Gukesh and the age of disruption - Hindustan Times
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Gukesh and the age of disruption

Apr 20, 2024 08:52 PM IST

The 17 year-old Indian has shown striking maturity and resilience and perhaps in his own way got the world to look beyond his age

17. An age of irreverence. A crossover from adolescence to adulthood. An age where it’s assumed you aren’t in serious contention for the big things, and one where your worth can be dismissed as talent.

Indian GM D Gukesh(PTI)
Indian GM D Gukesh(PTI)

In Indian chess, 17 appears to be a hell-raising number.

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R Praggnanandhaa was transitioning from 17 to 18 when he tore through the line-up of some of the world's best players to reach the 2023 World Cup final.

D Gukesh is 17 and tied for first place in the Candidates tournament in Toronto with two rounds to go. Should he win, he will have a shot at becoming world champion.

Over the past three weeks, Gukesh has seldom conformed to stereotypes and labels associated with his age. He’s been calm, measured, focused and shown remarkable maturity. Even after a gut-wrenching loss that many feared might derail his tournament chances, he recovered promptly with a win in the next game.

He did something similar at 15 too.

It was the final round of the Reykjavik Open in April 2022 and Gukesh was in a winning position with White against Praggnanandhaa. The tournament was held following a two-year coronavirus break, half a century after the historic match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in the Icelandic city. A win would have seen Gukesh tied for first position. He was two pawns up when he missed a tactic and lost.

He sat there devastated, clutching his head. Praggnanandhaa rearranged the pieces on the board and lingered for a while. Other players stopped by to have a look at the scene of the wreckage. Praggnanandhaa’s coach RB Ramesh walked over and consoled him. He sat there frozen, his eyes turned away from the board, his grief hidden behind a white face mask.

A week later, he defeated Praggnanandhaa in a rematch, to win the La Roda Open and won two more tournaments in Spain – the Menorca Open and Formentera Open, within a month without conceding a single defeat. The same year he became the third youngest player in history to cross 2700 Elo and went on to have eight wins in a row in a terrific Olympiad performance.

“It must be difficult at his age, to be honest,” said Gukesh’s trainer Grzegorz Gajewski, “When you’re playing for 20 years and you lose two games in a row you can easily recall a dozen similar instances from your career. But when you suddenly go from playing juniors to grown-ups at major tournaments you may not know how to deal with tough situations. But since you don’t have the baggage of the past you’re also able to look at them as learning experiences and move on more quickly.”

Much of Gukesh’s attitude and success can perhaps be attributed to his single-minded focus on chess. He wasn’t coerced into it by pushy parents. It was a path he found himself drawn to at an early age. He chose to put academics on the back burner to immerse himself in the game. Not a call most Indian families might be comfortable with, but his parents chose to back him. It helped that he turned Grandmaster at 12. His mother, a microbiologist, took on the role of sole earning member as his father – an ENT surgeon – paused his practice to accompany him to tournaments around the world.

Going into his first Candidates this year, little was made of Gukesh’s practical chances. Perhaps partly because there’s precedent for dazzling talents not holding up under the bright lights of brutal, high-stakes competition.

One of the most exciting names of recent times, Alireza Firouzja was 18 and the youngest player in the field in his first Candidates two years ago. He had a torrid time and wound up sixth out of eight players. He took time off from chess to explore career prospects in fashion designing. This time too, Firouzja finds himself close to the bottom of the standings. “They (Gukesh and Pragg) are probably much more focused than me in chess,” Firouzja said in a recent interview. “They’re a lot more stable.”

The plan for Gukesh in the Candidates was to not go crazy, Gajewski revealed. “These young players are super ambitious. They want to crush everyone and show the world how strong they are. But a tournament like this needs patience. You have to be calm.”

Gukesh has stuck to the plan so far. He's shown striking maturity and resilience and perhaps in his own way got the world to look beyond his age.

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