Carlsen is great, but losing in the quarters was painful: Gukesh

D Gukesh, 17, is no longer just a precocious talent making rapid strides on the chess board. During the FIDE World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, the youngster overtook five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in the live ratings and also entered the world’s top 10. Gukesh’s place among the elite will be confirmed when the FIDE ratings are updated on September 1 – he will end Anand’s near four-decade spell as India No.1 and rise to world No.8.

D Gukesh(Twitter/DGukesh)

At the World Cup, Gukesh had an impressive run until running into Norway’s five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen in the quarters. The teenager is taking a breather at home in Chennai and will fly to Dusseldorf, Germany for the World Rapid Teams Championship from August 25.

Excerpts from an interview:

How do you reflect on your run in the World Cup?

It was a very tough tournament. I started off well with a few good games. The game against Andrey Esipenko (in the fourth round) was quite a tough challenge, but I got a few lucky breaks there. Before the tournament, I kind of imagined that the quarter-final against Magnus Carlsen would be the biggest challenge. It was an interesting challenge. In the first game, I tried to play something interesting but he got the position he wanted. I panicked at a critical moment and things got really tough for me. In the second game with black, I got close to a serious advantage but he defended extremely well. I could have done better. It was a nice learning experience.

Beating Carlsen in classical chess is the ultimate challenge. Is it easier to move on from a defeat against him?

Of course, he is the best player in the world. He is great and all that, but losing in the quarters was quite painful. I learnt a few things to work on. The loss is not ideal, but it’s fine.

What does overtaking Anand as India’s top-ranked player mean to you?

It’s a historic moment because Vishy sir has been the God of Indian chess. He’s had the No.1 spot for 37 years. It is great that I could overtake someone who inspired me to play chess. But I don’t feel it’s such a huge step because I have further goals. I haven’t even come close to achieving what he has done and reaching his level. There’s a long way to go but it’s a nice thing to be No.1 in your country.

You have been training at the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy in recent years. What has Anand’s mentorship been like?

We started working at the academy somewhere around December 2020. At that point, it was much needed for all the young talents because we were not playing many tournaments due to the (pandemic) lockdown. We needed to be ready when things opened up. The experience of training with Vishy sir and the other coaches surely helped all of us. Being in regular touch with him is a huge thing. I’ve improved quite a lot and the academy deserves a huge amount of credit for my achievements.

You are the youngest to cross an ELO rating of 2750 – Carlsen was the previous youngest. As a teenager, doesn’t all this success get overwhelming? How do you stay grounded?

I guess the people around me keep me grounded. I know what I am doing is great, but my goals are even higher. I have not come close to achieving them. There’s a lot of work to do. I realise that. Whatever I achieve, my parents, trainers and family always see me as a little boy who is playing chess. I still feel the same too.

What are your immediate goals?

Right now it is to learn from my mistakes at the World Cup. I do have rating goals and other things, but I feel like focusing on my work is the right way to go right now.

The top players are now probably watching your games and keeping an eye on you. How does that feel and how are you dealing with the spotlight?

Right now, I am No.8 in the world. I think they are looking at me as a top-10 player (laughs). I know everyone is trying to read me. But my work remains the same. I try to be as unpredictable and as flexible as possible. For every top player, it is the same. We are working to improve, trying to prepare against our rivals or colleagues. It is just work. It is nothing too drastic for me.

You said before the World Cup that you are still figuring out your style. How long does it take for a style to be established? Or do you want to stay unpredictable?

At this level, it is just not possible to have a style. You have to be as flexible as possible. I am not trying to find a style suited for me or something. I am just trying to learn what my advantages and weaknesses are and trying to work on them. It is not about finding a style. It is about being universal and being good at pretty much everything.

Four Indians made the quarter-finals of the World Cup. How much does having this crop of talented Indian youngsters push you?

The competition has been there for the last few years. It is a motivating factor for me and I am sure it is the same for others. We are all good friends, but we try to be better than the other. It’s a healthy competition and it is a very good thing for the growth of everyone.

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