Behind chess ace Vidit Gujrathi's success are the enormous sacrifices of his parents
The Asian Individual Championship invited a strong field of participants from all around the continent. On the line were five spots at the Chess World Cup 2017 which is to be played in Tbilisi, Georgia, later this year. The Indian contingent comprised of 10 Grandmasters. Among them were big names such as Tata Steel 2017 super performer B Adhiban, defending Asian champion Sethuraman SP and one of the top players of India Surya Shekhar Ganguly. However, after nine rounds of nerve-racking action, only one player from the Indian contingent succeeded in achieving his goal – Vidit Santosh Gujrathi.
He started slow, with draws against lower-rated opponents in the first two rounds, even fumbled and conceded a game to Wang Hao in round five, but came back strongly with a streak of wins to secure bronze. A born fighter, Vidit absolutely hates losing and it's probably this hatred towards losses that propelled him forward after his defeat in the fifth round. In fact, the very reason he started learning chess was that he was wanted to beat his father by learning some tricks of the game! Speaking to Firstpost, Vidit admitted, "The first 15 minutes after I lose is the worst time to talk to me because I am very upset and don't want to speak to anyone."
Growing up in the town of Nashik in Maharashtra, a three-hour drive from Mumbai, in a family of doctors, Vidit was left alone in boredom while his parents worked. He wanted to learn to play cricket back then, as any Indian kid would. But he was too young, said the coaches of Nashik Gymkhana whom his parents had approached. The choices left with them were table tennis, badminton and chess. Since Vidit knew how to play chess and was itching to beat his dad at it (against whom he had lost every game until then), he chose the royal game. Vidit considers himself lucky as he recalls the days when he started playing. "The chess culture was at its peak in Nashik when I began learning. There were many local tournaments that were organised at the time."
From then on, there was no looking back. He progressed quickly and started winning one local championship after another. His comrades even sat together to device strategies to beat him! It took no time for his father to recognise that his son was "made to play chess". "One night, I heard him murmur chess moves while he was asleep. I just knew right then that Vidit was born to play chess," says Santosh Gujrathi, Vidit's father.
With this realisation, his family really gave it their all to ensure Vidit got the right coaching and other essentials to excel at the game. It was really a testing time for them initially. Since Vidit was too young at the time, he always needed to be accompanied to tournaments. His mother then decided to take a step back in her career and reduced her medical practice to help her son pursue his dream. Managing funds for his entry fees, accommodation and travel was another problem. Vidit's father reminisces, "Back then, I was repaying a loan I had taken to start my clinic. And Vidit's tournament and coaching expenses were so high that there was a time when I had to take another loan to fund his chess. His mother too ensured that Vidit was fully taken care of when he played in tournaments. She would carry tiffins of home cooked food along for him to eat between rounds. To tell you a funny story, other parents laughed at us initially when we did this. But when Vidit became successful, these very parents copied the practice."
On Vidit's part, he simply feels blessed and can't be more grateful for all that his parents have done for him. He can still, very clearly, recall how his parents spoke to people to be able to find the right coaches in order to provide him with the best possible guidance.
Playing chess can be an extremely expensive affair. Coaching, travel expenses, and so on definitely require sponsorship. To this end, Vidit's prowess in chess won him several scholarships and a lot of support. While the Lakshya NGO organised coaching camps for Vidit, which introduced him to coaches like Evgeny Vladimirov with whom he was working until 2015, scholarships were granted by the Sports Authority of India and ONGC. In fact, ONGC even has the 22-year-old Grandmaster on its payroll currently. In his father's opinion, the scholarship granted by the Sports Authority of India was crucial. It was because of this scholarship that Vidit found a trainer like Alon Greenfeld who was not only his coach but also his third parent.
"I think we've been very fortunate to have found a coach like Alon Greenfeld because he is not only good at teaching chess but he also has some fantastic parenting skills up his sleeve. Vidit never felt my absence when he was learning with GM Greenfeld", said his mother.
Inspired by Garry Kasparov's dominance during the 1980s and 1990s, Vidit has been working hard to emulate the 13th world champion's success and from a very early age had made winning a habit. Qualifying through district, state and national level tournaments, he went on to become the world U-14 chess champion in 2008 in Vietnam and won a bronze at the World Youth Championship in 2013, held in Turkey. He is currently ranked 52nd in the world and with an Elo rating of 2692, he is well on his way to become the fourth Indian to cross the coveted 2700 rating mark after Viswanathan Anand, Krishnan Sasikiran and Pentala Harikrishna. His exceptional positional understanding and prodigious opening knowledge recently caught the eye of the World top-10 player, Anish Giri, who invited Vidit to be his second and the two have been working together till date.
Vidit too cherishes the things he gets to learn from someone as strong as Giri and says that he is particularly amazed by how relentless Giri is when it comes to preparation. "While working with Giri, I got a taste of what it is like to play at the very top and this will be instrumental for me to make my way to the top." Hopefully, it will also help him achieve his ultimate goal of becoming the world champion.
When asked if they – since they are both doctors – ever wanted Vidit to become a doctor too, or at least take up a more conventional career, his father stated that Vidit had always been good at studies. In fact, he had scored 93 percent in his class 10 examination.
But taking up a career other than that of a chess player was simply out of question. Since Vidit's parents had known quite early on that playing chess was what made him happy, they, or even Vidit, had never really thought that he would take up anything else. "I remember asking him once if he would like to do a professional course. His answer was clear and simple – there can be many engineers but only one world champion. I want to be a world champion. The zeal in his eyes left me amazed. I couldn't say anything but affirm".