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Gukesh D

The 17-year-old Grandmaster has risen to the top of India’s chess pack and a Candidates berth to challenge the best in the world looks within reach. The jury for TOI’s #Unstoppable21 campaign has picked the Chennai teenager as one of the Unstoppable 21 Indians under 21 years

For 36 yrs, Anand was No.1 in India. Then Gukesh happened

Highs and lows are part and parcel of a sportsperson’s life and it invariably boils down to how one deals with them.

Indian Grandmaster D Gukesh, the prodigy who has taken the chess world by storm and surpassed the legendary Viswanathan Anand as India’s No. 1 in the live FIDE rankings, experienced them all in the last 12 months, en route to scripting history. He followed it up with a creditable quarterfinal finish in the recently-concluded World Cup in Baku where R Praggnanandhaa won the silver. Gukesh, though, looks all set to join Prag in the elite eight-player Candidates event next April, the winner of which will take on the current world champion Ding Liren.

Gukesh has been a force in recent times, but he shot to limelight at the Chess Olympiad in Mamallapuram last year. The teenage sensation clinched the individual gold with an unbelievable 9 out of 11 points in a field which comprised the likes of Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, among others. Representing the India 2 team that had bagged bronze, the 17-year-old had an unstoppable streak – eight wins on the bounce.

After becoming India’s poster boy at a tournament where he had delivered a number of breathtaking performances, Gukesh went through a rough patch, by his lofty standards, in the months that followed. “All of us go through a phase where we do not know what we are doing. It was the same for him,” Gukesh’s coach, GM Vishnu Prasanna, told TOI.

Down mentally and constantly searching for the moment that would spark a turnaround, the Chennai lad, for a while, was not his usual self while pitting his wits against the crème de la crème of world chess. He kept trying but his efforts did not bear fruit until the middle of the Tata Steel Chess 2023 in Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands in January.

Winless after seven rounds at the tournament, Gukesh broke the duck in Round 8 with a victory over Iranian GM Parham Maghsoodloo. And, there was no stopping him after that morale-boosting triumph. “He needed that luck to change his perspective. After that game, he went from having a bad mindset to a good mindset,” said Prasanna.

“We were just doing the usual things. We worked on his game and tried to fix it. He did not want to overthink and was only focused on playing. The win helped him to have a psychological shift.” After staying unbeaten for the remainder of the Tata Steel event and finishing 12th with five-and-a-half points, Gukesh went from strength to strength.

He defeated his idol-turned-rival, World No. 1 Carlsen, in over-the-board chess for the first time in the second round of the Norway Chess Blitz tournament in Stavanger in May. In July, Gukesh became the youngest player to cross the Elo 2750 threshold, thanks to his sheer dominance at the Turkish Super League. At the start of this month, Gukesh achieved a monumental feat as he went past Anand to become India No.1 in the live chess rankings, courtesy of his second-round win over Misratdin Iskandarov at the just-concluded World Cup at Baku in Azerbaijan. To put things into perspective, Anand, who mentors Gukesh and other young Indian talent at the WestBridge Anand Chess Academy, had held on to the spot for almost 36 years.

“Gukesh’s rise has been incredible. I think that this climb (into the top-10) is very special (Gukesh is seventh in live rankings). Players usually pause and struggle to get through that barrier. I would say that this is the most difficult barrier. I am extremely happy that he has done very well,” said Prasanna. “Staying consistent and maintaining one’s level are huge challenges. They are difficult to achieve, but he has been doing very well.”

Noted coach RB Ramesh showered praise on Gukesh for playing with immense confidence and backing his game. “He has shown phenomenal progress to overtake Anand. I am happy that a young Indian player is performing well at the international arena. He has great confidence and I believe that it is his biggest strength. He is a hard-working boy and is learning a lot by playing games. He has full belief in his abilities and that is refreshing to see,” said Ramesh, who worked with Gukesh in the India 2 set-up at the Olympiad.

While Gukesh is already a star, he is hungry for more. “He is not overwhelmed by the expectations. He feels that he has still not achieved his ultimate goal of becoming World No. 1. He will not rest on his laurels,” said Prasanna. “We have more challenges ahead. We have to see how Gukesh handles it going forward. The next goal is to get to the Candidates Tournament. I want him to win world events; they are like Grand Slams in tennis. More than playing well, I want him to win those titles,” Prasanna said.

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