Aravindh Chithambaram is finally starting to play to win
As a junior, the youngster ticked off the boxes of a gifted player on course to a propitious future but then he stumbled for a bit.
During a recent training seminar in Paris, RB Ramesh left fellow coaches puzzled with his answer to a fairly straightforward question. Better known as teen phenom Praggnanandhaa’s mentor, asked who’s the most talented kid he’s coached, Ramesh sprung a name other than his 17-year-old star student who decked Carlsen thrice this year. It evoked a string of follow-up queries, chiefly: “Aravindh Chithambaram, who?”
Short answer: A 23-year-old GM who ran through a strong line-up – including higher-rated fellow Indians Praggnanandhaa and Arjun Erigaisi – to win the Dubai Open last week. For the long answer we’d have to travel back nine years to the time Aravindh was being spoken of in hushed tones and bold headlines as India’s next big chess find.
The setting for the chatter was the Chennai Open GM tournament held in November 2013 in Chennai, the same time as the World Championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen. One that Aravindh picks as his “all-time favourite” tournament memory. Then a 14-year-old Fide Master, Aravindh put up a stunning performance rating of 2728 – 400 points above his ELO. Four GMs and two International Masters were shown up by him. It carried him to his first GM norm. He didn’t even have an International Master norm then.
As a junior, Aravindh ticked off the boxes of a gifted player on course to a propitious future – U-19 national champion at 12, silver at the world U-14 championship, Grandmaster at the age of 15. He announced himself before the current flock on an ascendency – Praggnanandhaa, Erigaisi Gukesh and Nihal Sarin– arrived on the scene. “It’s pretty rare to find a junior player with a universal style of play,” says Ramesh, “Aravind was the sort of combination of a great opening batsman and a terrific pacer.”
In the years that followed, as the bashful pre-teen with almond eyes and a smile that dented the corners of his mouth skipped into late teens, the ambition wore thin, he played fewer tournaments and slid away from public memory.
“I tell myself that whatever is happening is for the best,” Aravindh says with a hint of fatalism, “Obviously I could have done a lot better. Handling the sudden attention as a young boy was tough. I was in the sort of situation that Pragg (Praggnanandhaa) has perhaps been in recent years. I didn’t enjoy it. I still find it hard after my wins these days. But there’s also a part of me that’s begun to realise that you never know who you can inspire with your story. It could be just one person, but it’s still worth it. It’s also because I’ve begun finding inspiration in all sorts of people and their journeys.”
It’s been a while since Aravind has had the streak of results – six titles so far this season – like he did lately. The last time he showed up in the news was in 2019 for becoming the first Indian to win a triple national crown across formats. Now, he’s making amends for a crappy past year and perhaps a scuttled adolescent promise.
Aravindh lost his father at the age of three and the burden of providing for the family fell upon his mother, Deivanai, who’s been working as an insurance agent. Chasing GM norms by playing tournaments in Europe was a proposition his single mother couldn’t afford then so a crowd-funding platform stepped in.
Finances continue to be a problem for Aravindh. He doesn’t have a job yet. It means flying to tournaments throughout the year isn’t exactly economically viable. It isn’t the reason though for his sparse outings, he insists., “I enjoy the preparation part of chess more than playing,” he offers. It’s had a telling effect on his rating – presently in the early 2600s – that possibly belies his actual playing strength.
Aravindh has been training under Ramesh for over a decade now and spars with academy mate Praggnanandhaa, younger to him by six years. “In class I think there’s always competition between us over who’s going to crack the right moves first,” he says.
Ramesh points out that while Aravindh is the most talented kid he’s taken under his wing, there’s work to be done on building his opening repertoire. “Aravindh has never been particularly fond of computers. It’s always been books and tournament games for him. But we can’t wish computers and engines away in today’s age or we’d run into trouble right in the opening.”
Fewer tournaments and more time buried in preparation has also allowed Aravindh a closer look at what holds him back. It’s certainly not his skills or understanding of the game. “My biggest weakness has been the mental aspect,” Aravindh says haltingly, “Physically, it’s a lot easier to be fit. I go for a swim and come back feeling great about my body. But if I want to get anywhere close to 2700, mentally I need to be in a healthier and disciplined space. I’m getting some help with it.”
Earlier this week, Aravindh finished runners-up in the Indian leg of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, behind SL Narayanan. It fetched him a call-up for the Julius Baer Generation Cup featuring Magnus Carlsen, after Narayanan declined his spot due to a prior tournament commitment. Aravindh though passed up on the chance since he’s down with a bout of fever. Next, he plays the Asian Continental championship in Delhi this October.
After a quiet bunch of years under the radar, Ramesh is pleased with his student’s recent hustle. “During the Dubai Open, Aravindh told me he’s playing for nothing but the title. He went ahead and did it,” says Ramesh, “It’s been a really long time since I've seen him like this.”
Susan Ninan is co-author of Viswanathan Anand’s autobiography Mind Master: Winning Lessons From a Champion’s Life.
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