How boy wonder D Gukesh became India's youngest Grandmaster

Rupali Mullick/Chessbase India

Free solo climber Alex Honnold's historic, rope-free summits have been part of D Gukesh's chess lessons.

On Tuesday, at 12 years, 7 months and 17 days, Gukesh pulled himself over the rocky lip of the summit he'd been eyeing, to become India's youngest and the world's second youngest Grandmaster.

It's been an anxious ascent for the Chennai pre-teen.

Just last month he was chewing off his fingernails at the prospect of going past Russia's Sergey Karjakin's youngest-ever (12 years, 7 months) Grandmaster record. He had to get in his final GM norm within December 29. Chances dissipated after he drew a must-win ninth round game at the Sunway Sitges International, missing the norm by half a point. He was surgical about his grief. "I was disappointed for two days," Gukesh would tell ESPN, "Then I moved on."

On Tuesday, he fetched his third and final norm with a win in the ninth round of the Delhi International Open GM tournament and was almost identically clinical in his expression of joy. His feat also displaces R Praggnanandhaa from India's youngest GM distinction. "I'm very happy," was all Gukesh would say, even as you waited for him to spill into excited boyish chatter, "Before the round I was calm, but I could feel the pressure build as the game progressed. I have a crucial round tomorrow so I don't want to celebrate just yet."

It's the kind of response coach GM Vishnu Prasanna, 29, has trained him for over the past year and a half.

"Though I was overjoyed, I was careful to not sound that way when we spoke today (Tuesday)," says Prasanna, "He's a young boy and has to be able to take this in calmly, not get too carried away and focus on the bigger picture."

Honnold is one of Prasanna's favorite athletes and the American rock climber's mind-bending scaling of Yosemite's 3000-foot granite-faced, vertical cliff El Capitan, forms part of the viewing schedule during his sessions with Gukesh. It's Prasanna's way of teaching his pupil to stay grounded during every climb.

Gukesh, who became an International Master in March last year, attained his first GM norm the following month at the Bangkok Open and picked up the second norm at the Orbis-2 round-robin tournament in Serbia in December. "The GM title has been on Gukesh's mind so he decided to play a lot more tournaments last year," says Prasanna, "As long as he didn't feel tired, I saw no need to stop him."

Gukesh, of course, was in no mood to stop either.

Over a 16-month span, he collected six norms - three IM and three GM - and went from a rating of 2323 at the time of his first IM norm to 2512 today and between January 2018 and the ninth round on Tuesday has played a stunning 243 games -- an average of two tournaments every month. For any chess player, it can be a nerve-wracking stat. Perhaps not for someone who has devoured hours of a rock climber dangling in the air by his fingertips with no harness, ropes or safety gear, wide-eyed.

"I tried to not get him too attached to chasing the GM title. I told him it won't be the greatest-ever achievement there is and that there are many around us who have achieved far more challenging goals. Honnold, of course, is one of them. In that sense, my job is to make sure that nothing crushes him or has him floating."

Growing up, Gukesh developed a fondness for chess watching his parents play the sport at home. His father Rajnikanth (he admits to the attention his name fetches wherever he goes), an ENT surgeon, who usually accompanies him for tournaments had to stay back in Chennai this time due to work commitments, so his mother, Padma Kumari, a microbiologist by profession, traveled with him instead. Minutes after Gukesh won his final GM norm, Rajnikanth was an emotional man, searching for words and last-minute flight options to New Delhi. He later collected himself to let us in on a sleepless night and the relief that the morning news brought.

Lately, it's been a cloudburst of young talent in the Indian chess scene. Over the past eight months, three under-15 players - Praggnanandhaa (12 years, 10 months, 13 days), Nihal Sarin (14 years, 1 month, 1 day) and Gukesh - have made the GM list.

For a 12-year old, Gukesh is strikingly perceptive and mature. "Outside chess," says Prasanna, "when we talk of psychology or history or any deep or complicated subjects, he's very attentive. Normally kids of his age would be interested in the chess part, but they might not be keen to hang around for advice or life lessons."

A "strategic player with solid calculating ability", the idea, Prasanna says, is to turn Gukesh more well-rounded gradually. "When we first started working together, I was surprised by his style because young children are usually more tactical but he was thinking in terms of plans and strategies. It came more naturally to him. To play at the highest level though you have to be both strategic and dynamic so he needs to build that approach slowly."

For Gukesh, this is just the first of many peaks. The vertical expanse ahead touches invisible reaches, and like Honnold, he'd have to dig in for a firm foothold, pull himself over the ledges and cracks and climb to the top of the world.