Hungary Games: Band of young Indians hunt for GM title in Budapest

Raja Rithvik (R) became India's 70th GM last week. Raja Rithvik

Twenty year-old International Master Rathanvel VS is one norm away from becoming a Grandmaster. Fellow IM Ajay Krishna is chasing his first of the required three norms for the title. They share a studio apartment, take turns to cook and goad one another to chase down the 2500 ELO rating goal. Krishna Teja's father has had to sell a portion of the family property to fund travel and competition expenses. so his son, presently an International Master, can become a Grandmaster. These boys belong to the travelling caravan of young Indian chess players camping in Budapest, living by the week, one tournament to the next, stretching hopes and finances.

Since the pandemic, over-the-board competitions in India have ground to a halt and players from the country have been forced to look at tournament opportunities in other parts of the world. Budapest, with its buzzing chess scene and regular norm events has turned into a favourite for India's GM title hunters. A week ago, 17-year-old Raja Rithvik R from Hyderabad pulled away from the pack in the Hungarian capital, becoming India's 70th GM. Of the 13 players in the recent Vezerkepzo GM-MIX group tournament in the city, seven were Indian. Third-year engineering student Rathanvel won the event, gained close to 20 ELO points and earned himself his second GM norm. He has a couple more tournaments lined up in Budapest. If he doesn't manage to fetch a third norm through them, he plans to stay back and keep up the hunt.

Rithvik can only be relieved at having made the finish line. He's playing his final round robin event in Budapest currently. "It's been quite a wait," the national sub-junior champion tells ESPN. "I won my first GM norm in December 2019 and then everything froze. I had my tenth exams last year and then the lockdown happened." Rithvik spent the months cooped up at home on lengthy hours of online chess and using his dining table for table tennis. His mother is accompanying him in Budapest, so it's one worry off his mind. "Vegetarian food isn't easy to find in Europe so it helps to have my mum around, cooking our meals," he says. Ratanvel and Ajay are getting by with rice mixes.

Among the reasons for Budapest's thriving chess tournament scene is Laszlo Nagy's organizational efforts for three decades now. Nicknamed 'Mr First Saturday', Nagy has been running the First Saturday tournaments - monthly chess competitions on the first Saturday of every month - giving players an opportunity to gain FIDE titles.

Nagy spurred 45-year-old GM Atilla Czebe too to jump into the tournament organising scene. It was in Czebe-run events that Abhimanyu Mishra became the world's youngest GM, Rithvik earned his final norm and Rathanvel got to his second. GM norm tournaments usually involve players seeking norms paying tournament organisers, who in turn invite Grandmasters to appear against a fee. GM norm tournaments must be played over nine rounds and have at least three GMs from three different countries competing in its field. In addition to three norms, a player seeking a GM title must also touch the 2500 ELO rating mark.

"The situation in India is hard," Czebe tells ESPN. "Players desire to play but there are no tournaments right now. My friend Laszlo organised GM tournaments even during the lockdown and he suggested that I too try to pitch in with tournaments in Budapest. Geographically our city is in the middle of Europe, has an ancient chess tradition and the government has been supportive too. I set up the first tournament in January this year, took a bit of a break and then got back with a second in April. From May onwards, we started getting more and more players, especially from India."

Krishna Teja, who's bunking in Budapest for the next couple of months, says more than the GM title itself, he looks forward to the financial freedom it is likely to bring. "I've won the Asian Youth, U-25 nationals, U-17 silver, U-19 bronze and a couple of Commonwealth medals, but I couldn't find a sponsor," he says. "Earlier my father would spend all his earnings and savings on my chess. Since the pandemic, his business has been hit and he had to sell off some of our property so that I could continue to travel and play. Given the pandemic situation, I had no choice but to compete abroad to chase a GM title. Becoming a GM can open up the prospect of appearing for prize money events and I wouldn't have to worry about accommodation and food costs."

While Krishna plans to stay put in Europe for the next "two or three months", Rithvik is likely to fly back to India later this week. He'd rung in his final GM norm with dinner at an Indian restaurant in the Hungarian city with his mother and expects grander celebrations to be awaiting him at home. "Off the board all of us have known each other for a while and are good friends," says Krishna. "We feel happy that one of us has reached the GM goal. It pushes the rest of us too."