Interview with Baskaran Adhiban, India's No 3 chess player: '2750 is the next barrier that I am aiming for'
Meet Baskaran Adhiban, who started the Tata Steel Chess tournament as the last seed and finished third behind Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen.
Every year, the chess calendar begins with the super tournament in the small Dutch town of Wijk Aan Zee. The tournament has a rich tradition and the inaugural event took place way back in 1938. It’s not without reason that they call it the Wimbledon of chess. The field of the tournament is extremely strong with Magnus Carlsen participating in the last nine out of the ten editions. Viswanathan Anand has won the Wijk Aan Zee tournament five times in the past, but was not playing this year. The 2017 event, like the previous six years, was sponsored by Tata Steel. Two Indians made it to the Masters group — India number two Pentala Harikrishna and last year’s Tata Steel Challengers winner Baskaran Adhiban. While Harikrishna performed decently, it was Adhiban who not only won games, but the hearts of spectators all over the world with his fearless and innovative play.
Adhiban started the tournament as the last seed. Facing world class players like Carlsen, Wesley So, Sergey Karjakin, Anish Giri etc his main task was to put up a respectable show. No one expected him to finish at the top given his relative inexperience of playing at such high-level tournaments. As expected, he started off quite poorly with two draws and two losses. When the first rest day came, he was reeling at 1.0/4. But then something magical happened. From the fifth round onward, Adhiban went on to beat World Championship challenger Karjakin, Polish number one Radoslaw Wojtaszek and Russian Dmitry Andreikin. He played an inspired game against World Champion Carlsen and was very close to finishing him off. The game finally ended in a draw. The tournament ended with an effortless win against Richard Rapport and Adhiban finished third.
Starting as the last seed and finishing third behind So and Carlsen was an unbelievable achievement. The 24-year-old from Chennai had announced his arrival. Performing at a rating of 2812 and gaining 29 Elo points clearly shows that Adhiban has tremendous potential. He is currently India number three behind Anand and Harikrishna, and Firstpost got in touch with him to discuss his performance in the Tata Steel tournament.
How happy are you with your 7.5/13 performance. When you started the event, what were your expectations?
Yes, I am very happy with my performance, but at the same time a bit disappointed that I couldn’t convert the many advantages and chances I got. I wanted to make a debut to be proud of and to make my mark against the elite. I think I managed to fulfill both of these!
You went to the Tata Steel Masters with your father and your second GM Vishnu Prasanna. What were their roles at the event?
My dad had to make sure I wouldn’t fall sick (which happened last time) and Vishnu’s role was to make sure I wouldn’t lose in openings. Judging by my performance, I can say both of them performed their roles to perfection. Also, all three of us were in high spirits during the entire event which helped me to give my best.
You had many more seconds working for you in the background. Is it possible to reveal who were the ones helping you?
Ah no, this is a long-term game. So I have to keep it a secret. As of now I can tell three: My trainer Ubilava whose experience against facing the elite was instrumental and my Indian trainer/longtime coach Mr Visweswaran because of whom I was well versed in classical games and good knowledge in endgame theory. We have been working from 2007. And bringing Vishnu along was a great decision. He was easy going (in spite of a shaky start) and changing himself to whatever the situation demanded.
You come to a tournament — your first super tournament, with a clean slate. You would like to have a perfect event, maybe stay unbeaten. And then right in the second round you lose the game. How did you react to this loss?
Accidents are inevitable, either you become strong enough to avoid them altogether (like Wesley So) or find the courage to get back on your feet, no matter how many times you fall. Round two was a blow, but I lost because I ruthlessly played for a draw in a position where I was superior. I realized that with such an attitude, I deserved to lose the game and mentally changed myself after the fourth round.
During the opening ceremony I was asked, “How do you plan to fight against such monsters?” I replied, “I guess I have to become a monster myself!” I decided to show everyone that I wasn’t kidding when I said that. The rest, as they say, was history.
After two draws and two losses in four rounds, there was a free day. What did you do on that day? You were not to be seen on the football field with Magnus and others?
I just made a mental list of my mistakes from the first four games and swore to myself that I won’t let those happen again. I mainly focused on what was coming next. Also, I had the huge task of trying to find an interesting line against the World Championship Challenger Sergey Karjakin. So the rest day passed very fast. I have never been a big fan of football due to its aggressive nature. I like to save my aggression for the chess board.
You played the French Defence against Karjakin. This was the first time that you had decided to play it against anyone. How did you decide on this opening?
I was totally running out of opening ideas and it was already around 6.30 PM (Yes, rest day does pass very fast compared to other days.) Suddenly, I got this idea to play the French Defence from one of my friends and he also convinced me of its worth. I am eternally grateful to him since he just changed my tournament from a disaster into a cool debut.
Continuing with your opening experiments, you played the King’s Gambit against Wesley So. Wasn’t that a dangerous choice, especially because it is so rarely played at the top level and no one had played it against Wesley?
The story behind my choosing the King’s Gambit is very funny. I have a friend from Sri Lanka on Facebook. His name is Dineth. One fine day he asked me about the King’s Gambit. I didn’t want to reply to him without checking any games in the opening. So I found out some interesting games and asked him to see those in order to prepare that opening. When I was up against Wesley, my trainer suggested that I play the King’s Gambit, I immediately knew in my heart that it was the right decision and that it was going to be an epic game. Dineth probably couldn’t probably believe his own eyes when I played his favourite opening.
The game against Radoslaw Wojtaszek looked really complex and topsy-turvy. How would you describe it?
I was so inspired during that game that I was more or less on auto-pilot. I was playing well till a point and once he slipped, I got a decisive advantage, but it was my turn to go wrong before the time control. After it, I had the unenviable task of defending a worse position with a pawn down, but I kept believing that I could somehow turn this around again and couldn’t believe it when he played Ra1, allowing me the manouevre Qa7-e3 after which I was more or less out of danger. Even after that he had many chances to draw but I guess it was my lucky day.
And then the big duel. Against the World Champion Carlsen. How did you decide to play the Scandinavian? Who was the motivation and once again how did you prepare for the game?
Once again it was my trainer’s idea. Most of the heavy work load fell on my friend Vishnu of course, but he managed to find the courage to keep checking it. I had been waiting for a long time to play with him, hence everything else didn’t matter. I just wanted to face him with my strongest self.
A draw against the World Champion is a wonderful result, but you had missed a win. How sad did you feel when you realized that?
I did see the winning idea but I assumed it was only good enough for a draw and I was trying for more. I was sad for roughly about one minute, but then I realized it was at only one moment, sometimes that is all you get against these players. I just told myself next time I won’t miss such a chance.
Anish in one of the video interviews said that if there was one player he had to choose whose games he did not understand, it had to be Adhiban. Is your opinion the same about Anish as well? Or do you understand his playing style well?
Funnily enough, my respect for him hugely increased in the first four rounds when I was really struggling against these top players. To be unbeatable against these elite players, tournament after tournament is no joke. I applaud him for that. Once he figures out a way to control his style he could become a superior version of the great Tigran Petrosian.
Last round against Rapport seemed like a very easy win for you? Was it like your opponent was burnt out and tired?
Yes, now it does seem like that, but during the game I was very focused because Rapport is definitely a huge talent and never to be underestimated in any circumstance. I think it was more based on form, if he had been on good form he would have been much more dangerous.
As for my physical fitness, I was doing floor exercises before the rounds and used to take walks on the beach. To put in a nutshell : “I just take walks and beat monsters!”
What does this third place performance mean to you? Do you think you are up there with the best?
It means a lot to me, since I have to prove myself and that I can hold my own against this type of field. From a qualifier in the “C” group, I have now become a Master.
Yes, I do feel like I am ready, but of course I still have to keep getting stronger (never forget about that). It would be great If I could get more invitations, 2750 is the next barrier I need to aim for. I need to be patient and use every opportunity I get.
What is your opinion about Wesley? How does he win such strong events with such ease?
I have known him since childhood and he always had this computer-like precision in calculation or positional play, it is amazing how strong he has become. I guess he is able to win such strong events because he can maintain his top form in every tournament he wins.
What are your next tournaments? And what’s your aim for the year 2017?
I have got Aeroflot and then later on Asian Continental where I get a chance at qualifying for the World Cup and then World teams and the journey continues…
Adhiban, thanks a lot for your time and effort. We wish you the best for the Aeroflot Open 2017.
Anytime. I would also like to take this opportunity to Thank ChessBase and ChessBase India for their support and encouragement and Firstpost for covering the chess scene in India so intensively.
Also, special thanks to my trainers Ubilava, Visweswaran, my friend Vishnu. I am also grateful to All Indian Chess Federation (AICF) for always supporting me in my chess journey. There are many more in the list I wish to thank, one day.
My parents, who have been my pillars of support, helping me become what I am today and wanting me to be sportsperson even before I was born. Lastly, for choosing chess over football.
Sagar Shah is an International Master and co-founder of ChessBase India
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