“MAGNUS CARLSEN is a bit boring. Too positional… not attacking enough for me. He has the patience to win out in the end, of course. Once I saw him flip the King and look into it as if something was there inside. Who does that?”
It’s the nine-year-old chess prodigy Shreyas Royal chirping away about the world champion in a Southeast London accent at his home in Woolwich. He is English in many ways: Loves fish and chips, “mein achha hoon” to grandma on Skype is about all he knows in Hindi, likes food non-spicy, loves the local architecture. No wonder, his parents were desperate to continue in the UK.
Born in Bengaluru, Shreyas has lived in London since he was three. But with his father’s work visa due to expire in September, he was to return to India. But then, the chess fraternity pulled together, the media got involved, UK’s politicians urged the Home Office to ensure that an “exceptional talent” wasn’t lost. Last month, when the family had begun to pack, they got the news — they could stay.
UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said he took a “personal decision” as Shreyas is “one of the most gifted chess players in his generation and we have always been clear we want a world-class immigration system that welcomes highly-talented individuals from across the globe”. Shreyas is currently ranked fourth in his age group globally.
Shreyas’s father Jitender Singh can now apply for Tier-2 work visa, which is valid for up to four years without needing to leave the country. It will be sponsored by his employers, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), who had earlier offered him a posting in Norway as an alternative. Jitender is confident he can get permanent residency in the UK and says he has been told that Shreyas will get his British passport by next year.
It’s an extraordinary twist to an extraordinary tale.
Nothing in the family history had suggested a possible inclination towards chess. But Shreyas’s mother Anju Singh, a bubbly, friendly personality, had great faith in an astrological prediction made when the boy was born. “It was by a Panditji from Odisha where we had made his kundli. Shreyas was born on January 9, 2009, and Panditji had said that 9 is very lucky and the timing of his birth and other things suggest he would earn name and fame,” Anju says.
At their sparse apartment, the bespectacled Shreyas is sitting on a black sofa. To his right, a cabinet heaves with the trophies he has won. To his left, a portrait of Sai Baba is garlanded, with incense crumbs spilling out of its stand below. “Tell him about my name, mom. Why you named me Royal,” says Shreyas.
Anju laughs, throwing her head back, and leaves it to Jitender to begin. “The astrologer had told my wife that the boy’s last name should phonetically start with ‘Ra’. She thought a lot. We are Rajputs, and she came up with Royal,” he says. His legs dangling from the sofa, Shreyas says, “Well, chess is a royal game.”
Shreyas started off at a state primary school, which gave him a lot of free time. Anju then enrolled him in various classes to fill up the hours: horse-riding, gymnastics, swimming. “All of them were based on physical activity. I thought I should give him some mental training as well. So I thought of chess. Initially, because he was just four, the chess clubs didn’t want to take him. So I asked my husband to teach him some basics and we discovered that he seemed to like the game. I went back and convinced them to admit him. Six months later, he was winning a trophy in his first big tournament,” says Anju.
It’s a family that has transformed itself to meet Shreyas’s chess demands. Every Friday evening, Shreyas and his parents head outside London, sometimes outside the UK, for tournaments. They return late Sunday night. “Monday, the school has given him off, just to catch up on sleep,” says Anju.
A couple of years ago, Shreyas obtained a full sponsorship and moved to a private school. He kept grading up in chess, attracting attention. Until one day, Jitender learned he had to leave the country by September. Jitender secured a transfer to Norway, visa documentation began, and Anju had started clearing the house.
They kept it away from their son initially but, as packed boxes started disappearing, had to tell him finally. “I was tense, I didn’t want to leave the UK,” Shreyas says. Jitender kept at it, and the UK chess federation helped, too: From arranging solicitors to inviting the media that drew in the politicians. The Home Secretary’s office intervened. “I think the matter went to Theresa May,” Jitender says. “She is the Prime Minister,” Shreyas chips in.
On August 9, a Thursday, Jitender performed the Sai Baba pooja, kept his fast. The next morning started with the “regular poori breakfast”. “I was up at 6 am, very tense. Dad got the call when we sat down for pooja,” says Shreyas. Anju says her husband was sure it was good news. It was. Shreyas started to jump up and down on the sofa.
Why did a young boy fall so hard for chess, which isn’t even considered a sport in the UK? What makes him get up at 6 am to work on “tactical side of it”, so much so that his parents have had to draw the blinds, take out the clock, and try to convince him to sleep for two more hours. “I like that it’s not an aggressive game. It presents physical (games can stretch to 8 hours) and mental challenge. I love reading its history and about characters like Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer, two of my favourites,” says Shreyas.
”The dream that I have dreamt about a million times is of me becoming a grandmaster. I always wake up smiling,” he says.