Leon Mendonca's first wish as Grandmaster was to stomp on snow. The 14 year-old who became India's 67th Grandmaster in the northern Italian town of Bassano del Grappa late on Wednesday, spent the closing hours of his day rolling snowballs in the freezing outdoors and watching John Rambo spill blood on Netflix.
"Before the final game, there was a lot of anxiety and pressure, but I tried to play as coolly as possible. I was, of course, very excited that I could become GM," Leon told ESPN, "But once I won the game, I actually didn't feel anything special." He is only the second GM from his home state, Goa.
Leon, and his father Lyndon, were stranded in Europe when the pandemic brought the world to a standstill in March. Instead of scrambling to return to India, they decided to stay back and take their chances. The teen has played 16 tournaments since, earning his first two norms 21 days apart from each other. The final one came his way at the Vergani Cup in Italy, where he finished second with 6.5 points.
For the greater part of the tournament in Bassano del Grappa this week, Lyondon physically carried his son from their Airbnb studio to the tournament venue, a seven-minute walk away. "Leon loves snow but I didn't want his feet to become wet walking on it, which could make him sick," says Lyndon, "So I'd carry him to the tournament hall every day, come back to the apartment, hang my socks to dry on the radiator and then return to fetch him and carry him back. Taxis can be expensive, I've been cutting corners because we didn't know how long we'd have to hold out in Europe. Last night, after his norm, the only thing he asked me was if he could play in the snow. Of course, I couldn't refuse."
Since it wasn't certain whether Leon would make his final norm this week, and more crucially whether the event would happen at all given the virus scenario, Lyndon registered him for a second tournament running from January 3-7 in Bassano del Grappa as back-up. "We've already paid for the accommodation so we'll stay back, play this one out and then return to India. We didn't want to leave without his final GM norm. It would have been like going home empty handed after all these months of living on the road," adds Lyndon.
Most chess players from the sub-continent would attest to the benedictions of living in Europe. It offers the promise of opportunity and stronger tournaments against a wider variety of opponents. It is on Lyndon's mind for his son's future. "Europe is something to consider for the years ahead. We have examples like Anand (Viswanathan), who really benefited from shifting base to Europe. But finding the economic means is a really big question for any middle-class family like ours."
Lyndon quit his job as an engineer six years ago to be able to chaperone and cook for his son to the tournaments they went. His wife is a doctor in the Goa medical college. The father-son duo have traveled to seven countries in Europe since March and in a recent interview when Leon was asked about his favorite dish from the ones he sampled in these lands, he was befuddled. "We've never eaten out in Europe. I've only had the meals my dad cooked," the teenager replied.
Lyndon laughs. "The cost of two people eating out could cover for a day's rent. I've had to really count every penny and just get myself to love the kitchen.
In an otherwise grim year, Leon - living away from home for close to 10 months, jumping up by 100-odd Elo points since March and finally turning GM - is possibly one of Indian sport's most uplifting stories.