The Boy’s Gambit: Inside the world of Nihal Sarin, a chess champion at the age of 10

Nihal, 10, like any other children is restless. It's the only the chess-board which keeps him occupied.

Written by Nihal Koshie | Updated: March 15, 2015 11:00:48 am

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If you search for Nihal Sarin on YouTube, you will find a link to a 2 minute and 32-second-long clip of a match at the World Junior Chess Championship held in Pune in October. He is the scrawny kid in a black blazer pacing about, restlessly. Across the table is Kriebel Tadeas of Czech Republic, a decade older and an international chess master. But 10-year-old Nihal has Kriebel thinking hard, and as he shuffles around, he looks as if he might be trying to intimidate his much-older opponent. “But I was only thinking about my next move. Walking away or looking away helps me refocus,” Nihal says. The game ended in a long-fought draw, a result against a higher-rated opponent that enhanced Nihal’s reputation. Two days earlier, Nihal had stunned a higher-ranked player, Jonathan Westerberg of Sweden, also an international master, in a 94-move game.

Like all children, Nihal finds it difficult to sit still. As a toddler, too, he was a bundle of nervous energy. During summer holidays, Sarin Abdulsalam and his wife Shijin, a doctor couple then based in Arpookara, a village in Kottayam district, found it difficult to keep their five-year-old son occupied. He soon lost interest in stacking colourful building blocks on top of each other. To his parents’ surprise, it was a chess board that finally held his attention. His maternal grandfather, AA Ummar, taught him the rules of the game. The early games between the two would end with the grandson bawling when he lost his queen or was check-mated. But once Nihal overcame the disappointment of a loss, he would be keen to start anew. Within a fortnight of learning the basics, Nihal had found a way to beat his grandfather.

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A few months later, he started formal coaching in chess in his school. He was the only six-year-old in the school chess group that had students from Class V and above. But the principal was ready to make an exception. “By the time he was in Class I, he could recite tables from 1 to 16. The teachers were impressed with his ability to grasp difficult concepts and word had got around. So the principal agreed to allow him to attend chess classes,” Sarin says, when we meet him in his house in Thrissur.

There had been other signs, too, that he had a sharp mind, and an extraordinary memory. As a child, he could identity flags of up to 180 countries. “But when I bought a chess board, all I wanted was that he should not get bored. I never even imagined he would be a chess champion,” Sarin says.

Last September in Durban, Nihal was crowned the Under-10 Classical World Champion. This was on the back of winning the Asian Under-10 rapid title and blitz title — both at Tashkent in Uzbekistan in June. Seven months earlier, he had clinched his first major international title: the World Under-10 blitz at Al Ain, UAE. At Durban, Nihal had clinched the classical world title with a round to go.

While Nihal is not India’s first Under-10 chess champion (eight others have won the title), what makes his achievement noteworthy is that he is from a state that has produced only one grandmaster and two international masters. “He is the first world champion in chess from Kerala. To have a player of his calibre from Kerala, where chess culture is not as strong as, say, in Tamil Nadu, is a big leap for the sport itself,” says EP Nirmal, his current coach.

The Sarins are not pushy when it comes to their son’s career. He isn’t a product of the academy-driven conveyor belt that thrives in the sport’s nurseries in Chennai. Nirmal coaches Nihal three times a week, with each session lasting two hours.

Nihal is brought up like any other 10-year-old. He comes back from the Devamatha CMI Public School by 4 pm. His parents, both assistant professors at the Thrissur Medical College, finish their day half an hour earlier. Once Nihal is back home, he gets out of his uniform, pulls out the badminton racquets and pesters his father to play with him at the makeshift badminton court in front of the house. “There is no point pushing him to spend more hours in front of the chess board. There are so many cases of parents making their children play chess for up to six to seven hours a day. This will only lead to a burnout,” Sarin says.

Even the day before he left for the Under-10 World Championships in Durban, Nihal had attended school. He is a regular Joe at school. He makes friends easily, even with those who don’t share his interest in chess. For the Children’s Day function, he readily dressed up as Jawaharlal Nehru and delivered a speech in front of the school. Nihal gets down to studying only once the examination dates are out, but does reasonably well at school. Like any other child, he needs to be dragged away from the television. “I like watching Tom and Jerry and Chhota Bheem,” he says. It is only when one of his parents or grandparents scold Nihal and his younger sister Neha for spending too much time watching cartoons that they switch it off. The gaming console at home is also under lock and key. “We have restricted his exposure to gaming. He loves his car-racing game,” Sarin says. His parents can’t recall too many of his tantrums except when he wants his favourite motichoor laddoo. “He is like a Jack in the box, but he is a largely trouble-free child,” Shijin says.

Yet, his parents have seen the bookworm in him when they tip-toe past his room at night. When most children are tucked into their beds, or leafing through The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Nihal is up reading books on chess. “I like reading books by former world champion Alexander Alekine,” he says. “It is quite a task to get him ready on time for school. Most days, the school bus is waiting for him,” grandfather Ummar says.

The district has a robust chess circuit compared to most other places in the state. Marottichal, 30 kilometres from the Sarin household, is well-known as a chess village. The Malayalam movie August Club (released in 2013), about a woman chess player, was shot in Marottichal. There are three well-established chess academies in the district.

A year after he moved to Thrissur, Nihal, then just seven, participated in the Under-25 district championship and won the title. Nihal has a mature and an all-round game, the coach says. “Being an Under-25 champion even before you turn 10 is no easy feat. When I watch him play, I feel like he has been playing the game for 30 years,” Nirmal says.

The next step is to prepare Nihal for tougher competition. “He now needs to play regularly against those who have an ELO rating between 2,000 and 2,500. He also needs to have a coach who can prepare him for the next level, like a coach who is a grandmaster,” says Mathew P Joseph, his first coach.
Nihal’s next assignments include the Asian Youth Chess Championships in South Korea and the World Youth Chess Championships in Greece. The doctor couple have to dig into their savings to keep his career going. “We are hoping that Nihal gets a sponsor soon. But to hire an international coach costs a lot of money. Travelling for tournaments can also burn a hole in your pocket…”

Even before Sarin can finish his sentence, Nihal is tugging at his trousers, urging him to move towards the badminton court.

Champ Next Door
* Introduced to the basics of chess when he was five by his maternal grandfather AA Ummar.
* Has beaten an international master and five former senior state champions.
* Has won state titles at the Under-7, Under-9 and Under-11 categories; won the Thrissur district under-25 title at the age of seven.
* At Idukki in 2012 (at the age of 8), Nihal played against 50 players simultaneously, winning against 49 and drawing one.

World Titles
* World Under-10 classic open champion(September 2014, Durban)
* Asian Under-10 rapid chess champion( June 2014, Tashkent)
* Asian Under-10 blitz chess champion( June 2014, Tashkent)
* World Under-10 blitz chess champion(December 2013, Al Ain, UAE)

Is coached by Mathew.P. Joseph and EP Nirmal and has also attended classes conducted by by international master Varughese Koshy and grandmaster Dimitri Komarov (Ukraine).

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