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Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi’s big dreams of global chess domination

The Indian grandmaster speaks to Lounge about self improvement, breaking into the world top ten and playing to win

Vidit Gujrathi is gearing up for the World Chess Championships.(Hindustan Times)

By Arun Janardhan

LAST PUBLISHED 06.03.2024  |  07:30 AM IST

Roughly two years ago, Vidit Santosh Gujrathi realised that he needed to change his personality, and shuffle things around a bit in his life. The 29-year-old, who has been a chess grandmaster for a decade, was consistently in the top 30s and 20s of world rankings, but not moving further up.

The change had to be in his personality, not just in chess, he says, taking the example of Garry Kasparov who, as Gujrathi says, “has this huge energy, a lot of aggression that also comes on the board. So, I worked on myself." 

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One of the outcomes of this self-regeneration, are the far less number of drawn games that he plays now. “It’s still work in progress because the tendencies are so hard grained. It’s (the changes) subtle, but collectively, it has come out with me as a new person."

The results have been more than subtle. Gujrathi won the FIDE Grand Swiss Tournament at the Isle of Man in November, which will lead him into the Candidates tournament: the qualifying event for the World Chess Championships. The FIDE Candidates Tournament, in Toronto in April, will have an 8-player double round-robin format. The winner will play champion Ding Liren of China for the world title. Gujrathi will join two other Indians, R. Praggnanandhaa and Gukesh D., among the eight challengers.

Part of the change Gujrathi has made is to become physically fitter. “Even pure muscles or endurance, I got much more fit. I was able to travel a lot, play long games," he told Lounge over a Zoom chat from hometown Nashik in February, where he had hunkered down with a crew of trainers, getting ready for the Candidates.

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In the past he would botch up good positions, which was one of his biggest weaknesses. That ratio has reduced, he adds, even if it’s not completely gone. “Because I used to get a lot of anxiety, I worked a lot on my mental strength. I meditate every day." He credits his spiritual guru, Om Swami, as the biggest influence, meeting him for the first time in 2019, getting into his teachings during the pandemic. 

Gujrathi’s best results started to show last year, when he came close to winning an individual medal at the Asian Games (the Indian team won a silver). At the Grand Swiss, Gujrathi was seeded 15, and not expected to triumph. Having lost a few games in the preceding 10 rounds, he faced a must-win situation in his final round. He beat the Russian Alexandr Predke, while the other boards finished in his favour, leaving him the champion with 8.5 points.

“Losing the first game and making such a comeback, that’s never happened before," he said. “I was not stopping the work but losing hope. It was like I was trying to climb Mount Everest and running out of oxygen. In that tournament, my family wouldn’t have bet on me. Even I wouldn’t have. So that was the state, but now, that has changed."


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In January, Gujrathi became the highest ranked Indian (open category) chess player, dethroning Viswanathan Anand and breaking into the top 10 world ranking. In the fluid world of chess rankings, that order has changed a bit, with Anand (ranked 10) back on top (rating of 2751), followed by (among Indians) Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa and Gujrathi (ranked 17) on a ratings of 2747.

Within India itself, the competition is stiff and getting younger, with Praggnanandhaa, aged 18, and Gukesh, 17, among the young crop of challengers to a crown Anand has worn for nearly four decades. It can be tough knowing that somebody will get the better of you if you don’t work hard enough, he said. “The good thing is that it pushes you, because it helps you grow as a person. But at times, it’s not easy when you’re not doing well, and they are doing well. I wouldn’t lie that it gets to you.

“In chess, there are many invitation-based, rather than just ratings-based, events. Only one or two players from a country get invited. With so many top players from India, you’re fighting for a small piece of pie. It’s a bullfight at times," said Gujrathi, who is currently playing the Prague Masters (till 7 March) as part of his preparation for the Candidates.

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“I’m nice to everyone and everybody’s nice to me. But we wouldn’t call each other friends. When you’re so ambitious… At least in business, you can have a win-win situation. In sport, if you win, the other person has to lose. It becomes hard when you are friends with someone you play (against)."

Gujrathi’s chess beginnings were in Nashik, not a traditional chess hub. For Gujrathi—his parents are both doctors—it took a lot of hustle to get a leg up in the sport. His mother, Nikita, was proactive in finding coaches, taking him to tournaments and creating an atmosphere for the sport where none existed.  

“Mom left her career because she used to travel with me. We could not spend a lot but when it came to books, knowledge or coaching, she somehow managed to find the resources. She did a lot of jugaad," Gujrathi said, smiling, “That is one quality, which I still hold. If there’s something knowledgeable, I don’t hesitate for a second to go for it."

He invests in tech, to track his fitness, and maintain a record of his meditations so he can be more scientific. He started streaming and doing commentary during the pandemic, to explore another dimension of himself, and to break the stereotype that chess players are serious, “somebody with glasses and not speaking much". 

“They (audiences) got to see the quirky side, the funny side of it. I understand where people get that stereotype from. It also helped a lot with the chess boom. I think more people got engaged to the sport, right?"

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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