Road trips, Airbnbs, induction cooker meals: How Leon Mendonca is chasing a GM norm in Europe

At the nine-round tournament in Paracin, players underwent thermal checks before they entered the playing hall. Masks were everywhere. Lyndon Mendonca

Leon Mendonca is perhaps the only Indian chess player on the planet right now who's flitting between countries for regular over-the-board tournaments. It's been at least five months since the 14-year-old International Master (IM) from Goa has been home.

Now in Paracin, a small town in central Serbia, for a 100-player open tournament that concluded on Thursday, Leon and his father Lyndon were earlier stranded in Budapest for three months after being denied boarding on their flight back to India on March 18 following the nationwide lockdown announcement.

Another member of the family has been facing a particularly challenging last few months due to the pandemic -- Lyndon's wife is a doctor serving on the frontline. She has been pulling extensive work hours at the virology laboratory of Goa Medical College and Hospital that tests several hundreds of samples daily. It's also one of the reasons why Lyndon passed up on the chance to fly back to India with his son two months ago through the government-run 'Vande Bharat Mission' evacuation flight operations repatriating stranded Indians abroad.

"Taking a flight didn't seem like the safest option then," says Lyndon, "We knew the situation back in India was worsening. It would have anyway cost around Rs. 2 lakh (~US$2655) for our tickets. That's way too expensive for us. Also, with my wife serving on the frontline, we didn't want to be an added responsibility with the quarantine norms and everything else and thought we'd rather stay put till the virus scenario eased."

The wait has only lengthened.

The father-son duo, who flew out of the country in February for the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, have been living in Airbnb rentals, cooking their own food and waiting for word on a tournament opportunity popping up anywhere in Europe.

Leon is also chasing a GM norm (he'll need to win three norms to be titled a GM). Presently, Anurag Mhamal is Goa's lone GM and Leon is hoping to be the second player from the state to earn the distinction. It had them hopping on to a nine-seater van for their 370-km road journey from Budapest to Belgrade, followed by an hour's bus ride to Paracin. That Indian nationals are allowed a visa-free entry into Serbia was the kind of bonus they were looking for.

The Paracin Open, which was to run till Friday, was hurriedly wrapped up a day in advance following the Serbian president Aleksander Vucic's announcement to re-impose lockdown and restrict gatherings to not more than five people starting Wednesday, with coronavirus cases mounting in the country. He went on retract his decision later following chaotic protests.

In a climate of online blitz, Leon, who became an IM at 12 years, 11 months and 3 days in February 2019, has managed to participate in two regular tournaments in two different countries in the past two months. He won in the open section of the Balaton Chess festival in Budapest with a round to spare in June and finished second at the Paracin Open on Thursday.

For someone who has raced his way to the IM title - winning three norms at three consecutive events within 17 days - Leon missed taking a crack at a GM norm narrowly in Paracin after he was paired with a lower-rated player in the final round. The tournament experience for Leon, though, was an early peak into the new normal. Players underwent thermal checks, were given squirts of hand sanitiser before entering the playing hall and sat across the board with masks on through the rounds.

Lyndon had set off armed with an induction cooker and vials of spices to keep themselves fed on self-cooked meals through their stay in foreign lands. It came in particularly handy when they were invited home by Hungarian GM and the strongest female chess player of all time, Judit Polgar. Lyndon baked her a Bolo di Laranja, a traditional Portuguese pound cake and rustled up an Indian meal for her.

Cooking is a skill Lyndon picked up after he quit his job (as an engineer) six years ago to be able to accompany Leon to tournaments. "After he won an under-8 tournament in Durban in 2014, my wife and I knew that one of us had to leave work to be with our son," he says, "I volunteered to do it and I learnt early on that if you have to cut the costs while you're abroad, you have to learn to cook." The 22-euro (INR 1800) per day Airbnb studio they're currently lodged in, in Paracin, has an induction hob to make up for the absence of a kitchen. It's all Lyndon really needs.

It could still be a while before the Mendoncas are back home. Leon has another tournament in a day's time, a GM round robin event between July 11-17 in Paracin. Two more GM round robin tournaments were to take place in Belgrade, which have now been cancelled. The duo have long overstayed their 90-day Schengen visa duration but they're hoping it would be overlooked in such extraordinary times. "If no other tournament comes up in the region," says Lyndon, "we'd know it's time to go home."