While the pandemic disrupted most sports in 2020, chess witnessed a big online boom amid the Covid shutdown. As virtual duels between top ranked players went viral, millions turned to the online avatar of the ancient sport to shake off lockdown boredom. And, the hope that chess gave to the world of sport in a pandemic-hit year collided perfectly with 16-year-old Nihal Sarin’s ambitions, who has been moulded by the Internet, unlike no other Indian chess Grand Master.
Sarin, who currently has an ELO rating of 2,620, made history when he bagged the gold medal at the Chess Olympiad in July-August. He also won the FIDE U-18 World Youth Chess Championship last month, bagged a silver at the Asian Team Championship in October, and beat multiple grandmasters in tournaments like the Karpov Trophy and the Junior Speed Chess Championships.
“Professionally it was one of my most successful years. Things have been a bit tough because of the lockdown and being at home becomes boring at times. I have not been able to travel and meet my friends from the world of chess this year,” says Sarin.
As per Chess.com, Sarin has played over 30,000 games on its website, of which 28,000 have been in the bullet and blitz formats – both popular short-format games in which he is considered among the best in the world.
But to follow his passion in the middle of a pandemic, Sarin, who recently cleared his Class 10 Board exams, has had to alter his daily routine – from spending hours on the computer to changing his sleep schedule. “The best chess players in the world live in different time zones… So, he wakes up around 2 pm and is most active around 1 am because better players are available at the time… We try to ensure that he gets proper sleep but it’s not always possible. It does worry us. He doesn’t have classes now but the timings will be a problem once school resumes,” says Sarin’s father Dr Sarin Abdulsalam, who also has a daughter.
The family is based in Thrissur. So far Sarin’s school has been very supportive of his career as a chess player and he mostly has to appear for exams only. But Dr Abdulsalam understands his son’s passion for chess and is happy to let him pursue it. “When he is playing a game, he forgets everything… Sometimes, when he is about to switch off a better player pops up and he continues to play. There are no tournaments currently and this is the best way to learn from and play against better sparring partners,” adds Dr Abdulsalam.
As he immersed himself in online chess during the Covid shutdown, Sarin’s parents, both doctors, also had hospital duty. “We had 10-day shifts once every 45 days. We would usually be in charge of one ward with around 70 patients – whatever went wrong, we were responsible for it,” says Dr Abdulsalam.
Even as he enjoys his online chess stint, the 16-year-old says he prefers to “travel and see new places during tournaments rather than play online.” “There is a lack of good players… The learnings that a physical tournament can provide cannot be replicated on the Internet… Also, a lot more can go wrong online, like the Internet getting disconnected or a move not paying off because of a wrong mouse click. It changes the game completely,” says Sarin.
“But one gets better with practice. I think my online experience helped my chess. Whenever I learn of a new opening with my coach, I try to test it in online games as soon as possible.”
Last month, during the FIDE Online World Youth and Cadet Rapid Championships, Sarin fixed at least one of his problems with online chess. “I think the best thing we did this year was to connect the Internet to the inverter. Power cuts are frequent in Thrissur and I would lose quite a number of games because of it,” says Sarin. The move paid off and Sarin won a gold medal in the tournament, capping off a successful 2020.
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