On Tuesday, D Gukesh became India’s youngest Grandmaster at the age of 12 years, seven months and 17 days. That’s 17 days too many for the Chennai boy, who fell half-a-point short of becoming the world’s youngest Grandmaster at the Sunway Sitges International in Barcelona last month.
“I think the pressure was just too much for me,” Gukesh told The Indian Express. “For a long time, it wasn’t about these things. My parents or coaches didn’t remind me often either. But I knew, and as I was getting close to the mark, I could feel it. It was a disappointing result for me.”
Sergey Karjakin’s 17-year-old record thus survived another spirited Indian pre-teen. For Gukesh, next up was state-mate R Praggnanandhaa, who became India’s youngest GM last June at 12 years, 10 months and 14 days. Gukesh couldn’t seal the deal last week at the IIFLW Open in Mumbai on a technicality, as he had played against two GMs instead of the required three.
At the ongoing Delhi International Open, he beat DK Sharma in the ninth round to complete the third and final GM norm; in the process, moving past Praggnanandhaa to become the world’s second-youngest GM. To put things in perspective, world champion Magnus Carlsen was 13 years and four months when he became a GM and five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand was 18.
“I don’t have any words,” said Gukesh, who speaks in monotone whispers and only as many words as necessary. “It’s only because of my parents and coach (GM Vishnu Prasanna).”
Unlike Praggnanandhaa, who announced himself as a child prodigy by becoming the youngest International Master in the world at 10 years and nine months in May 2016, Gukesh for long has been one of the many prospects in Chennai — the cradle of Indian chess.
“I was struggling tremendously in 2016 and 2017,” said Gukesh, who only became IM last year. Perhaps it was the rise of his “very good friend” that pushed him into overdrive?
“It didn’t bother me much. I was never thinking I have to beat Praggu,” said Gukesh, who has a 1-3 record against his fellow GM. “It shows India in good light. Anywhere we travel, we get a lot of respect because people know Indians are strong in chess. So, I was focused on improving myself.”
To catch up, Gukesh put himself through the grind. According to Chessbase, in the last 12 months, he has competed in 247 games at 27 tournaments across 10 countries.
“I don’t like travelling,” said Gukesh. “It can be a bit much, but it gets easy when I’m playing. I find chess fun. I enjoy it. And maybe that’s why I don’t need to relax a lot.”
His parents have made it even easier.
“I try not to think too much of unnecessary stuff. GM and all,” said Gukesh. “My parents are sacrificing everything for my career. So I just try to play good chess.”
Arranging logistics and accompanying a globe-trotting 12-year-old could be a full-time occupation. So when ENT specialist Rajnikanth quit his regular job, it fell squarely upon mother Dr J Padmakumari to run the household.
“I couldn’t travel with him because of my government job. Then it was also very financially straining because I was the one person working. But luckily, our friends, some very good souls, supported us,” said Padmakumari, who is performing the unfamiliar chaperoning duty in Delhi. “It just gets very tense sitting outside the hall for me. It’s your child in there and you can’t do anything to help him. His father is used to this. Unlike him, I also don’t really follow chess that well.”
It was an informal game between his parents which introduced a 7-year-old Gukesh to chess, who then signed up for the sport at a summer camp. With time a luxury, and hours of training and chess clips to study, watching entire films is out of question. However, father Rajnikanth makes sure Gukesh gets his quota of clips from Tamil comedies. Fittingly, Thalaivar’s 2.0 was the last film the family watched together.
“It gets hard at times, with both of them away. I feel lonely at home but I always realise the importance and the challenges,” said Padmakumari. “He too is a very understanding, simple kid. I try to whip up something fancy when he’s back home but all he wants is curd rice or lemon rice. He still amazes me at times.”
Like the return from the disappointing Sunway Sitges in Barcelona.
“Their 12-hour flight was delayed, so they landed in the afternoon. There was an online tournament celebrating Vishy Anand’s birthday from 8pm. He asked me to wake him three hours before it. He was angry that I woke him an hour from the tournament. It was a strong field and he finished fifth,” recalls Padmakumari. “I think it should get easier now that he is a Grandmaster. A lot of pressure is off him now.”
Gukesh thinks otherwise. “Now, it will get tougher, because I will be competing with GMs a lot more. I am looking forward to that. I’ll be fine because I’ll keep having fun.”