From being a restless kid to achieving Grandmaster title: Story of Nihal Sarin's phenomenal rise in chess arena

On 14th August, Nihal Sarin became the 53rd Grandmaster (GM) of Indian chess. Hailing from Thrissur in Kerala, the boy scored his third GM norm at the Abu Dhabi Masters and achieved the highest title in the game of chess at the age of just 14 years, one month and one day. Usually to achieve the GM title one should have cross the rating of 2500 Elo points. Nihal’s live rating as on 16th of August 2018 is 2572. This just goes to show that the boy has already surpassed the level of a “normal” GM and is very close to the next milestone of achieving 2600 Elo rating. Just to put things into perspective, Nihal achieving his GM title at this age makes him twelfth youngest chess player in the history. He has achieved this title faster than some of the best players in the world currently – Maxime Vachier Lagrave, Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Wesley So and our very own Viswanathan Anand.

Nihal with his parents, grandfather and sister Image Courtesy: Nihal Sarin’s archives.

Nihal with his parents, grandfather and sister Image Courtesy: Nihal Sarin’s archives.

I first saw Nihal at the World Juniors 2014 in Pune. Not many knew about him. World Juniors is a tournament where the best players below the age of 20 from all over the globe gather to compete with each other. Nihal was just half the age of most of his competitors. There were a few other such young Indian players playing in the tournament, but anyone with a bit of chess experience could instantly sense that there was something special about Nihal. He would make his move get up from his chair and move around. He would move from one end to another, clasping the fingers of his one hand with another. No, he was not tensed or afraid. He was just restless. A crowd would gather around his game as he would make a move on the chess board in an instant and then walk around. His opponents would fight hard to win the game, but deep within they would be in awe of this wonder boy.

But what was even more impressive was the post-game conference with this young lad. He would enter the commentary room which was filled with experts with years of chess knowledge, and floor them with his chess erudition. The boy could not only remember the entire game, but also the plans and ideas behind each and every move that he played and also his opponent’s.

For Nihal’s parents Sarin Abdul Salam and Shijin, phenomenal memory and chess prowess didn’t completely come as a surprise. “Nihal could recognize the flags of all the 190 odd countries by the age of three, could already speak fluently in English by the time he was in upper kindergarten, knew the multiplication tables till sixteen by the time he turned six and enrolled into the first standard,” his father said.

Nihal as six-year-old was a restless kid. In order to channelise his energy in the right direction, his parents decided to introduce him to the game of chess. The boy picked it up immediately and in his second tournament itself won a trophy. The talent was clearly there and Nihal’s first coach Mathew P. Joseph Pottoore let his father know about the same. But nothing really was planned in Nihal’s chess career. Right people entered at the right time in Nihal’s life and always took him to the next level. Coach Nirmal EP, the Kerala state champion, started training Nihal when he was eight. He ensured that he worked with Nihal on removing his flaws, but with minimal interference. Nirmal let the boy’s talent flow and just directed him when things went completely wrong. This has always been the approach with which things have been done in Nihal’s life. There is never a fixed a routine or a schedule or a plan. The boy simply does the things he loves and keeps getting better at it.

Through serendipity, Nihal found his next trainer. GM Dimitri Komarov. Having worked with some of the best talents in the past, Komarov was perfect to work with Nihal. But once again, care was taken that the coach never impressed his will on the kid. From a very young age Nihal has developed an independent thought process and an ability to break down complex problems and come to solution.

Nihal with GM Dmitri Komarov. Image Courtesy: Nihal Sarin’s archives

Nihal with GM Dmitri Komarov. Image Courtesy: Nihal Sarin’s archives

Nihal’s focus has been entirely on how he can become a better player. You can see a complete disinterest in him when you speak to him about norms, titles, ratings or winning championships. That’s why winning the national under-9 title, world champion in under-10 category or silver medal at world in under-12 have very little meaning for Nihal. He is obsessed with playing chess and that’s what he likes to talk about and discuss. It doesn’t really matter for Nihal who the opposite person is, whether he is a GM or a rank amateur, if there is a discussion about chess he will give it his all.

It seems as if Nihal works in an unstructured manner, but there is one person who brings a structure to all that he is doing. This is ensured by his manager Priyadarshan Banjan. Priyadarshan met Nihal in 2015 and has been working with him ever since. Selecting the right tournaments, perfecting his schedule, looking out for a sponsor, in general doing all the things that would let Nihal work peacefully on chess and not worry about things off the board.

Another important member of Nihal’s team is his recent trainer GM Srinath Narayanan. A former prodigy himself, Srinath now 24 years old, says, “I first met Nihal Sarin in January 2016. I won comfortably, and it was hard to notice anything special at that time. Neither did a training session two months later show me anything extraordinary, other than a very enthusiastic little kid.

"The first spark was when, in June, he already outplayed me and had a clear winning position. I barely survived then, but the amount of improvement in just six months, mostly self-learned, caught my attention. Since then, I interact with him face to face about every quarter, and he never fails to astonish me with the number of new things he has learned in the intervening period and already internalized. He has an amazing intuition, not just for chess moves, but the way he trains, sees and interacts with chess, and the starting point for all this is boundless curiosity. He doesn’t follow the beaten path or accept things just because others say so, but has the ability to think independently with remarkable clarity."

In chess terms, Nihal has a positional feel which is much more superior than any of the best talents that the chess world is currently witnessing. His technique of converting winning positions into a win is excellent. His recent games against GM Sundararajan Kidambi at the Kolkata GM Interntional 2018 and Mircea Emilia Parligras at the Abu Dhabi Masters 2018 come to mind. In both the games, Nihal was facing experienced Grandmasters. In the endgame he was a pawn up and the chances of the game tilting towards a draw was very high. But Nihal, with his immense level of stamina and energy, kept posing problems to his opponents until they broke down and lost. It’s usually the other way around, that experienced players trick their younger opponents, but Nihal is simply an exception.

It is extremely difficult to say what Nihal will achieve in the years to come. His current level of play points towards World Championship material. A lot of top players including Anand have predicted a bright future for the young boy. A lot of variables have to fall in place for Nihal to become the best in the world. But one thing is for sure, for the young, it’s the journey that is more enjoyable and not the destination.


Updated Date: Aug 16, 2018 18:17 PM

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