Cool, mature and unflappable: The mentality that won D Gukesh the Candidates

Cool, mature and unflappable: The mentality that won D Gukesh the Candidates
Cool, mature and unflappable: The mentality that won D Gukesh the Candidates

While his fate in the Candidates was still up in the air in Round 14, D Gukesh decided to head back to his hotel for a few minutes to calm his nerves.

D Gukesh of India at the Candidates(HT_PRINT)
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“I was following this crazy game (Fabiano Caruana vs Ian Nepomniachtchi) and I was completely emotional… Those 15 minutes were probably the most stressful of the tournament. I was watching the commentary for a while but then I just couldn’t watch it,” said the 17-year-old.

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The thing about that revelation was that it was the first time in three weeks that the Indian teen had given us a peek behind his game face – at the vulnerability, emotions and ambition. A draw in the game between Caruana and Nepomniachtchi would confirm his tournament win and a decisive result would take matters into tie-breaks.

Over the good part of this month in Toronto, Gukesh has been clinical on the board and prosaic off it. He’s been calm, unflappable, and almost whirred like a machine on a path to stoic, no-nonsense greatness. Wins didn’t seem to make him overeager or complacent and his sole heart-breaking loss didn’t drive him to despair. If anything, he picked out his seventh-round defeat to Alireza Firouzja as the brightest spot. The game that many feared might throw him off track.

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“If I had to pinpoint a moment where I felt this could be my moment, it was after I lost to Alireza. I was very upset after that, but during the rest day I felt so good… I was feeling at my absolute best. Maybe the loss just gave me motivation.” It made you marvel at the sage perspective of the 17-year-old.

Gukesh’s trainer Grzegorz Gajewski, who was previously Viswanathan Anand’s second, described the five-time world champion as the “brilliant” one and Gukesh as the “cool” one. “It’s a huge advantage in chess when you manage to stay cool. This kind of mindset is unique. It’s what we’ve been trying to achieve, and that he manages to find it at such critical moments is really something.”

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It’s not a mentality that’s been plucked out of nowhere. Over the years, Gukesh has chased goals he set for himself, faced setbacks, picked himself up, and run the course again. He chased the world’s youngest GM goal – traveling to tournaments, forgoing school and sleeping in baggage claim areas of airports overnight to save on hotel costs. Between October 2017 and January 2019, I have played 276 games. He became India’s youngest GM but missed Sergey Karjakin’s record by 17 days.

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“It was pure misery,” Gukesh said. “But it turned out to be a great life lesson on how to handle expectations and critical moments.”

The period of hopeless waiting for his Candidates qualification last year added some steel to his might. He was miserable, having a terrible run at tournaments, barely sleeping, and had almost decided to give up on trying to qualify. His long-time trainer Vishnu Prasanna sat down with him for a chat after it was clear that his somewhat obsessive focus on qualifying for the Candidates was weighing on his mind and had affected his tournaments – the Grand Swiss and Qatar Masters – adversely. I have qualified for the Candidates at the Chennai Grand Masters in late December. “When it was time to leave for Toronto, he had already lived through some of the worst, he was stronger in his will and more ready than ever,” said Prasanna.

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Playing at this level has been on Gukesh’s mind for a long time, Prasanna pointed out. “So, he’s played out these phases for a while in his head.”

Gukesh started using engines only a few years ago. It was a conscious decision by Prasanna to allow him to be adaptable, resourceful and think on his feet. “He’s quick to work on new ideas. For instance, he adopted the Shevshnikov opening to his repertoire after watching the 2018 Magnus Carlsen-Caruana World Championship match. I quite liked the games and was improvising it directly without preparation. I’ve ended up playing it for a long time. “We weren’t using the computer for preparation back then and it was a very sharp situation, but he handled it fairly well.”

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The teenager has been able to sprinkle and execute surprises well through the Candidates – like he did against Nakamura with 5…Be7 and 11…b4! in the final Round 14 to not let his tournament chances slip, or the 4…Nge7 Cozio Defense in the Ruy Lopez against Nepomniachtchi to hunt for a draw with Black. Among the benefits of turning to engines only a few years ago is that he doesn’t rely too much on it. “He doesn’t need to prepare too much or know everything in a line and he is confident in figuring things out on the board. He’s never quite a sea.”

What has been a revelation in his play is his maturity and pragmatism. “I was a little worried after he lost Firouzja, so I texted him. He replied that he was a bit upset for a bit but he was completely alright. “He knew he’d played a great game,” said Prasanna.

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“Also, making somewhat short draws like he did with Vidit (Gujrathi) at the Candidates. Previously, he would never do something like that. He would be adamant about going for a win. It’s almost as if I can see him improve by the day. If something is not working, he is flexible enough to quickly discard it and try a better option.”

World No.1 Magnus Carlsen, who’d earlier given Gukesh next to no odds of winning the tournament, was taken by surprise. “Gukesh is probably a bit stronger than what me and others realized.” He revealed that when they met in Weisenhaus for the Chess 960 tournament ahead of the Candidates, Gukesh sought him out for advice. “I told him that he should not go crazy and that he should wait for his chances because other people will go crazy.”

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Once the Caruana-Nepomniachtchi game ended after over six hours and 109 moves, Gukesh was confirmed as the Candidates winner. He returned to the Great Hall in Toronto from the hotel in the shuttle van along with his father Rajnikanth and Gajewski.

“Gajeswski and I went for a walk (while waiting for the game to finish). My father then came running to me and said it’s over,” Gukesh said, breaking into a smile. A rare sight in three weeks. The teen will play the World Championship later this year against China’s reigning champion Ding Liren. It must feel like the darnedest dream come true.

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