D Gukesh: ‘Used to handling expectations… have high expectations off myself’

It’s been a few days since R Praggnanandhaa declared that he felt that he has the potential to be a world champion someday. It was a bold declaration, one that even veterans would hesitate to make. So it was only natural that when D Gukesh, another history-making teenage prodigy, fielded questions from the media on the sidelines of the Tata Steel Chess India on Thursday, he was asked if he felt he could be a world champ someday too.

“If I didn’t think so (that I don’t have the potential), it would be quite bad. I surely have trust in myself. If I do all the right things, I surely can make it,” says the 17-year-old, who earlier this month overtook Viswanathan Anand as India No. 1 after 37 years.

It was a moment that felt like it started a new era in Indian chess: the age of teenaged prodigies. Even Anand had admitted to being caught off-guard by how quickly the golden generation of Indian chess — Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa, Arjun Erigaisi and Nihal Sarin — had bounded up the steps of progress. While the first three players in this group are already in the elite 2700-rating club, with a current membership of 35, Nihal is just six points away.

There have been other moments of giddy success too. Like Gukesh overhauling Anand as India No. 1 after 37 years, Praggnanandhaa carved his own slice of history by becoming the first Indian after Anand to make it to the final of the FIDE World Cup, thereby sealing a place in the eight-man Candidates Tournament.

Filling into the oversized shoes of Anand would have been a daunting prospect for anyone. But not for Gukesh.

“It’s a nice thing. To be honest for the past few months, I had mentally been prepared to take over the India no.1 spot. It’s not really something that affects my play,” he said. “I’ve been used to handling expectations for a while. It’s nothing new. I’ve made some progress (in the last few months) which I am happy about. There’s still a long way to go. I have high expectations of myself. I’ve learnt how to handle the pressure.”

Turning point

Gukesh had a breakout performance at the Chess Olympiad last year. Since then, he believes he has gotten better, even if the results are not “catchy enough”.

“I was very inexperienced against the top players during the Olympiad. But I was just in a golden form and things just fell into place. Now I’m much stronger than what I was during the Olympiad. Although the results are not as catchy as at the Olympiad, I’ve still learned a lot and made a lot of progress,” he said.

Back in the day, he would have a tough time dealing with defeats. Now, he feels better equipped to take them on the chin.

“Losing is never easy. Losing itself is a motivation. To get out of the loss and focus on the next game takes some time for me. But thankfully now, it takes less time than before. It’s still very tough for me,” he said.

When prodded about what he had changed in himself to become better at dealing with losses, Gukesh said: “Maybe it had something to do with maturity, I was very young. I do meditation and yoga, that helped.”

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There are other ways he has matured in the past few years.

“There is some amount of extra pressure for sure when playing against top players. But compared to last year, now I’ve played against most of the top players quite often. I beat them regularly in tournaments. Although I still need a lot of experience, I’ve got used to playing against them. I’ve learnt to trust my own skills and work and not worry much about who the opponent is,” he said.

After taking over as India No. 1, Gukesh is asked how long he plans to stay in that spot. “I don’t know. Let’s see. As long as possible,” he grinned.

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