Meet Sahithi Varshini: Woman Candidate Master, Asian and Commonwealth chess champion at just 10
Sahithi hasn’t tasted a defeat in her last 27 classical games. At such a tender age, when your play is highly inconsistent, she shows maturity at quite a high level.
Andhra Pradesh has produced two of the biggest talents in the world of women chess: Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli. While the two are very close to bringing home the Women’s World Champion title, there is a 10-year-old girl from Visakhapatnam who might join them in a matter of few years. Meet Sahithi Varshini, the chess prodigy, who made the country proud by winning the gold medal at the Commonwealth Chess Championships in the Under-10 girls’ section recently in New Delhi. She is also first-ever Woman Candidate Master (WCM) from the city of Visakhapatnam. Before she grabs fame of the highest order; here is all you need to know about this fantastic talent.
Sahithi learned to play chess at the age of eight. Seeing Sahithi's passion and acumen for the game of chess, her father Lokeswara Rao Moogi made a bold decision of stopping schooling for six months. By today's standards, considering that we have a national under-seven tournament being held, and sometimes even under-five, learning chess at the age of eight years was pretty late. However, Lokesh was determined and started training his daughter with whatever knowledge he had about the game.
The story of how Sahithi learned chess is also very interesting: Lokesh began with teaching his elder daughter Falguni the moves of the game. After learning how the rook and the bishop moved, they went to the knight. Falguni found it really hard to grasp the weird movement of this chess piece. Suddenly out of nowhere the younger child, Sahithi, who was looking at the board, said, "Akka (sister) is making all the wrong moves with the knight." The father and the elder sister looked at Sahithi with confusion. They were sure that the little one had not understood much. But here she was, trying to correct her elder sister.
"The knight moves like this, this and this," said Sahithi showing a knight path of nearly six moves. "I was stunned," says the father. "A few days ago I had introduced Sahithi to the app called Knight Vision on my mobile phone. The app teaches you how the knight and other pieces move and you have to capture the enemy pawns. After showing her the game, I had forgotten all about it. But Sahithi had worked on the puzzles in the app and had mastered the movement of all the chess pieces!"
This reminds us of a great master who learnt chess in a similar manner – the third world champion Jose Raul Capabalanca, the suave Cuban who is considered by many till date as one of the greatest players to have played the game of chess. Capabalanca learned by watching his father play and at the age of four corrected a mistake committed by his father!
With just six months of training, Sahithi went to play in the national under-nine championships in Ahmedabad 2015. She finished 20th and Lokesh's faith in his daughter's abilities increased manifold. Sahithi worked every day for eight hours on chess. Lokesh has been Sahithi's only coach until now. “I study the concepts from different books and then explain it to Sahithi. I try my best to maintain a balance between modern chess education, and classical knowledge.”
Noted for having a very sharp eye for tactics, Sahithi is very inspired by Bobby Fischer and Capablanca. The latter’s endgame play is something that the girl is trying to emulate and learn from.
Sometimes a few local players would help the young girl. Lokesh invited stronger players (Elo 1600-1800) than Sahithi, to come home and practise with her. Among them was Varahalu, a senior player of the same district. The hard work began to bear fruit as the young girl started to win one tournament after another.
The real challenge for Sahithi came in the first half of 2017. The Asian Youth Championships were going to be held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from 2-10 April, 2017. Sahithi was naturally one of India's biggest hopes for a medal in the under-10 category. However, the family was unable to cope with the finances. Somehow Lokesh and his wife Jayashri managed make the ends meet and sent their girl to Uzbekistan.
Sahithi began as the fourth seed at the event, but the way she dominated the tournament was simply unbelievable. She scored 8.5/9 and finished ahead of all her competitors by 1.5 points! In these high pressure tournaments, it is extremely important to hold your emotions, especially during the last rounds. Even at this tender age, Sahithi knows very well how to handle such pressure. The practice of playing against higher-rated players during her training sessions at home did wonders. By punishing the inevitable nervous play of her opponents while keeping her composure, she went on to win two gold medals (classical + blitz). In the blitz section Sahithi won the gold medal scoring 8.5/9, two points more than the runner-up who could muster only 6.5.
After such a scintillating performance, all eyes were on Sahithi for the Commonwealth Championships in the under-10 section during July 2017. Would she be able to show the same amount of dominance as she did in the Asian Championships, was the question on everybody's mind.
Sahithi began as the second seed. Savitha Shri, with a rating of 1670, was the top seed and had nearly 170 Elo points more than the girl from Visakhapatnam. But numbers don’t really matter for Sahithi, as she scored five wins and two draws to win the gold medal with 6.0/7. The encounter between Sahithi and Savitha ended in a draw. Both the girls are very strong and are sure to push each other in the years to come.
Sahithi hasn’t tasted a defeat in her last 27 classical games. At such a tender age, when your play is highly inconsistent, she shows maturity at quite a high level. Speaking to Firstpost, the young girl said, “My father is my role model and my dream is to become the youngest woman Grand Master in the world."
From all her achievements and play, it is quite clear that Sahithi is a great talent. Her father has been guiding her admirably until now. But there will come a time when she will require master training and the need to participate in foreign events in order to gain exposure. “Getting a sponsor for my daughter will speed up her progress. I hope that happens soon. As for the hard work and dedication, we are going to leave no stone unturned”, says Lokesh.
Special thanks to Atul Kumar for his contributions to this article.
Sagar Shah is an International Master and CEO of ChessBase India.