A 16-year-old Indian Grandmaster is giving a Norwegian four-time World Champion a run for his reputation — online.
On Friday, Nihal Sarin took on Magnus Carlsen in a series of one-minute chess shootouts. At the end of these “bullet games”, the score read: Carlsen 19, Sarin 13. Just a week earlier, Sarin had beaten Carlsen in a blitz game, where each player got three minutes to work out their moves.
To borrow from cricket, Sarin today could well be tagged as Indian chess’s T20 specialist. Carlsen has described him as “one of the best blitz players around”. And the highly rated Chess.com has ranked him at No.3 in bullet chess after 15,431 games.
Bullet and blitz chess have become a favourite among players and fans — and fuelled an online boom amid the Covid shutdown. FIDE, the game’s governing body, is yet to award ratings for online chess, but is looking to tap the sudden mass interest.
“It would be fun if online goes mainstream,” says Sarin.
With geography or hierarchy not a barrier, teenagers like him are able to take on top GMs by merely logging on and floating a face-off request. The latest shootout with Carlsen happened on Lichess, an open-source chess server run by a non-profit and powered by volunteers.
“I just saw him (Carlsen) online, so I sent a challenge,” says Sarin. The teenager estimates that over the years, he has played close to 200 bullet games against 29-year-old Carlsen and won a fourth of them.
Veteran Grandmaster Praveen Thipsay, who runs a chess school, says that a distinct advantage the new-age players have online is their “lightning-fast” control of the mouse.
“They have an expertise of not wasting time in moving the mouse, and also sharper reflexes because they have been playing online more regularly. Some tournaments have three-minute games, some one minute, so a fraction of a second makes a lot of difference. I take one second to make the move so generally I don’t have any leftover time. Players like Sarin, after 10 moves, have accumulated five seconds. This means they are making a move in half a second,” says Thipsay.
Sarin took his early steps by taking on anyone he could spot on chess forums, and developed a very different training method as compared to previous generations. When presented with a new opening or variation, he goes online and plays against several players to figure it out, instead of sitting over a board and analysing each move with a coach.
“Online is primarily how I learned almost everything about chess. I get to test and learn the concepts first-hand. When you are about to make a move in a real game, you see things in those moments that will never occur to you while you are thinking or training for hours… I just love doing it this way,” says Sarin.
Sarin and other top teenagers, like 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja from Iran who got the better of Carlsen in a series of bullet games last month, have also benefited from upgraded chess engines, which are computer programs that analyse the game.
“When you analyse with an engine’s help at a young age, you develop a style that is more mathematical and engine-like. If I was to do that or (Viswanathan) Anand, it can help us but we cannot mould our style at this age. Firouzja or Nihal have been benefitting from the improved standard of the engines, and their style is moulded that way,” says Thipsay.
GM Srinath Narayanan, Sarin’s training partner, says that in shorter-time control, the ability to come up with good moves in a second is important. “Sarin and Firouzja are the flag-bearers of this generation because they have extensive online experience, and played more than 50,000 games,” he says.
Ask Sarin if playing Carlsen face-to-face will be a different game altogether, the teenager doesn’t agree. “There will be a difference in setting and surroundings, that is all. I am not sure if it is a completely different scenario. At the end of the day, we are making similar moves,” he says.
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