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Magnus Carlsen has some competition, and it's 12-year-old Indian, Nihal Sarin

Twelve-year-old Nihal Sarin has completed the requirements to become India's latest International Master (IM). He did this at the Aeroflot Open 2017 in Moscow a few days back. An IM title is one rung below the all-important Grand Master (GM) title. It was a historic moment for the state of Kerala when he did it, when Nihal became only the fourth IM from the state. In the process, he also became the second youngest IM in Indian history and the third youngest in the world currently. He is also a former winner in the under-10 category and silver medallist in the under-12 category in the world championships.

 Magnus Carlsen has some competition, and its 12-year-old Indian, Nihal Sarin

Nihal after becoming the World Under-10 Champion in Durban in 2014.

While most of his numerous fans were already going gaga over his achievement, Nihal himself did not have the slightest idea of what he had done. He had fallen ill in the middle of the tournament but had managed to save many points. When he finished his final game and returned to his hotel room, his father casually remarked that he had gained the IM title. But young Nihal was too absorbed in analysing the game he had just finished and the possibilities that existed in it, all this in his head, of course. It was just another day at work for him.

A curious coincidence while he achieved these records is that the current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen had also become an International Master at the exact same age as Nihal - 12 years and eight months. And this is surely the sign of things to come.

Nihal decimating a strong Israeli grandmaster Evgeny Postny

Nihal's story is special. It would be obvious to anyone by now, but it is not just the astounding results he has achieved which make him unique. For a young chess player, life would mean balancing chess-training with studies in school. However, many parents in India decide for their child that it is better to stop attending school and focus full-time on chess. This is a traditional way of thinking which says that school and chess can't be carried on equal vigour.

Nihal, his mother and sister Neha, his father and grandfather.

Nihal, his mother and sister Neha, his father and grandfather.

Nihal's approach to chess and life throws most of these 'traditional mindsets' out of the window. Born in Thrissur on 13 July 2004, Nihal has always been a restless child, but like any kid of his age, he was naturally inquisitive. His parents, Dr Sarin Abdulsalam, a dermatologist, and Dr Shijin, a psychiatrist, were posted in Kottayam where Nihal spent his early childhood. They were very careful while raising Nihal.

The boy next door.

The boy next door.

Dr Sarin says, "Nihal could recognise 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 16 by the time he turned six and enrolled into the first standard."

During the vacation before he was to join classes for the first standard, there was a lack of activity that could occupy Nihal all day. His grandfather AA Ummar then taught him to play chess and Nihal was hooked.

Luckily, for him, the school that he joined for his first standard classes - Excelsior English School - had a chess coach. His name was Mathew P Joseph Pottoore, and he noticed Nihal's interest in chess as well. After the kids returned home, Nihal would drag his father to Pottoore's house so that he could play chess with his teacher. Around this time, Nihal began to compete in tournaments and there was nothing remarkable, because a number of his peers were ahead of him. However, Pottoore instilled the right attitude in Nihal. Instead of making his student dependent on him, Pottoore made Nihal self-dependent.

His favourite chessbook is a game collection of Alexander Alekhine, the 4th world chess champion.

His favourite chessbook is a game collection of Alexander Alekhine, the 4th world chess champion.

Nihal was not a big fan of being instructed how to play, but if you spread a chessboard in front of him and place a chess clock, at any moment of the day, he would be ready to play endlessly. Besides that, he loves chess books. Nihal reads chess books like a person would read a novel. Note that he does not study them seriously - he simply reads them. And thanks to his phenomenal memory, he remembers what he reads. He will just pick up a book and read moves and variations from it as if he were reading sentences, telling him a story. He does all this at breakneck speed while sitting on the sofa, or just lying on the bed.

Results-wise, the turning point came when Nihal moved back to Thrissur. It was due to his parents' transfer to the idyllic town in the heart of Kerala that Nihal had to join Devamatha CMI Public School. However, in Thrissur, Nihal did not have anything remotely similar to a chess culture, unlike say, in Chennai, where such a culture is deep-rooted. Nihal's chess life was developing sedately, when he came in touch with EP Nirmal, his school's chess coach.

This was the beginning of a friendship that continues to blossom even today. In 2012, Nirmal began to work with Nihal, improving his openings, sharpening his calculations - all this by playing tons of games with him. "I had noticed while growing up as a player that most coaches would impose their wills on the child's character and suppress their natural game. They would force the student to follow a set of rules, or force him/her to play in a particular way," laments Nirmal. He adds, "When they are very young, it is the phase where their intuition is developing. A coach must teach the student, but the interference should be minimal."

Nihal with EP Nirmal, his chess coach at Devamatha CMI Public School.

Nihal with EP Nirmal, his chess coach at Devamatha CMI Public School.

Nirmal works with Nihal on the department Nihal wants to study on a given day, based on his mood, and as a rule, interferes only when necessary. "His love for the game is deep. He always wants to work on some area of chess at any given time! He is like water. My job has been to remove the blockades and let him flow."

The other important person to guide Nihal has been Ukrainian Grand Master Dimitri Komarov, who in his heydays had beaten a young Vladimir Kramnik (who later became the 14th world chess champion), and several strong Grand Masters. Nihal's work with Komarov developed into a fruitful 'working relationship' with Komarov explaining Nihal the positions where he needs help, thus removing obstacles from his path.

Nihal with his guide, Ukrainian Grand Master Dimitri Komarov.

Nihal with his guide, Ukrainian Grand Master Dimitri Komarov.

The results of this unique approach are there for everybody to see. In four years since 2012, Nihal rose from a lowly 1,200 Elo player to India's latest International Master. Surprisingly, none of his skills as a chess player is manufactured by any of his coaches. He calculates variations out of his inborn curiousity - he follows it wherever it leads him. He decides his moves, he works on it, and he plays whatever he had decided to play.

In the middle of February 2017, Nihal probably played the biggest opponent of his life. He crossed swords with the world champion Carlsen himself. The game took place online when the Norway Gnomes took on the Delhi Dynamites in the Professional Rapid Online Chess League, a 15-minute-a-side team championship.

It was a tense affair where the champion tricked Nihal into a bad position, which eventually was completely lost for Nihal. But, Nihal being Nihal, kept defending like his life depended on it. He dragged Carlsen into an equal position where a few accurate moves would mean the game would end in a draw! Alas, Nihal was short on time, and he missed his chance. Carlsen won, leaving Nihal seething in agony. His own intense desire to perform at his peak is what pushes him to play good chess. The best way to forget past losses is to fight new battles - he finished with a draw and a win against strong opponents.

Grand Master Parimarjan Negi, the world's second youngest Grand Master thinks Nihal is mature beyond his years. Negi writes on Worldchess, "Nihal shows an intuitive sense that takes many years to develop." While analysing one of his games for the Worldchess website, he remarked about a certain move that was very creative: "Nihal shows great intuition to realise that securing the e4 square for his knight would prove crucial - after all, there are too many options to calculate these lines precisely."

What the future beholds for chess's very own 'Little Master' (like Sachin Tendulkar used to be in cricket) from Thrissur depends on what the Indian and the Keralite community decides for him. Speaking to Sportstarlive, former National Blitz Chess Champion, International Master K Rathnakaran, said, "Players like me have suffered because we didn't get sponsors when we needed them most. Nihal is easily the most gifted chess player produced by Kerala ever. He has a phenomenal memory and he has a clear idea about every move he makes, which you normally won't find in players of his age."

Kerala has only four International Masters and two Grand Masters. But the state has suddenly begun to take interest in chess. The people are observing what a little boy from 'God's Own Country' is doing at the international stage and have begun to see value in playing this sport.

It is our duty to support Nihal and help him rise to the top of the chess world. We can do that by making sure the world knows about him, and he gets the sponsors that help him play stronger tournaments. This simple act of support could give Indians their next world chess champion.

The author of this article, Priyadarshan Banjan, is the Editor-in-chief of ChessBase India.

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Updated Date: Mar 10, 2017 20:44:17 IST