Indian origin teen’s race to become UK’s youngest chess Grandmaster - Hindustan Times

Indian origin teen’s race to become UK’s youngest chess Grandmaster

Apr 01, 2023 05:40 PM IST

Shreyas Royal, 14, has achieved one of the three required GM norms. David Howell is the holder of the youngest UK GM record, achieved at 16 years and one month

Jitendra Singh had sold off property, exhausted savings and e-mails to corporates had gone unanswered. The only thing left to do was to break it to his young son – UK’s strongest junior player – that he might have to give up chess. Things turned in the months that followed.

Fourteen-year-old Shreyas Royal is now in the running to become UK’s youngest Grandmaster.(Twitter (@shrez_royal09)) PREMIUM
Fourteen-year-old Shreyas Royal is now in the running to become UK’s youngest Grandmaster.(Twitter (@shrez_royal09))

Fourteen-year-old Shreyas Royal is now in the running to become UK’s youngest Grandmaster. He already has one out of the three required GM norms.

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Shreyas was born in Bengaluru but Jitendra’s job as an IT project manager had the family move to south London in 2012 when he was still a toddler. It’s where Shreyas picked up chess. Jitendra had to look up a bunch of introductory chess videos on YouTube to get a hang.

Shreyas, Elo 2438, sees the youngest UK GM record as a “huge motivation” and marker. “If I can get it this year, I’ll beat the current record by two years. A lot of top strong players turned GMs at the ages of 14-15, so it will perhaps mean that I’m on the right path too.”

Last November, at 13 years and nine months, Shreyas broke the UK record for a first GM norm with a stellar performance at the Bavarian Open. The Woolwich teen won four games, drew two and lost just one game to top seed Anton Korobov. Earlier that week, he had ticked off another record – UK’s youngest International Master. He has an eye out on peers – Abhimanyu Mishra (US, Elo 2550) and Ihor Samunenkov (UKR, Elo 2501) – who are a couple of paces ahead.

While Shreyas plots his Elo climb, Jitendra has had to wage battles to shore up funds. “I wrote to over 200 corporate firms in less than a year for Shreyas' sponsorship. No one got back. We sold our Bengaluru flat, spent almost all our savings and were left with no option but for him to give up chess,” says Jitendra, who hails from Bokaro, Jharkhand. In March, Demis Hassabis, co-founder and CEO of AI company DeepMind stepped in, offering to sponsor Shreyas’ chess expenses – tournaments, coaching, etc. – until he turns GM.

It’s the sort of support David Howell wishes he had when he was younger. Howell is the holder of the youngest UK GM record. He achieved it in 2007, at 16 years, one month and is considered among the country’s most gifted players. “It was impossible to attract any sponsorship then,” Howell says. “Resources were severely limited. Despite our best efforts, my family was unable to hire a coach after the age of 11-12, so I drifted in and out of the game. Finally, I decided to go to university instead of pursuing a full-time playing career.”

Howell describes Shreyas as “extremely talented, hardworking and resourceful”. “His openings are far superior to mine from when I was at a similar age. It's about time someone broke my record.”

Five years ago, Shreyas and his family were thrust into the news. They were on the verge of being deported to India in accordance with British immigration laws. Jitendra’s work visa was due to expire and he did not meet the £120,000 annual income criterion for renewal. The couple appealed to the UK government’s Home Office to allow them to stay back on grounds of their son being an exceptional chess talent. The Home Office wrote back saying it was not sufficient reason. “I remember feeling sad when I heard that we might have to leave the country. This is where I’ve grown up and the only home I’ve known,” says Shreyas.

Their story was splashed across British tabloids and made headlines in India as well. “We went through extreme mental agony. Many fellow Indians here in the UK mocked us and wanted us to leave. Shreyas faced a lot of bullying too. It made it tough for him to participate in tournaments in the country.” English chess federation president Dominic Lawson requested the Home Secretary to intervene, describing Shreyas as “England's best junior chess prospect in a generation” and a few Labour MPs rallied in support. The decision was reconsidered and the family was allowed to stay back.

Now a British citizen, the mention of India brings up snapshots of “lush greenery” and “cricket” to Shreyas’ mind. “A goal (youngest UK GM) like this can get you to expect a lot from yourself. It can mess with your head and you are always thinking ‘I've got to get here by this time’. It’s what I’m consciously trying not to do.”

The Singh family’s schedule, spendings and future plans today revolve around Shreyas’ chess. Jitendra accompanies his son for tournaments within the country and mother Anju travels with him for overseas events. They hadn’t visited India for around eight years after moving to London fearing it might eat into the money set aside for tournaments. Their next visit, Jitendra says, perhaps might only be feasible after Shreyas turns GM.

“Before Shreyas started playing chess, we would go out on weekends. Now, I can’t recall the last time we did that. We never imagined Shreyas would take up chess. But it's what he loves most today so we too are learning to join in.” Right now, it’s a family hustling to keep a young boy's dream alive.

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