Two norms in 21 days: Leon Mendonca one norm away from becoming GM

Leon Mendonca (right) in action at the Rigochess tournament in Hungary. The 14 year old will gain around 15.5 rating points from his latest title at the First Saturday GM November 2020 event and will jump to Elo 2531 next month. Lyndon Mendonca

Leon Mendonca is now one norm away from turning into just the second Grandmaster from Goa. The 14-year-old Indian International Master has earned two GM norms in the space of 21 days, the latest one coming in Budapest on Monday.

Leon remained unbeaten in the First Saturday GM November 2020 event and won the tournament with a round to spare.

The teenaged chess player along with his father, Lyndon, have been away from home for nine months now. They've been hopping between countries in Europe, looking to play in over-the-board tournaments, living in Airbnb studio rooms, digging into the family's savings and chasing a GM title.

The payoff has been rich. While most players have found themselves closeted in the swirl of faster time control events online, Leon has played around 25 over-the-board tournaments since March this year and is now within touching distance of his GM goal.

"Since he's crossed the 2500 milestone and has won two GM norms already, we're trying to stretch our stay till as long as he's comfortable playing. It'll be a job well done if he can complete his final norm here before we head back to India at the end of this year," says Lyndon.

Leon earned his maiden GM norm after winning the title at the Rigochess International festival tournament in Hungary three weeks ago.

The father-son duo have so far travelled to six countries -- Hungary, Serbia, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia -- and Lyndon has the challenging job of keeping himself updated with the changing protocols, curfew timings and paperwork required for travel within Europe.

"Last week when we were invited to the prestigious Tegernsee tournament (in Bad Wiessee, Germany), we were anxious about getting our test results in time here in Hungary before leaving," says Lyndon. "And until we got there, we just couldn't be sure if we'd make it." According to the guidelines, travellers entering Germany would have to be in possession of a negative test result, one that was taken not more than 48 hours before. From Germany, they returned to Hungary for the GM tournament that concludes on Tuesday.

For their commute between cities and countries, train is the preferred mode. "We are a lot like a travelling caravan, lugging our pots, pans and pressure cooker to cook our own meals, which can invite steep excess baggage charges on flights," says Lyndon.

Living in Europe for close to a year has been a drain on their finances. "In the German town we were at last week, the cheapest Airbnb room we could find cost 60 euros/day (INR 5300). Sustaining ourselves monetarily has been the greatest challenge. Leon is an IM, on the path to being a GM, but we've had zero support from the Goa state government despite our numerous pleas for help."

In Hungary, where they're currently living, Covid-19 cases have spiked sharply since August this year and travelers entering the country are required to undergo a second test even if they're carrying a negative result taken in neighbouring Schengen countries. Since this week, the country has imposed a strict 8pm-5am curfew as well. "By the time we're on our way back from the tournament venue to our apartment it is already curfew time," says Lyndon, "There are armed cops manning all streets and I make it a point to always carry a letter from the organisers on my person."

On days Leon doesn't have a game, his coach back in Chennai -- GM Vishnu Prasanna -- holds extended Skype sessions with him. The pre-game routine is usually a brief 15-minute refresher of ideas. "Every time Leon's father thinks of returning to India, I insist they stay back and reach the GM goal," says Prasanna.

"He agrees with me. Right now, being in Europe is a dream for most chess players who are located in other parts of the world. There's no point in returning to India right now without the norm. There aren't any tournaments taking place here anyway. It was a worry that playing so many closed events may not really be to Leon's liking but he's having a good run and I think he still has some more juice left in him for that final norm. Of course, they're struggling in staying away from home for so long, but Leon's results offer a fair compensation."

Leon has now grown used to wearing a mask through the duration of a game and in some tournaments there are plexiglass partitions separating players across the board. "At the back of our minds, there's always the worry that what if we catch the virus," says Lyndon. "Even if one of us contracts it, it effectively gets both of us and you don't want to be in a foreign country when that happens."

The Mendoncas plan to wrap up their Europe sojourn by the end of this year and return home to India in time for Christmas. But not without Leon getting a crack at a couple of GM norm events. "It's sort of impossible to plan for tournaments because the situation in Europe is changing every day," says Lyndon. "You don't want borders to shut and be stranded in any place. When we look back now, returning home seemed like the safest option in March. I was upset then that we couldn't make it before the lockdown in India. Our family has been torn apart for so long. But now with Leon so close to becoming a GM, we feel rewarded."