Used to pressure, excited about Asian Games, says India no. 1 Gukesh

Despite finishing sixth at the Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship, the world no. 8 brushes aside talk of pressure and feels he has the game to be world champion one day

D Gukesh finished sixth at the Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Kolkata (photo: X/@DGukesh)
D Gukesh finished sixth at the Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Kolkata (photo: X/@DGukesh)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The first event after claiming the no. 1 spot in India may not have gone well for D. Gukesh, but the wonder boy feels the pressure of expectations had nothing to do with it. The 17-year-old finished sixth at the three-day Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Kolkata on Thursday 7 September, an event won by Russian GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

‘’The number one position is no burden for me as I am used to the pressure of expectations. It’s a nice thing, but I was mentally prepared for it for a few months,’’ said Gukesh, whose world no. 8 ranking saw him formally overtake the legend Viswanathan Anand as India’s top-ranked player from 1 September.

But this week in Kolkata, among the few positive takeaways for him has been his second-round win over R. Praggnanandhaa, one of the most anticipated contests of the tournament.

The Indian youth brigade, who arrived in the City of Joy on the backs of some stellar global performances, will be in action immediately after the weekend, with Gukesh lined up for the grand finale of the Armageddon Championship series, an online event in Berlin produced for TV audiences, and then the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

‘’I am really excited about the Asian Games. We have prepared well in the camp here under Boris Gelfand, it was extremely tiring, which was actually a good thing. We have a very strong team but there are other good teams as well,’’ Gukesh said at a media interaction.

Gukesh, who became the youngest Indian GM at 12 years in 2019, said another incentive for him at the multi-discipline games will be a chance to interact with top athletes from other disciplines. ‘’Personally speaking, I am fond of badminton and look forward to catching up with the Indian stars,’’ he said.

At the FIDE World Cup in Azerbaijan's Baku last month, Gukesh began his campaign well to actually seal higher rating points than mentor Anand (now world no. 9) until he was upstaged by eventual winner Magnus Carlsen. While Pragg finished runner-up to seal a spot at the Candidates next year, Gukesh still has a realistic chance of becoming the second Indian among the elite who will fight for the right of playing world champion Ding Liren for the next world crown.

‘’The chance to make it to the Candidates is there but I will have to play well. There are so many other strong players, but what is in my control is to keep on doing well,’’ he said.

The top-10 ranking for the prodigious talent is the result of a sequence of solid performances over the past year. The Chess Olympiad 2022 saw him in unstoppable form when he won the individual gold, but Gukesh feels he has progressed from there: ‘’It was a golden run for me at the Olympiad, but I was quite inexperienced and have improved since then.’’

While Gukesh’s core strength lies in classical chess, a fact endorsed by Carlsen himself, the Chennai boy wants to give more time to the rapid and blitz game. ‘’I tried to focus on my faster time control game recently. Even last year and before that, I was mainly focusing on classical chess. But it was a conscious decision I made and I feel it’s helping my classical chess too. And it will help me further once my shorter format games also grow,’’ he observed.

Like his friend and fierce competitor Pragg, does he also think about becoming a world champion? ‘’I have trust in myself and if I do all the right things, I can surely make it,’’ he quipped.

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