Vidit Gujrathi Interview: ‘I was expecting the Candidates to be postponed’
Indian superstar GM Vidit Gujrathi shares his thoughts on the Candidates.

Vidit Gujrathi Interview: ‘I was expecting the Candidates to be postponed’

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Indian number-two Vidit Gujrathi speaks to David Cox about his predictions for the Candidates, the impact coronavirus is having on the chess world, and his recent heartbreak at February’s Prague Chess Festival.

A relative late bloomer in chess terms—He didn’t even become a grandmaster until after turning 18, something almost unheard of at the elite level nowadays—25-year-old Vidit Gujrathi has been one of the world’s most improved players in recent years.

A spell training with Anish Giri worked wonders for the Indian star’s game and after breaking 2700 in September 2017, he’s gone from strength to strength, establishing himself as a consistent performer just outside of the world’s elite.

He won the Biel Chess Festival in 2019, and while he threw away an almost certain tournament victory at last month’s Prague Masters with a disastrous couple of defeats in the final two rounds, he remains one to watch.

Vidit will be keenly monitoring the Candidates over the coming weeks. Like many professional players, his own tournament plans have been put on hold for the time being as the world tries to come to terms with the coronavirus pandemic which has swept across the planet over the past couple of months.

The interview was conducted via phone. Text may have been edited for clarity or length. To start off with, who are you picking to win the Candidates?

Vidit Gujrathi: First of all, I wasn’t sure that Candidates would begin! I thought there’s a possibility it could be postponed until the situation normalizes because for the players it must not be easy. I saw Fabi struggling to even get there for two days and with so many things happening, it can’t be a pleasant mindset to be in. I think health should be the top priority, but I just hope that now it’s happening, it all goes smoothly. I’m sure everyone would prefer that this happened sometime later in the year when everything is settled. There’s no denying that.

But it’s kind of obvious that Caruana and Ding are like the favorites and in the past year or two, they’ve had very stable results. I think that Wang Hao may have a good performance, but I don’t see him winning the tournament. And neither do I see Alekseenko coming close. He’s good, but I feel many things have to be improved. If I have to pick one, I’d pick Ding.

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Many people seem to be feeling that it’s Ding’s time right now?

The top three players are very stable—Magnus, Fabi, and Ding. With White, Ding almost always gets a good position, his conversion rate is good, and with Black, he’s rarely in trouble. He has a pretty narrow repertoire with Black, but somehow it’s been working pretty well for him. That’s one thing I’ll be looking forward to—will he expand his openings in the Candidates, will he try something new?

Obviously this is the second Candidates for Anish. From Twitter it seems like the two of you are still good friends, can you tell us how you became close?

We had some training sessions, and that ended a few years ago, but still we stayed in touch, and we are good friends, because I’m one of the few people that can take his jokes! Not taking it personally. I know him, and most of the time he doesn’t mean it. He gets joy from creating a joke, that’s what I feel. It’s nothing personal or below the belt against anyone.

The entire sporting world has been disrupted of late by coronavirus, and many chess events have already been canceled. How has it affected you?

It’s affecting the schedule, but to be honest, I don’t mind the rest because the last year was quite hectic, and I had some health problems because of this lifestyle. So actually it’s very good that I get to rest, and I’m actually looking forward to just being at home for two to three months and not playing. But looking at the big picture, it’s not nice for the game and the economy. It’s really nothing to be excited about, but on the personal side, it just gives me a chance to rest which I wouldn’t otherwise. So I’m just going to use that time to recover myself.

So coronavirus has actually come at a good time for you!

I wouldn’t say that! To use sanitizers ten times a day and not go out isn’t great. It’s a really strange feeling. Everywhere in the news, it’s just constantly that discussion—how many people have been affected. But on the chess side of things, I’m not disappointed that I don’t get to play for two to three months.

What health issues did you face last year?

I actually lost a lot of weight, around ten kilograms. It wasn’t gradual, it was all of a sudden. I think doctors said that it was most likely lifestyle or stress related. Because every other week I’m traveling, which is not really good with so many time differences and jetlag. I think that’s the reason. Because for me, I don’t really play in India. Mainly I’m jumping from one flight to another. Probably my body didn’t cope with it that well. 

Let’s talk about the last time you were in action, the Prague Festival last month. You seemed to be comfortably on the way to victory until round eight where you lost that dramatic game to David Navara, and then the final round loss to Jan-Krzysztof Duda allowed Alireza Firouzja to catch you. How do you feel looking back on the tournament?

I felt like I was playing really well, after a long time. There was a difference between me and the other players in the tournament in terms of the level. I felt that, with White, every game I had a big advantage at least. I’d had a few good games before, but not this consistent level. So that made it even more heartbreaking to play so well, but then lose it in such a manner. If I look at the odds of this happening, I would have had to say they would be pretty slim. Pretty much everything had to go wrong.

Vidit's miniature against Firouzja was one of the most impressive games in the event. Notes by Peter Doggers.

The game with Navara was really tough. I sacrificed a piece early and completely dominated the game from start to almost the finish. I felt, "OK, I’m winning; this is all done and dusted. I’m champion." And then all of a sudden, I made some slight error, and I dropped a big chunk of my advantage. It was very frustrating, because it had been almost over, and I didn’t want to settle for a draw. I was still a pawn up, but somehow I got carried away. Such things are very hard to explain, sometimes there’s no rational way to explain it. It was very heartbreaking to lose from that position. Even if I’d made a draw and lost the last round, I’d still be champion in hindsight.

Recovering emotionally from a setback like that is extremely tough

Yeah, I never imagined that I’d lose the game, you know. It was almost impossible, so it was a complete shock. But to be honest, in the last game against Duda, I just got a very bad position with Black straight from the opening. Even if I had beaten Navara, it might have gone the same way. It was a really hard two days for me emotionally, and by the time I got to the tiebreak with Firouzja, my mindset was just like, "I don’t care," which is not really a healthy attitude to have going into a tiebreak, but I’d already played for five hours that day, lost, and now I have to play a tiebreak straight after losing two tough games. At that point, I stopped caring. I was just thinking, "This is not how it should have been."

Was it hard to put the disappointment behind you after the tournament finished?

With me, usually after the game is the moment where the emotions are running extremely high, and I feel really bad. But then a few days pass, and I don’t feel the pain so much. With Prague, afterwards it was ok. You’re able to see the grand scheme of things; it’s only one tournament and one bad game. If I keep crying about it, there’s really no point! I try and analyze the situation, take my lessons, and just move on. Ideally, that should have happened immediately after the round-eight game, but you know, I’m human.

Let's speak about some of the challenges you’ve faced in your life and career. You were a fairly late bloomer in elite chess terms, getting the grandmaster title when you were 18. Did you have to overcome any particular hurdles to achieve that?

When I was very young, it was not easy for me to travel to Europe and play events to get grandmaster norms because it involved a lot of financial expenditure. I got all my GM norms in India, which is not easy because there are so many underrated players. I see many foreigners coming here and losing tons of rating points. There are 1800s or 2100s, who on their good days will play really well. So, while I crossed 2500, at 14 or 15, it took me a while to get the norms which frustrated me. It would have been easier in Europe, but I couldn’t afford to make those trips at the time.

I know you continued your studies and even got your university degree. Being the son of two doctors, did your parents ever expect you to pursue a different career? Where does professional chess player rank as a career choice in the eyes of Indian parents?

It’s true; it’s very common for doctors’ kids to become doctors. But I used to see them getting calls at 2 a.m. and then rushing to the hospital to attend the patients, and I decided this is not for me. I’d rather get my nine hours of sleep and then play a game at 3 p.m.!

There is stress and all, but when I compare it to many other professions, the routine is kind of relaxed for chess if you don’t play too many events.

Vidit Gujrathi,
Vidit Gujrathi enjoys a relaxed schedule but is always focused at the board. Photo: Maria Emelianova /

There’s so many good Indian players at all levels of the game. How difficult was it to stand out and establish yourself amid the competition?

I mean, there was always a healthy competition, and that kind of pushes you in a way because you know that someone is breathing at your neck, so you have to keep running and keep improving. In a way it motivates you, but serious competition also has its downsides. I was not sure about my strength until I crossed 2700. That gave me some relief because it was a big barrier for me, and until then, I had similar ratings to many of my colleagues. After that, there’s always a big competition coming up. But for me, it motivates me if there’s someone ready to take my spot.

Now, there are less than 30 rating points separating you and the legend that is Vishy Anand, who’ been Indian number-one for so many years. How much of a motivation is it for you to surpass him as your country’s leading player?

It’s not that I think of it all the time. I know that if I play well, it will happen on its own, so it’s kind of pointless to focus on. I just want to improve my game. It will happen sooner or later if I do the right things. If I keep playing as I did in Prague until round seven, it will happen!

The biggest difference it would make, rather than me feeling great about it, would be to help me get sponsorship. Because Vishy is a legend, he’s been Indian number-one for countless years, and to pass him would be a big deal for people who are interested in the game. And then I could invest that in my career.

Finally, give us a sense of the Vidit away from the board. What hobbies do you have to take your mind off chess?

I like to play sports, like any kind of game. I’ve not played football and tennis that much, but I like to play basketball, swimming—cricket in India is a big thing of course. All these sports I love. I also love reading; I always have my Kindle with me. Not just chess literature but any other literature. I wouldn’t be bored if you gave me my Kindle and locked me in a room for a week on the condition that there were not only chess books. I would get bored if that was the case!

So if you have to self-quarantine in the next couple of months, it won’t be too bad for you!

Haha, certain conditions apply with that!

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