Of chess books, firm handshakes and being classical player like Virat Kohli: Vidit Gujrathi gives new wings to old dream at Candidates | Chess News

Of chess books, firm handshakes and being classical player like Virat Kohli: Vidit Gujrathi gives new wings to old dream at Candidates | Chess News

In November last year, after Vidit Santosh Gujrathi won the FIDE Grand Swiss tournament and sealed a spot at the prestigious Candidates chess tournament, he offered a rare glimpse into the inner monologue that had been puncturing his thoughts in the post-COVID years when the world had seen a surge of teenaged prodigies from India.

It was an odd thought to have, especially since Vidit was only in his mid-20s, the age when most sporting careers take flight.

Chess, though, works by its own circadian rhythms. When the Candidates tournament starts next week in Toronto, the two other Indians accompanying the 29-year-old Vidit in the eight-man field — 18-year-old Praggnanandhaa and 17-year-old Gukesh, who will be the second youngest player after Bobby Fischer to play at the Candidates — are proof of that.

As the average age of grandmasters emerging from the country has gotten younger and younger with each passing month, it was natural for Vidit to feel a sense of FOMO. The fear of missing out.

“Amongst the Indians, Vidit is the player who is overlooked all the time because of players like Praggnanandhaa, Arjun Erigaisi, Gukesh and Nihal Sarin. He gets lost amongst the others so it’s nice to see him shining for once,” American GM Hikaru Nakamura, who will be one of the favourites at the Candidates, had told FIDE during the Grand Swiss tournament after Vidit had qualified for the Candidates.

When the Candidates tournament — which is held to find a challenger for the reigning world champion Ding Liren — starts in Toronto in April, you could part the contenders neatly into three categories. There are the grizzled, war veterans who have experienced the pressure of the big stage before: Nakamura, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Fabiano Caruana, and Alireza Firouzja. Then there are the two teenage prodigies — Pragg and Gukesh — who are competing at their first event and have a lot to prove.

Then come Azerbaijani Nijat Abasov and Vidit, both in their late 20s, but experiencing the Candidates for the first time and knowing that, unlike the other debutants, they will possibly have lesser shots at playing the Candidates.

Vidit, in a sense, is among the last grandmasters to come from the pre-chess engine era.

“I’ve been using laptops and engines regularly since 2004. I was just nine years old when I started using them. My chess understanding is a combination of both: old-school techniques and modern technology. I grew up reading a lot of chess books. Back in the day, I had a lot of hunger for reading chess. I grew up with a classical understanding of chess. The way the Russian chess players would be taught the sport, where things were defined: this move is correct, this is how pieces should be developed, this is how you should be prepared,” Vidit tells The Indian Express.

Book worm

Vidit goes on to explain how he constantly finds inspiration in books even now. For him, reading books opened a window into other players’ minds. Right before he breached the threshold of 2700 rating points, he had immersed himself in Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making on a 16-hour flight between China and Madrid.

“That Gelfand book was 300-page-long but by the end of the flight not only had I finished it, but also taken notes. In the next tournament, I could apply all of that on the board. I reached 2700 right afterwards. I give a lot of credit to that book. When I was playing a FIDE World Cup once, for five days I was just reading a book on endgames, Learn From Legends, by Mihail Marin. I felt like my game improved a lot from that. Magnus Carlsen is a great example of someone who relies a lot on books even now. He still learns a lot from books. He sits on the couch at tournaments reading books. Garry Kasparov used to analyse his own games, he would share his thought process in books. So you get an insight into how the player is thinking, rather than just a computer-generated stat for how good a move is, without any explanation for what the move offers. Yes, it’s a slower process. But it gives you an advantage that the computer cannot give now,” says Vidit.

India's Candidates: Indian chess masters Vidit Gujarathi,D Gukesh,Viswanathan Anand, R. Praggnandhhaa,Arjun Erigaisi and P Harikrishna at the draw of men's Tata Steel Chess India tournament in Kolkata on Monday, September 04, 2023.Express photo. by Partha Paul. Vidit Gujarathi (left) will take on Gukesh (second from left) in the opening clash at the Candidates. While,Viswanathan Anand will be commentating R. Praggnanandhaa (right) is the third Indian in the fray. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

“Modern-day chess players have grown up with engines. So they evaluate a position on the board in terms of numbers. If they move a piece to a square, that gives them a certain numerical advantage on the evaluation bar. When I was growing up, evaluation was done in terms of how a move was ‘slightly better’ than others because it would allow more pieces to develop.”

To further buttress his point, Vidit reaches for a cricket analogy between Suryakumar Yadav and Virat Kohli.

“My chess is very solid, backed by great opening preparation and classical way of playing. You wouldn’t see me getting into completely unorthodox positions on the board. I play a very orthodox style. There will be chaos on the board, but it will be a controlled chaos. Look at Suryakumar Yadav, the shots he hits. It’s not what I would do. It’s not the classical way of doing things. But it still works, because it’s the modern way of doing it. I would be more like a player who plays the cover drive. You wouldn’t see Virat hitting over the wicketkeeper or fine leg with cheeky shots,” says Vidit before adding: “In my chess, I’m trying to broaden that. If you stick to being a classical player, that’s a limitation. I’m trying to break that mould now. You have to play all kinds of shots. My tendency is to play classical shots. But I want to become an all-rounder.”

Breaking away from template

That breaking away from his set template is just one of the things that’s fuelling Vidit 2.0, if you will.

Over the years, Vidit has embraced a routine every time he is on the board: he sits at his spot, eyes closed, hands under the table, head bowed. Like a monk in a business suit.

Vidit Gujrathi meditates before the start of a game at the FIDE Grand Swiss 2023 event. (PHOTO via FIDE/Anna Shtourman) Vidit Gujrathi meditates before the start of a game at the FIDE Grand Swiss 2023 event. (PHOTO via FIDE/Anna Shtourman)

That routine sometimes takes opponents by surprise. In a game at the Tata Steel Chess tournament in Wijk Aan Zee, Vidit was taking on Nepomniachtchi with white pieces. The clock was already running when Vidit started meditating for a minute or so before making his first move, e4, which is one of the most common first moves with white. It was a move that the Indian had probably decided to make the night before. But just the ploy of letting the clock run while finishing his routine was unique. It made the opponent wait.

In a sport where body language matters a lot, this routine also offers him an advantage, feels Vidit.

“I have a routine before games that I do just to get into the zone. It doesn’t matter what the world is doing or what the world will say. I don’t care,” says Vidit.

Vidit Gujrathi at FIDE Rapid and Blitz 2023 Rapid  via Lennart Ootes Vidit Gujrathi plays a rapid game at the FIDE Rapid and Blitz tournament. (PHOTO: FIDE via Lennart Ootes)

“I think body language makes a difference. I was told once by my psychologist that chess players have this typical pose when they’re thinking about a position in games (where they place both palms on their temples, deep in thought)… this is not a good pose to have. It has a negative effect, you’re more vulnerable. Having a straight back in games is important. These things give you less nervousness when you’re playing. Sometimes out of habit, I do put my palms on my temple, and then I have to remind myself to stop it.”

Using body language to intimidate the opponent was a play former world champion Garry Kasparov exploited particularly well. The Russian would glower across the board at his opponents, would bang pieces on the board. All of this would add to his persona, which was already established because on the board his pieces were trying to invade the opposition’s defences with a battering ram.

Vidit Gujrathi at the Mumbai Press Club. (Credit: Amit Kamath) Vidit Gujrathi at the Mumbai Press Club. (Credit: Amit Kamath)

At the World Rapid and Blitz Championship last year, at least three players told Vidit that his handshake was much firmer than before, a subconscious signal he’s sending to his opponents that he’s more confident of his form than ever before.

“It creates an impact on the opponent. It’s subconsciously done. I’m not trying to break the opponent’s hand or something. When I played against Magnus Carlsen, I used to feel that he had a very firm handshake. You see the same with Carlsen’s body language when he sat on the board. You felt that with Garry Kasparov as well. You can feel that aggression. Somewhere psychologically it creates an impact,” he says.

Another thing he has worked on over the years is shaking off defeats. He paints a picture of himself as a nine-year-old who once reacted to a defeat by throwing a tantrum in the lobby of the venue.

“I have never been the most gracious loser. I can admit that. In my childhood, it was worse. I used to cry. I remember one game after a loss as a nine-year-old I came into the lobby of the hotel and threw my slippers, one flew in one direction and the other went in another direction,” he says. “Once I even bought a punching bag when I was young to remove all that frustration. I still don’t take defeat well. I won’t say I have equanimity when I lose. But my recovery time has become faster. I bounce back faster from defeats. When I lost the last round at Wijk aan Zee, I was upset for an hour, max. The residue was there, but I didn’t fret about it.”

While he is now more sure of himself on the board, he is also certain that he does not want to have a chess career that is as long as Viswanathan Anand’s. He says there are too many things vocationally that catch his fancy that he will try his hands at, even if it means ending his chess career in a decade or so.

But whenever his career ends, is there anything he would like to be remembered for?

“World Champion would be nice!” he grins.

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