Firstpost Masterclass: Practice, reflect and be mindful, Vidit Gujrathi delves into the making of chess Grandmaster

In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Vidit Gurathi dives deep into the mental and the physical aspects of chess, his training, playing style, and what it takes to be a Super Grandmaster.

Vaibhav Shah June 22, 2020 13:12:16 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Practice, reflect and be mindful, Vidit Gujrathi delves into the making of chess Grandmaster

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

After a somewhat rickety journey from International Master to Grandmaster, Vidit Gujrathi, made unwavering progress into the top 100 to top 50 and now occupies the 22nd rank in the world of chess. In the process, before his 23rd birthday, Vidit, leapfrogged the coveted 2700 Elo rating barrier, becoming the youngest Indian to complete the feat. The boy from Nashik has come a long way and is touted to take over the reins of Indian chess from Viswanathan Anand in the near future.

Vidit debunks all theories that make chess players appear as otherworldly creatures and firmly believes that the good old virtues of hard work, hustle, and honesty can propel an individual to great heights.

True to his Grandmaster attributes, Vidit's pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and problem-solving qualities shine through this interaction. Apart from playing some feisty chess, Vidit also dabbles in live streaming on his YouTube channel and almost at all-times wears an amicable smile.

In this edition of the Firstpost Masterclass, Vidit dives deep into the mental and the physical aspects of chess, his training, playing style, and what it takes to be a Super Grandmaster.

You are currently 25 years old and it has been more than seven years since you attained the GM norm, but do you remember the first time you played on the chessboard?

I distinctly remember. I remember my first class at the coaching centre. I remember my first tournament that I played in Nashik and it was a very bad start. Back then, nobody would have predicted that I would become a Grandmaster and many of my colleagues tell me the same now. I didn't have all the qualities that people would generally associate with a candidate to become a Grandmaster.

The first time when I went outside Nashik for a tournament, I was seven years old and I was very scared because they (organisers) were not allowing parents inside the tournament hall and I didn't like that. So I was looking for my father and after the first five moves, I resigned from the game because I wanted to be with my father. So, there were these stories that didn't show a champion there, but I eventually overcame my fears.

What are the qualities that people typically associate with a potential Grandmaster and which ones you didn't have that made people think you could not be successful?

I think those qualities are dynamic in nature. It is not something you're born with. Sure, there are certain aspects like genetics that you have but many of the qualities you learn over a period of time.

I was a very impatient child. So when you think of chess, patience is one of the first virtues that comes to your mind, but I developed it over time. The other quality was I couldn’t handle losses. I used to throw tantrums, I used to cry because I could not tolerate the fact that I lost.

However, the other side of the coin is that I was very competitive. Losses drove me. I said to myself, 'I lost, let me just work on it. I will not lose the next time.' I channelised all that anger (from defeats) into preparation.

Apart from that, there are other basic traits you need, such as discipline. Discipline is you have to do things that you don't want to do because we do the things which we want to do. The main challenge comes when you have to do a tedious task or a task that you do not want to do.

Persistence is another key. You will not get results immediately. You have to keep striving. These are some of the important qualities that come to my mind.

Did you immediately fall in love with chess or did it happen gradually?

I used to love all the extracurricular activities. After I returned from school, it was very hard to keep me at home. My parents are doctors, so they had to find ways to engage me in some activity, while they were practicing. I used to play many sports. I used to play cricket and all the street sports you play in your childhood. There was a game called Brainvita – a puzzle game played with marbles, also known as peg solitaire or solo noble – I used to play that a lot in my childhood and they (parents) saw that I had an inclination towards the game. I enjoyed solving those puzzles. Chess was the next brain game that I was introduced to.

So, it wasn’t planned, it was partly by accident as to how I got into chess. Just one of those things that I did and I took a liking to.

How much of a chess player, like a GM-level player, are you born with and how much can you become by practicing and honing your skills?

I believe that luck or destiny or fate or whatever you want to call it, plays a role, but its role is up to five percent. The rest 95 percent is your skills and that you learn from practice. Nobody is born with the skills. You can have a tendency to learn quickly. In my case, I was not good from the beginning but I kept at it for a long period of time and kept getting better at chess.

We are looking for an answer which would fit everything as to ‘Why this happened’ or ‘Why that happened’. It is very basic actually, you just have to repeat the activity over and over again so that you learn.

Let's say I want to learn a particular software; it is not like I am born with the skills. I watch tutorial videos and I learn from that and I practice.

Firstpost Masterclass Practice reflect and be mindful Vidit Gujrathi delves into the making of chess Grandmaster

Vidit Gujrathi is currently ranked 22nd in the World and 2nd in India. Image Credit: David Llada/Firstpost

Do all the chess players need to have super high levels of Intelligent Quotient (IQ), some unbelievable ability to calculate, imagine, and memory?

I haven’t taken an IQ test. I do not even see a point of taking one. I think the questions they ask are based upon logic, some mathematical questions, etc. Even if I score zero in the IQ test, I will still be good at chess. Maybe there might be some merit to it but unless I try it, I will never know.

Besides IQ, if that is not a yardstick, there must be some amount of ability to calculate and imagine?

You must have the ability to reflect.

Let's say you go wrong in a game. You need to have the ability to reflect on what went wrong. You have to analyse your mistakes, which is also a skill.

I am the type of person who likes to reflect on things. ‘How can I make this better?’ or ‘Why did this happen?’ I am always questioning things. That's how I engage my intellect.

This is a question more suited for a scientist to answer. I can only speak from my experiences. I am an introvert and I have a reserved personality, so I am often occupied with my thoughts. I enjoy the space where I am just thinking. There are many people who get a high from interacting with others or they are at their best when they interact.

Let's say there is a seven-year-old kid who is listening to this conversation and wants to start playing chess. A kid doesn't need to think if s/he possesses one of those super abilities or not. If they just practice, with the right guidance they can become a Grandmaster and I can guarantee that. Kids don't need to worry if they have a great memory or if they are very smart. It is like any other skill, you just have to learn it.

Even though playing chess entails immense travelling, chess happens to be one of the only sports, if not the only, to be unaffected by the coronavirus as there is they alternative of playing it online. How have you been practicing currently, is it just books, puzzles, playing with your colleagues online? Could you briefly take me through your training routine?

Actually, during the lockdown, I have been working harder than before. Before the lockdown, there was travel-related stress. I was simply jumping from one plane to another, which was very hectic.

After I wake up and I get ready, I have a training session for close to two hours which involves checking different openings. I need to be at the top of my game when it comes to openings, especially at my level. At the top level, the minute changes matter. If I am solving tactics at a certain level at a certain speed, I have to improve by at least one second the next time around when I am training. It is those subtle changes that will help. As they say, such changes come in immeasurable units.

After doing that for the first two hours, I might continue for another hour or a half, before breaking for lunch. Sometimes in the afternoon, I am streaming online where I play chess, interact with people, explain games, or solve puzzles.

I like to learn some new software. The other day, I was learning photoshop for absolutely no reason, it is not going to help me in my career, but I just had the itch to do so. It is my guilty pleasure.

I have started with my physical exercises again. It is a hit-or-miss though. I am trying to be more regular. Every evening I am trying to exercise now, post which I do my meditations. Then I again play some training games online, in between you obviously interact with the family and sometimes you even have to do the dishes.

I have been working non-stop, I don't even take an afternoon nap these days, but I enjoy it. If you don't work hard, you will only be good, but not great.

I spent approximately six to seven hours in playing/training chess. I am just exercising a little bit to not be out of shape and some meditation. I have started my YouTube channel as well, so some of my time goes there.

How different is routine preparation compared to the preparation two weeks prior to a classical tournament?

I hate that time (two weeks before a tournament). It is so intense. The amount of preparation that you have to do is insane. If I have a tournament coming up and if I have a training session with my coach, it involves a minimum of six to seven hours of very intensive chess.

I wake up, have my breakfast, and engage myself for a three-hour practice session. It is very intense with no breaks. After its completion, I have lunch. Usually, we take a brisk walk after lunch. A half an hour break follows and if you're lucky, you can get a nap in, and immediately after that, you do another three-hour training session. So, it is a total of six hours working with the coach.

In the evening, you do your exercises and do your physical routines, maybe go for a run and after the entire day during the late evening, you have to do some self-study. Not everything can be practiced with the coach, you have to do some things on your own. Self-study involves introspection, so maybe one or two of that too.

What does introspection involve?

So, let's say I learned a new thing or say I learned a new weakness about my opponent, I have to reflect over it – ‘How can I exploit it?’, ‘How can I use it to my advantage?’

You are preparing a strategy and constantly thinking about the game. Whenever I have had successes, I have had a clear mindset and a single-minded focus. I was never doing multiple things. When I am involved in multiple things, my concentration is diluted.

How different are the preparations before a Classical tournament to a Blitz?

It is very different. Most tournaments that we play are Classical and they require a higher amount of preparations because in Blitz it is more about your shape and the way you feel.

Are you feeling sharp? Have you rested well? Are you nervous during the game? Are your hands shaking? Do you feel fresh? Can you see the moves quickly? – These are some of the questions that you have to address in Blitz. It is less intense.

In Classical, even a single game is very hard to play because it lasts for six hours. The cost of a mistake is much higher. You can play a beautiful game for five hours, where you have played all the right moves but in the sixth hour, you make a mistake and all the effort over the last five hours can go down the drain and you can end up losing half a point or even a game.

The stakes are much higher, the prize of each move is high and the skill required is more too, as you have to be more precise in Classical.

In Blitz, you can get away with a bluff but in a Classical, the opponent has time to catch your bluff. Classical is a tougher game.

Do chess players find 'the perfect zone' or are they always in a particular thinking zone? Likewise, how do you define rhythm, considering you always have to preempt the moves?

If I train well before a tournament I feel confident. I do feel that I am seeing moves better and I feel in control. A lot of it depends on the mindset. I feel good when I know that I did everything that I could before a match. I make peace with myself and if I lose I will not have anything that I did (or not) to blame for.

Let's say if I have been lazy, procrastinating my training, or essentially taking things a bit casually, then I will feel guilty. I will have no reason to complain then because I blew the chance when I had it.

When I do everything I can, which is very hard to do by the way, like everyone I procrastinate. I am lazy at times. I am not perfect and I make mistakes but if you avoid repeating mistakes, it helps.

Achieving 'the zone' is certainly not easy but one of the good things about chess is because it requires so much effort and attention, you cannot do many things at once. So, when you are calculating moves, your attention won't waver. However, when you are idle, while your opponent is thinking, that's when all the thoughts arrive: 'What if I don't win?' 'What will people think if I lose this game?’, ‘They will ridicule me.'

Thoughts will come, whether I pay attention to them or not is within my control. If I have the ability to shut it out, then it is just a thought that I didn't ponder over. I’ll just let it pass. But, you can get sucked into thoughts like – 'Someone will tag me on Twitter', 'What if my ranking drops and I will not get invitations to other events' and that can lead to problems.

How much does meditation help in eliminating disturbances like these? How long have you been meditating?

Meditation is also one of those things which is tough to do. It is disciplining your mind, and your mind doesn't want to be disciplined, it wants to wander everywhere. The mind doesn't want to be idle, it is very hard to control and focus.

I have been meditating properly for a year or two now. Before that, I did meditate but not on a regular basis. It has been helping me.

One of the other things that I do is mindfulness. The term is used so often nowadays that it has lost its meaning, but if you're mindful of what you are doing, it makes a huge difference. You can be mindful for 10 minutes or one hour, but to do it for a sustained period of time, you have to constantly train your mind to be mindful, and then you can see its effect.

Firstpost Masterclass Practice reflect and be mindful Vidit Gujrathi delves into the making of chess Grandmaster

Vidit Gujrathi attained the Grandmaster title when he was 18. Image courtesy: Vasily Papin

You become more alert about how you're feeling, what you should be doing etc so mindfulness has changed the game for me. Speaking in chess rating parlance, I am still between 1800 to 2000 level if I can say so. I am climbing the ladder. In the early stages, you see big improvements, so that's where I am right now.

Coronavirus doesn’t hinder chess training but like other sports, it does bother the physical aspect that is involved in chess. Would you expand on how much of the sport is physical and what does a chess player’s body go through while playing a tournament and how there is a need to be fit?

The physical aspect of the sport is misunderstood many times. From my personal experience, I would say that last year was the toughest year for me physically, because I was having a health issue due to which I lost a lot of weight and that caused a lot of problems. I was unable to focus during games. If you are experiencing a shooting pain somewhere in your body, it will be very hard to focus, so physical well-being does matter. You don't need to be a freak. You need to be healthy and you need to have great stamina which is important when you are playing for six hours.

Once they had a calorie counter attached to chess players’ arms and hearts and we burn a lot of calories while playing chess. One player burned over 1000 calories in three hours. You need to regain the energy and for that, you have to work out, you have to be able to sit on the board for long hours, otherwise, you will be exhausted.

Garry Kasparov (former World Champion), worked out a lot. He was extremely fit. He used to train in Croatia and he has a house by the sea. After a chess practice session, he used to go for a swim and he completed lap-after-lap and I have heard he was extremely fast. He maintained a very high level of fitness. Even Magnus Carlsen (reigning World Champion) is extremely fit. He has a six-pack. He plays football for hours and I have played with him so I know what levels of fitness he maintains.

Having touched on the mental and physical aspects of your sport, could you describe your style of play? I understand you were influenced by José Raúl Capablanca and Kasparov?

Kasparov was winning while I started the following chess and his results inspired me but my play is not like him. My first book was on Capablanca.

In chess your personality plays a big role. There are players who are naturally very aggressive and it reflects in their playing style. They want to go for the kill immediately. I am more of the other kind. I play solid, try to keep things under control. I don't like mayhem or going for the kill from the beginning. Many times, I do play aggressively, because, in order to become a good player, you have to play all kinds of chess.

But you have a tendency or preference to a certain type of play and your personality reflects in it. For example, GM Adhiban’s style is to directly go all-in from move one. There is no break. It is either crash or kill. That's his style, that's his personality, he's very aggressive in his chess and he has an inclination towards it. Mine is more controlled. If I have to give a cricketing analogy, my style of play is of a Rahul Dravid mould. Very stable.

There is a certain tendency, but it doesn't mean that Dravid cannot hit a six, he would prefer to have things under control. Like (VVS) Laxman would still prefer to play Test matches over T20s. It doesn't mean he can't hit a ball for a six. Similarly, I have to attack many times or play aggressive chess if my opponent is solid. To become a great chess player you have to excel in every aspect.

We are humans, we are not perfect. There are certain things we do better and so we have a preference to do a particular task in a particular way. Your personality reflects in your style of play.

When people see Kasparov, they know that he will go for the kill. Whereas with Carlsen, you know he is the type of a player who is going to tire you, manure you and ground you. That's what makes chess more fun if it gives a unique element to the sport and for the fans to watch.

When did you decide that you are a d4 player and how did it come about?

In my childhood, I was taught to play e4 and I used to play e4 often. I went to some tournaments and I lost and as I said I was reflecting regarding what went wrong and I thought that maybe e4 doesn't suit me or maybe those kinds of positions don't suit me. That’s when I decided to move to d4 and I saw good results. That is where the exercise of reflection helps. In my early days itself, I moved to d4, and here is where an individual’s personality comes to fore.

Earlier when I used to play e4, it would turn out to be a chaotic game. Whilst when I played d4 it is more controlled, more closed and more manuring. It is more from Carlsen's style of play - to squeeze out and play long games. With e4 there is a higher risk of losing. So that didn't bode well when I was young.

In e4 there are more chances of having unclear positions. The opponent (with black pieces) can counter with Sicilian defence and opposite side castling but in d4 it is very rare to see opposite side castling. Usually, both white and black castle on the same side, which avoids a direct confrontation. You attack my king, I attack your king, so essentially whoever attacks first wins, but in d4 or c4 positions white never castles long side, black also never castles long side and it is a slow battle.

How do you recover from a stunning move that has caught you off guard, something you didn’t account for during your preparations? How tough is it to stay in the present and not start to think about the defeat?

Of course, it is unpleasant and it happens a lot of times. Like nowadays with computers being used for preparations, you cannot simply know all the lines. The opponent has checked the lines with the engine. He plays the moves and he knows the answers to it, but you are trying to figure it out on the board. It is very unpleasant and no one likes to be caught in that position. The problem is that you have no choice but to deal with it.

My mindset at that time is just to try and make him uncomfortable as well. Even if he is blitzing out, it is impossible for him to know almost everything. Very rarely you can know everything because chess is so vast. I can make an unexpected move, too, and throw him off his preparation or either catch his bluff or you can bluff out.

There are two approaches: You can be very objective or very practical. Objectively, I try to find the best move or be practical and pose threats. So, I try and use the combination of both.

You said your opponent could be bluffing or it could be a prepared line. Your mind does all those calculations to find the right solution. But at times, you will end up missing it and will know it only retrospectively. At that moment how difficult it is to remain in the present and not lose your focus?

You will easily miss some lines because it is impossible to know everything all the time. That is one of the reasons we prepare so extensively – to avoid surprises on the board but it is inevitable. There are so many things to know you can’t know all the things somewhere you will get caught. You just have to minimise the chances of being found out.

To remain in the present is one of the toughest challenges. I think every chess player or any sports player gets this thought, ‘What if I lose the game?’ or ‘What if it doesn’t go the way I want?’

Firstpost Masterclass Practice reflect and be mindful Vidit Gujrathi delves into the making of chess Grandmaster

A playing style of the chess player is related to the individual's personality. Image courtesy: Leenart Ootes

Let’s say you are playing the final match and you have done a lot of hard work and if you don’t you end up losing everything. It is an unpleasant feeling every sports player can relate to it on some level. There is no right answer as to how to deal with it. I am still learning.

But one of the things is to focus on the process and not on the end result. It helps you because you can’t control if you win or lose and if you don’t prepare the chances of losing are more. So you have to focus on the process and you have to be very zen-like and not let the results affect you. It is understandable that you want to win, but it cannot throw you off if you don’t end up winning. Don’t get too excited with a win and if you lose don’t get too sad, so you have to have that equilibrium. If you get too excited after a win you are bound to be too sad after you lose.

You have to train to be zen-like. Just be in the present, not focus too much on the result. It hurts not to win but you have to train your mind. It doesn’t come naturally, even Carlsen gets visibly upset at a mistake or a loss. But another quality of a champion is how you forge a comeback. Many times when he has lost a game, he has been able to come back in the next rounds so that’s also an approach to where you lose to take away all that frustration in the next game.

I think there should be a study where they make some scientific checklists. I really want to know how to deal with such situations.

Playing against the computer, a boon or a bane? Does it stagnate the creativity of a chess player? Nowadays with some unreal algorithms and patterns, it is impossible to beat a computer, right?

Playing with a computer is a very masochistic thing to do. There is only suffering and unless you enjoy that, there is no point. I would not play with a computer because I know I will end up losing. It is much more fun to play against a human, but I use the computer as a tool. I use it to analyse my mistakes. I use it to find new ideas. It is like a tool that helps me to navigate. It isn’t my playing partner or a friend. It is just a tool that I use to improve myself.

It is impossible or very foolish to even ignore it because your competitors are using it. They will have a competitive edge, you have to adapt to new tools. I didn’t use the engine so much (in formative years) but now the AI (artificial intelligence) has arrived with stronger hardware and much more data online. You have to be very flexible. Computer is definitely a boon, but it depends on how you use it.

It hampers creativity if you let it, but also it sharpens your skills. It is basically like an application on your phone. WhatsApp is great for connectivity, Instagram is great for connectivity, but if it becomes an addiction it is bad for you; if you use it to connect with people it is good.

Viswanathan Anand said that computers have sabotaged creativity in chess, it is difficult to play a beautiful game nowadays, to what extent do you agree to this statement?

Previously they used to find ideas on board and the joy of finding a new idea was great. But, now the computer finds it for you and you are simply sourcing the information. You don’t experience the high of creating brilliance on the board. Even if you find a brilliant move, the computer refutes it.

When you are playing a game as a Grandmaster you have a certain authority of the game but now anybody who is sitting on the phone can spot the mistake and call you out. On the flip side, people are playing chess at a very high level because they have learned it from computers. The engine has evolved the game and has made it more accessible. It has its own pros and cons. It is a long debate.

You were Anish Giri’s second for some time. How much does that help to be involved with someone who is in the top 10 sharing ideas notes etc? Could you explain what your role was and at what point did you draw the line and say okay I do not want to be a second anymore and work solely towards your progress?

I got to know how he organises his training sessions, what sort of a mindset you need against specific opponents, and many other things that you learn in the process. Basically I upped my game after the stint. I worked on areas where I was lacking and got to learn from him. It is like in any sport if you are helping someone. Let’s say in tennis, being a partner of (Roger) Federer is going to help you learn because you will learn from what he does and how he trains.

I was playing chess professionally and as a trainer or as a second you have to give a lot of time, which hinders your growth.

I am obviously learning simultaneously but I could not be with Anish in every tournament because I was playing matches myself. I wanted to improve in my own career so it is very common to have these training sessions with higher rated players and like-minded people but you also face each other in tournaments. Now we are close to each other in world rankings. We play in tournaments and face each other quite a few times.

How secretive can be a chess community, especially at the top level, be in terms of not sharing their line of thinking processes, training methods etc, and why maintaining this secrecy is important?

I think in any sport you will not disclose your training because your competitors will get an edge and they will know what you are doing. In chess, it could be the case because it is a mind game.

During a World Championship match, you will not like to disclose who is on your team because if the opposition finds out who is on their team, they know what a specialty of a player is and they will be expecting something on those lines and will be prepared for it, thereby taking away the surprise value.

In chess, one of the things is preparation levels matter a lot, much, much more than any other sport.In other sports, one day prior to the game you want to be in a relaxed mindset because you want to be fresh. It is not the day where you perfect your punches or increase your stamina, you will warm up but it is not very intense. However, in chess, we are learning about the game and sourcing information and even half an hour before the game. We are checking our notes, revising our lines because it is vast. So in a chess tournament, it is very stressful because you are loaded with a lot of information. Training time in other sports is very hectic when you work a lot on building your muscles. But chess players right before the game are under the highest stress imaginable.

What are the goals that you have set for yourself over the course of the next five years?

I have not set any goals for five years. Short term, yes. My world rank is 22 and I feel I am close to cracking the top five or into the top 10. I need to work hard to get there but I have to set a time frame as to when to achieve it. My goal is to improve my ranking from 22, eventually, everyone wants to get in the World Championship which will happen after two years. I need to prepare now to get there. It is similar to the preparation of the Olympics, where an athlete does not train just before the Olympics but the training goes on well before that to improve their skills.

I don’t know about becoming the World Champion as many factors are at play, but world rankings is an achievable aim, given that I grind or hustle the way I am hustling. It requires persistence. It is easy to hustle for one month but for two years it requires a lot of persistence.

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