Nihal Sarin: India's speed chess genius

Nihal Sarin is the prototype of the modern chess player who is taught by the internet. Nihal Sarin/Facebook

In the DC Universe, Nihal Sarin would perhaps make for a young Barry Allen, aka the Flash. The 16-year-old Indian Grandmaster, motored by a zealous appetite for unending hours of online blitz and bullet chess, has now propped himself into the legion of speed chess specialists.

It's only fitting then that the 2019 Asian blitz champion features in the 16-player pool of the $100,000 prize fund Speed Chess Championship hosted by Chess.com, starting on Sunday. He's earned a place among the star cast that includes current blitz world No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura and reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen, after winning the Junior Speed Chess Championship earlier this month.

In the first round, he faces Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, one of the strongest players in the bullet (less than three minutes) segment. "I see it as a good way for me to learn," Nihal tells ESPN, "Of course, I'm far from the favourite". He is the prototype of the modern chess player who is taught by the internet. The Kerala-based player's chess.com profile shows a mammoth 29,178 games played (the most by any player in the competition), he's the third-ranked bullet player on the platform and is often sought out for sparring by the world's best players.

Nihal's brilliant mate in game 24 of the Junior Speed Chess Championship final against Russian GM Alexey Sarana, is exactly the sort of thing that cuts him out of the ordinary. Playing Black, he found Sarana's king trapped with no safe squares for a getaway before landing the final blow.

"I thought I'd go for a c-pawn capture and after that check, I spotted a d2 mate and a way for the knight to get to f1," he explains. It had commentators Robert Hess and Daniel Naroditsky cupping their hands over their faces, and shrieking in disbelief while the Indian teen himself sat, impassive in his Thrissur home, betraying no signs of what he'd pulled off. "I try my best to have a blank expression," Nihal laughs. A week ago, he won the Karpov trophy, beating Sarana in the final again.

"Because of the lockdown, Nihal is probably a little underrated (Elo 2620) now since he hasn't been able to play as many classical tournaments," says his trainer GM Srinath Narayanan, "Ideally, he could have been rated around 2650-2670 had things had been normal." What he's lost in classical chess opportunity though in these past few months, he's bulked up in faster time control monstrosity.

Belonging to a state where chess doesn't feature among the top sport choices, Nihal befriended the internet in his pre-teens. It was the surest way he could play a variety of opponents. During this lockdown, with no tournaments to jet off to and all top players cooped up in their homes itching for games to play, an already flat chess world turned even flatter. Players who would not have ordinarily run into each other at tournaments, were floating challenges to each other online and winding up with dozens of games between them.

Carlsen described Nihal as "one of the better blitz players around" before losing to him in May this year and the number of games they've played against each other online have since touched triple digits. "Earlier, Nihal would play online all day, now it's maybe six-eight hours," says Narayanan, "I don't regulate the hours but I observe his online games and offer him feedback on what he could do better." There is a dominant theory though, that cautions against being a 'blitz-aholic' .

Former great Bobby Fischer is known to have famously said that 'blitz chess kills ideas', while others like Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand too have spoken of its perils. The rationale being playing too many quick time control games built on reflexive tactical vision and unsound sacrificial attacks could lead to superficial play at tournaments and rob players of the habit of a long concentration span that's required for serious chess. On the other side of the spectrum are players like Carlsen and Nakamura, who've been reared on blitz and are the poster boys of its gifts.

"I think there is a long-standing misconception about blitz chess," says Nihal, "It depends on the player too. If it works, it works. Since childhood all I've done is play tons and tons of games online. I think it has done me good. Earlier I'd run into time trouble, but I've learnt to trust my guts. Now, I'm faster."

In some ways, Nihal's methodology to becoming a better player is a lot like AlphaZero. Knowing nothing about the game beyond the basic rules, the AI program taught itself by playing millions of games against itself through a trial and error process, called reinforcement learning. "Starting out from his first coach EP Nirmal to Srinath today, the process of coaching followed is almost unchanged," says his manager, Priyadarshan Banjan, "The possibilities and improvements are shared with him and he tests the ideas out himself online."

Nihal turned GM at 14 years, 1 month and 1 day and wasn't exactly an early bird in the youngest Indian GMs club melee. He's the fifth youngest among Indians - after D Gukesh, R Praggnanandhaa, Parimarjan Negi and Raunak Sadhwani and the 15th youngest GM in the world. His results in the early years were more steady than spectacular and the first time Narayanan met Nihal in 2016, he admits to not being struck by anything extraordinary.

"In India, you come across lots of bright chess kids, so it appeared like he was one among them. It was only when we ran into each other three months later that I noticed the improvements he'd made. He'd jumped 150 Elo points already. His ability to grasp concepts and ideas is extraordinary. Usually among kids, even me when I was growing up, the learning curve is usually slow without instructions. But Nihal is quite the opposite. He's a deeply intuitive player and has a way of knowing exactly what he needs. He has a wide understanding of concepts and opening ideas and what we're working at now is in building depth. The next couple of years will be crucial for him to transition to an elite player," Narayanan says.

Nihal offered proof of his ingenuity in a 37-move win against Azerbaijan GM Eltaj Shafarli at the World Cup in September last year. It's his personal favourite and one Carlsen called a 'perfect game'. GM Pravin Thipsay, who runs a chess school, has his students often study the game. "It's fascinating that he's played such an accurate game at such a young age," he says, "Overall, Nihal's game has lesser flaws, his mind is really quick, isn't driven by emotions and rarely finds himself in bad positions. If you look at it, it's usually players with strong positional sense who tend to make it to the top. Even if some who aren't break ahead, they fade away sooner. Nihal has a strong base and though we have lots of talented young players, I think he's someone who has all the makings of a future world champion."

In addition to online games and live streams, Nihal has, since the past two months also made room for a second sport to take up four hours of his day. An avid follower of the Royal Challengers Bangalore side, the IPL is a viewing activity the Sarin family gather together for every evening. "Chess is his world," says his father Dr Sarin Abdulsalam. "Neither me nor my wife (who is also a doctor) understand much of it. But cricket is a common love. As a child, Nihal was hyperactive and since he was home the entire day with his grandparents we bought him board games. We tried out Scrabble but he'd keep misplacing tiles and it was hard to keep track. I then bought him a chess set and told him 'this has just 32 pieces so I'll know if one is missing'. He's never lost a piece."