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Gukesh – The Super GM


Express News Service

MAHABALIPURAM: When Vishnu Prasanna and D Gukesh take a break from discussing chess, it’s usually to talk about Kilian Jornet. Or Alex Honnold. Or any other extreme sport performers. On the face of it, it might seem a bit bizarre. But Prasanna, who has been coaching the chess wunderkind since 2017, contends that this is one way to get his ward acquainted with the mental side of sport. “It’s to tell him how all extreme sports performers approach a given situation,” he tells The New Indian Express.

Jornet, a Spaniard, climbed Mount Everest in 26 hours in 2017 without the help of bottled oxygen or fixed ropes. Honnold is a rock-climber. The pair also speaks a lot about the surfers who live for the thrill of chasing the big waves.

“We do lots of mental exercises,” he says. “How people from different sports do the mental aspect of sport. Honnold is the most famous example but we also talk about Jornet or surfers too. We generally talk about extreme sport performers. Physical ability is fine, anybody can develop that aspect. But mental, that’s the challenge.” Apart from being well-versed in the mental approaches of extreme athletes, the 16-year-old practices both yoga and meditation.

So, it’s not really a surprise to see the Chennai boy skyrocketing up the ELO-ratings chart. A few weeks ago, he became one of the youngest ever to breach 2700 to become a Super Grandmaster — a colloquial, non-official term to separate the good from the very good at the top of elite chess.

Prasanna, a GM himself, first started coaching Gukesh in 2017, when the latter was 11. Even then, what set him apart was his strategy and a dedication to working hard. “Started working with him in 2017,” Prasanna says. “He was very strategic and had good positioning skills even then. He’s now much more aggressive and dynamic than before, there has been a huge change in his approach.

“I took him on because I could see he was very talented. He was also very dedicated towards the game and we had some very early successes. He started meeting IM (International Master, the tier immediately below GM) norms within a few months of working together.”

Prasanna has worked with several other young players hoping to make it big in Indian chess so he’s ideally placed to answer why Gukesh has survived the transition from juniors to seniors. “He’s obsessed with working hard,” he says. “He also has a natural talent for the game.” Considering their training sessions can last from anywhere between six to eight hours a day — “he works on his game after his sessions too,” is how Prasanna puts it — you can see why the coach uses the words ‘working hard’ regularly.

At the Olympiad, Gukesh — who has played all seven rounds — has claimed several impressive wins, including against the likes of Spain’s Alexei Shirov and Armenia’s Gabriel Sargissian. Coming into the tournament, both of them had better ratings than Gukesh. Playing the top board for India B, it was imperative that he tackled those challenges. He did it in some style. His work came in for special praise from Viswanathan Anand, who was speaking about him on the FIDE YouTube channel during the seventh round on Friday.

“Who expects six out of six (Gukesh had won all six coming into the seventh round),” Anand asked fellow commentator, Judit Polgar. “Better way to put it would be, did I think he was capable? If somebody told me he would be six out of six, would I think that would be impossible? Of course, my answer would be no. But still, who expects six from six? I’m happy that people are paying attention to him. His game with Sargissian was really impressive. Game with Shirov was also too good. What command… such cool calculations.”

One reason why Gukesh is so creative and isn’t afraid to be aggressive could be because he was not brought up on chess engines. Prasanna explains. “Very recently only he started using AI,” he says. “He didn’t work on AI until he became a GM. I insisted on developing his own game. It (using AI) can be harmful at the lower level. You are able to think quickly and so on. When you use AI, you kind of cut down on these things. It’s like walking or taking a car to a nearby store. You can get there faster with the car but walking is healthier.”

After walking, the lad is now flying. On Friday, he made it seven wins out of seven to help his side to a comfortable 3.5-0.5 win over Cuba.

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