How Kerala chess prodigy Nihal stays focussed: 4 hours of daily training & worry-free attitude

I prefer to take life as it comes: Keralite chess prodigy Nihal
Nihal Sarin had a dream 2020. File photo

Recently, Keralite chess prodigy Nihal Sarin added another feather to his cap when he became the winner of the Gazprom Brilliancy Prize, a special trophy awarded to the best game from the FIDE Online World Cadets and Youth Championship held in December.

Nihal, who had won the U-18 open category of the event, won the honour for his semifinal victory over Italian International Master Francesco Sonis. Five out of nine judges picked Nihal’s game as their top choice.

In fact, the 16-year-old from Thrissur who is a former world Under-10 champion, had a stunning 2020, winning four tournaments in the space of three months. He reigned supreme in the Junior Speed Chess, Capechecs Online Karpov Trophy, Super Juniors Cup and the Under-18 FIDE Online World Cadets and Youth Championship.

Nihal, who became the 12th youngest Grandmaster in chess history and only the third from Kerala to join the elite club in August, 2018, was also part of the Indian team which emerged joint champions along with Russia at the Chess Olympiad.

India’s 53rd Grandmaster who is currently ranked 171 in the world with an ELO rating of 2620, the teenager says it was almost business as usual for the chess players across the globe at a time when the COVID-19 lockdown brought the sporting world to a standstill.

Nihal with his dad Sarin Abdulsalam. Photo: By Special Arrangement

One of his major achievements over the past one year was the title win in the’s 2020 Junior Speed Online Chess Championship held in December. “I would rate the win in the Junior Speed Chess as the most satisfying. The top-16 junior players in the world were in the fray and it was a truly memorable triumph,” Nihal told Onmanorama.

He beat Russia’s world junior No. 6 Alexey Sarana 18-7 in the final.

Technical problems

While online competitions meant the players did not miss out on the majority of the tournaments, technical issues such as poor connectivity and power disruption have caused a lot of inconvenience to them, he said.

“Often, we had to deal with connectivity issues and frequent server failures. It was something which was beyond our control, but it certainly put unnecessary pressure on the players.”

Nihal with his sister Neha, second right, and cousins. Photo: By Special Arrangement

As per FIDE rules, a player would receive first and final warning for Internet disconnection for two minutes or less. He/she would receive a yellow card if there is an internet disruption for two minutes or less for a second time and a red card if the player is being awarded a second yellow card.

FIDE upheld India's appeal and declared India and Russia as joint winners after Nihal and Divya Deshmukh lost precious time due to server failure in the Chess Olympiad final in August.

No goal setting

Nihal, a blitz and bullet chess fanatic, spends at least four hours honing his skills online.

“I play random games online. I don’t have a specific schedule as such but I make it a point to spend at least four hours online daily.”

Nihal is thankful to his sponsor Akshayakalpa for taking care of the financial aspects. The deal with the Bangalore-based organic milk manufacturing company is believed to be the second biggest in Indian chess history behind former world champion Viswanathan Anand.

Nihal Sarin
Nihal at the Bobby Fischer Center in Iceland. Photo: By Special Arrangement

“Chess is an expensive sport, especially to play in overseas tournaments. The deal with Akshayakalpa has been a boon,” said Nihal, who has been tipped to be a future world champion by five-time world champion Anand.

The soft-spoken Nihal, however, has not set any particular goal. “I prefer to take life as it comes and I don’t believe in planning a lot.”

The elder son of dermatologist Sarin Abdulsalam and psychiatrist Shijin and a Plus One student of Devamatha CMI Public School, Thrissur, Nihal prefers to unwind by watching YouTube videos and reading books. "As for other sports, I follow cricket," he added.

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