and encouraging environment at home. While my father shares an interest in chess, my mother travelled with me to all my tournaments. My sister is my go-to person whenever I lose.

Pandemic effect, post-lockdown tournaments and becoming Grandmaster

After passing my 12th standard, I had taken a year off to achieve my Grandmaster title. Towards the end of 2019 in Spain, I scored back-to-back GM norms at the El Llobregat Open and Sunway Sitges Open. But when the pandemic struck in March, tournaments were cancelled; it delayed the completion of the GM norms quite a bit.

One of the things I did during the lockdown was to have a positive outlook towards it. Like every other sport, chess was badly hit with tournaments not happening for over a year-and-a-half. I took part in several online tournaments during that time. Also, I was offered a scholarship by GM Cristian Chirila, the head coach of the chess team at University of Missouri. It struck a perfect balance for my academic pursuit and love for chess.

In May this year, I could finally participate in a couple of closed events in Europe after which I headed to the The Biel Masters. It was my seventh tournament of the year. In the eighth round against Dennis Wagner, I still had a round to spare to get my final GM norm. I had planned on playing someone with a rating above 2,570. It was only after I had a word with the arbiter post the match with Wagner, I was made aware that I had made the norm already.

I informed my parents who were very happy to receive the news.

Long term goals and chess in India

A Grandmaster is a celebrity in the chess fraternity and it is a very special achievement. Moving forward, I wish to reach an ELO rating of 2,550 to 2,600 by working on my game. Also, I want to do an MBA after my graduation.

In India, there has been a boom in the number of players who became grandmasters in the past 15-20 years. A lot of credit goes to Viswanathan Anand to popularise the game and turn it into a sport that generations will pick up.

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