The little master

Print edition : April 01, 2000

A 19-year-old Chennai youngster, Krishnan Sasikiran, becomes the fifth Indian to win the title of Grandmaster.


THERE was a phase in his junior days when Krishnan Sasikiran suffered a string of defeats at the hands of Daniel Saldhana on the chessboard. Yet the Chennai boy would not get disheartened; he would focus instead on what he had learnt from the matches. Sa sikiran later broke his jinx when it came to Daniel. And he has since gone on to much bigger things. Just 19 years of age, he is already India's fifth Grandmaster.

The ability to imbibe things all the time, irrespective of the results, is Sasikiran's greatest strength. As his father S. Krishnan, a chess player himself, says: "We want him to search for fresh aspects. Even when he is low he finds something interestin g. He has developed some healthy chess qualities and is unbiased in assessing positions."

Krishnan had presented Sasikiran with a book written by Bertrand Russell on children's ability to acquire knowledge, and it has served the youngster well. At the heart of Sasikiran's progress as a champion is the role played by his father.

Krishnan would play chess with friends in the evening and Sasikiran, not yet 10, would quietly watch the moves. It was around the time that Sasikiran's cricket playing mates, all older boys, had left for new destinations, and he was feeling pretty lonely in the evenings. Krishnan wanted his son to be occupied during his spare time, and chess was the medium he chose. That indeed was the genesis of Sasikiran's journey into the fascinating world of Kings and Queens, Knights and Rooks.

From a hobby, chess soon became an all-consuming passion, and the first sign of a new star on the horizon came in 1994, when Sasikiran won the bronze medal in the Asian under-16 championship held in Doha. "It was then we realised that he could take up ch ess more seriously," says Krishnan. In the initial stages it was not easy to find sponsors, but Krishnan remained undaunted.

With chess cutting into his time, it soon became impossible for Sasikiran to continue going to school and he had to make a hard choice. "Yes, I do miss my school environment, my friends there. In fact, I have lost touch with them." That was perhaps the p rice he had to pay to become a Grandmaster. However, Sasikiran does plan to complete his education through correspondence.

Right now his sights are firmly set on becoming a Super Grandmaster (above 2600 Elo rating), like Viswanathan Anand. As Sasikiran says, Anand has always had kind words for him, instilling confidence and providing useful tips.

Endless hours in front of the computer at home, a voracious appetite for reading books on the game and sustained practice with capable partners have made Sasikiran's fundamentals strong.

It is too early to make comparisons with Anand, but Manuel Aaron, India's first International Master, said that being the kind of person he is, Sasikiran may not suffer from the mental block that Anand seems to have when it comes to certain players. But he quickly added that if solidity and the ability to execute plans were Sasikiran's biggest virtues, he perhaps lacked Anand's brilliance and his speed.

Krishnan Sasikiran. Grandmasters from India are getting younger.-VIVEK BENDRE

What was behind Sasikiran's triumph in the 1999 Nationals 'A' in Nagpur, another big step forward in his career, was his impeccable homework. He had studied his opponents and worked out a plan with regard to each one of them, trying different variations. The victory over Praveen Thipsay was a particularly thrilling one for Sasikiran, as everything fell in place. Sasikiran also went through a set routine off-the-board during the tournament and it paid off.

The series of practice matches with Dibyendu Barua had proved extremely beneficial. Sasikiran went to Calcutta for this purpose on his own initiative and this reaffirms his quest for perfection, however elusive and distant it might be.

Manuel Aaron, who has followed the fortunes of a whole generation of players, said: "His biggest advantage is that he is totally devoted to the game. He is extremely hard-working and always looks ahead. When he was an International Master, he was already thinking about the Grandmaster title. Now he is aiming to become a Super Grandmaster. He has not stagnated like some others."

So engrossed in chess is Sasikiran that Krishnan, an extrovert himself, wants his son to open up a little more, be more communicative. "We are working on that now. And he too is beginning to realise the importance. I even want him to argue with me as we discuss the moves. But he doesn't do that." Since he is not really the 'outdoor type', music is Sasikiran's principal mode of relaxation, and he loves listening to A.R. Rahman's compositions. Yanni is another favourite.

Sasikiran considers 'the middle game' his strongpoint. He has been studying the works of that 'eccentric genius' Bobby Fischer, but his idol is the star of the 1920s and 1930s - Alekhine. An attacking but not an impulsive player, Alekhine has written som e fine books on chess, which have been lapped up by Sasikiran.

For the young Grandmaster, one of the most cherished victories was over Levitt Jonathan, who is no mean player himself. "I sacrificed a lot in the game, a knight and a rook, but I won," says Sasikiran. He is not averse to taking risks but is selective ab out them.

Coming to the Grandmaster title, Sasikiran's first norm came at the British Championship at Torquay in 1998. He won the Asian junior title in Vung Tau (Vietnam) for his second norm and came closer with yet another one at the Goodricke International tourn ament, held in mid-February in Calcutta this year. The youngster finally clinched the title at the Sangli International Open, where he emerged joint winner along with Maxim Sorokin (Argentina), Evgeny Vladimirov (Kyrgyztan) and Alexander Fominih (Russia) . Along the way he had missed norms narrowly at Elista and Udaipur, but did not allow that to affect him. As Krishnan says, "He stays positive all the time." And he is also modest.

Even as he was accorded a warm welcome at the Chennai Central railway station on his return from Sangli, Sasikiran seemed remarkably cool and composed. His statement - "The game means more to me than personal achievements" - may appear artificial on the surface, but a closer look at Sasikiran's work ethic and his total dedication suggest otherwise.

Manuel Aaron has noted another important trait in Sasikiran. "When he travels he always insists on a single room, unlike some other players. Most of the great champions were loners and he is a loner. He does not realise it now, but this quality could tak e him far."

SASIKIRAN becoming a Grandmaster is yet another proof of the chess boom in the country. With Anand providing the spark, Dibyendu Barua, Praveen Thipsay, Abhijit Kunte, and now Sasikiran have become Grandmasters. The 14-year-old P. Harikrishna is already India's youngest International Master, Aarthi Ramaswamy is the world under-18 champion, and Koneru Humpy is all set to graduate to the senior level after conquering the junior ranks. (Humpy was recently chosen by the United Nations Children's Fund as one of the 'Millennium Dreamers'.)

Manuel Aaron, who was a pioneer in several respects, becoming India's first International Master in 1961 - it took 18 years for another Indian to emulate Aaron - said the development of computers, the availability of more reading material and the increas e in the number of tournaments have been instrumental in changing the chess scene in the country.

He still has fond memories of the early 1970s when chess first caught the imagination of large sections of the Indian public. There was a "Fischer wave" in 1972 and there were many who were fascinated by the game. In Chennai, the Tal Chess Club, a place of learning for several future stars, was soon formed.

Remembering his days as a chess player, Manuel Aaron said that since the opportunities to travel abroad were limited then, it was much more difficult for players to take wing. Now there are more avenues and the aspirants are also making sincere efforts.

Indeed, as Sasikiran remarked, the Grandmasters from the country are going to get younger. The future beckons.

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