Arjun Erigaisi - a peaceful warrior and the future of Indian chess
He became a GM at the age of 14 years and 11 months and currently has an Elo of 2559. At just 17 years of age, Arjun Erigaisi from Warangal, Telangana is all set to become one of the best chess players in the world. But how did it all begin? Who were the people who helped him on his journey of chess? What are his qualities that have helped him to climb the ladder of chess improvement so quickly? Saishyam Srikanth interviews Arjun and brings out an enlightening portrait of the youngster. Also interviewed in this article are Arjun's close friend Nihal Sarin, his current coach Srinath Narayanan, and Sagar Shah, who has been following his chess journey closely for several years now.
A peek into the life and career of the young Grandmaster from Warangal
The year is 2008. A school-teacher in Tirupati asks one of her students, a five-year-old to take up the sport of chess since she thinks that he is quite a sharp kid. But as circumstances would have it, it takes three more years before the kid is able to fulfil the teacher’s request. Little did anyone know that this request would be the start of a journey that has eventually led to the youngster, Arjun Erigaisi, earning the title of Grandmaster. Today, Arjun Erigaisi is ranked 20th in the Junior rankings all across the world with an ELO Rating of 2559. He earned his GM norms in the year 2018 and received the title of Grandmaster when he was just 14 years old. This is faster than the likes of Fabiano Caruana, Daniil Dubov, Yu Yangyi and several other world class players!
He remembers the year he earned his norms very fondly, “2018 - that’s my golden year so far. I scored all six norms and gained 200 ELO rating points in that year alone. I had absolutely no norms until 2017 December. But then in January, February and March I gained three norms and by 2018 August, I became a Grand Master.” Arjun Erigaisi earned his final norm and the title of Grandmaster at the Abu Dhabi Chess Masters.
While talking about the tournament he says, “By the way, it was the same tournament where Nihal Sarin and I became GMs.” When asked about how he manages the friendship that he has with many of his chess playing peers like Sarin and yet does not let this affect his performance on the board, he opines, “I spend a lot of time with them on chess and other things as well. It definitely helps me to improve as a chess player and a person. I assume that it’s the same with them too but over the board we have to fight it out and take what comes.” This sums up GM Arjun’s attitude towards his sport. The teenager from Warangal notes, “I don’t really take any pressure and just try to give my best and take what comes.”
Nihal Sarin too echoes what Arjun said when asked about how he handles his friendship and competition with Erigaisi. He says, “We do compete hard on the board and try to play as strong as possible and of course, we will try to beat each other. But that does not affect our friendship off the board and we also help each other a lot. He (Arjun Erigaisi) has helped me a lot before important tournaments. When I have a bad day, he will be around, and when he has a bad day, I cheer him up.” “Even on days when we play each other!”, he adds.
A Strong Support System
With success in any field, come the pressure and expectations from oneself and from those around us. GM Erigaisi when queried about this tells me, “At the very start I used to feel some pressure, but my mother really motivates me a lot and supports me.” He adds that his parents have been incredibly supportive of him and his sister since their childhood. “They do not put any pressure on me, or my sister and they just ask us to do well in whatever we do.”, he says. For Arjun, this support from his family was highlighted by the fact that his mother would accompany him to his tournaments until 2019 and would thus be a constant pillar of support.
When asked about his sister he says, “She encourages me and motivates me a lot. Even when I am sad, she tries to help me out with anything that is possible.” It is this kind of an environment that has ensured that GM Arjun is able to play at the highest level and do well. He has also received constant support from his school, and they have given Erigaisi permission to take leaves from school whenever he has to play a tournament. Through this kind of care, he has been given the right atmosphere to dedicate quality time to his chess.
In previous years, GM Erigaisi would play tournaments and work hard on his chess for about nine months in a year. In the other 2-3 months, he would focus on his studies and would prepare for his exams. With the pandemic around, he has gotten an opportunity to manage both chess and his studies together. He is gearing up to give his twelfth standard board exams in a few months. He hopes to play a lot more chess once the pandemic is over and is itching to get back to over the board chess.
When asked about his plans for the near future, he mentions that he intends to take a break from studies after his 12th standard exam and will focus exclusively on chess for some time. This once again is testament to his support system and the way his family and coaches are encouraging and supporting him in his quest to do whatever it takes to become a better player.
The Chess Journey thus far
Arjun Erigaisi began his training in chess at his hometown, Warangal under coach Bollam Sampath who taught him the basics of the game. He continued his training under A Sudarshan who was from Hyderabad but came to Warangal just to train him. When Arjun and his family realised that he had tremendous potential in the sport, he moved to Hyderabad and continued his training under N Ramaraju who is also the coach of Grandmaster Harika Dronavilli.
Today, the young Warangal based GM trains online with GM Victor Mikhalevski from Israel. He acknowledges the role of the internet, the space where he plays a lot of games and does a lot of his chess related work, for helping to take his game to the next level. GM Erigaisi in addition to working with Mikhalevski is also being trained by GM Srinath Narayanan who works with Nihal Sarin too.
The 17-year-old GM from Telangana says that one of the best memories from his career thus far is his performance at the World Youth Under-16 chess tournament in 2018. He won an Individual Silver Medal during this tournament and also played a pivotal role in Team India taking away the Team Silver Medal at the tournament in Turkey. The tournament also marked the beginning of his partnership with GM Srinath.
GM Srinath says, “We had known each other for a while before that but the first time that we interacted was at the Delhi airport before going to Turkey. He was the strongest player in the team, the first board player and that is how I came to know him. I was quite involved with trying to help him during the tournament itself and I had pretty good memories from that tournament where India won the silver medal.”
Arjun Erigaisi as a Board 1 player managed to beat Andrey Esipenko and Nodirbek Abdusattorov on the same day. Abdusattorov is ranked #4 in the World Junior rankings today and Esipenko who is the #2 junior player in the world recently beat the world champion Magnus Carlsen at the Tata Steel Chess tournament. It is no wonder that Srinath Narayanan considers this tournament, an enduring memory from his interactions with Arjun.
Idol and Style of Play
GM Erigaisi tells me that he idolizes Garry Kasparov, the legendary chess player and he loves the aggressive style and the way in which Kasparov observed the game of chess. Garry Kasparov was known for his opening preparation and for the confidence that he showed on the board. Interestingly, these are the two areas in which his coach, Srinath Narayanan believes that Arjun Erigaisi can make improvements.
Erigaisi admits that he would like to get better with his openings and Srinath feels that he has made some improvements in this aspect but has a long way to go. He also adds that Arjun Erigaisi can work on improving his confidence. "The 17-year-old is very capable but does not feel as confident as he should for the capability that he has."
IM Sagar Shah, who is the CEO of ChessBase India and has been following Arjun's journey for several years now, says, “Arjun is essentially a positional player but, he has a very good understanding of where the pieces belong. I would say his style is somewhat similar to Caruana in the sense that he often finds the best moves in any given position be it attack or be it positional play.”
According to Sagar, an important moment in Arjun's career took place in 2016. GM Erigaisi was one of the last seeds at the Aeroflot Open A Category and all his opponents were GMs and players stronger than him. Erigaisi lost his first six games on the trot but despite this, he managed to keep his composure and ended the tournament with one victory over GM Debashis Das. Shah says, “I think that overall experience spoke a lot about the character of this youngster. For him, no defeat was ever final, and he always kept looking for opportunities to improve his chess.”
The Innocent, hardworking and Soft-Spoken Star
When Srinath Narayanan is asked about what Arjun is like, he says, “In general, he is very innocent and he likes chess a lot so in that sense, it’s very easy and pleasant to work with him. He is like a clean slate, he can observe whatever you tell him, teach him, and show him. I think that’s one of the most pleasant aspects of working with him.”
Nihal Sarin is one of Arjun's closest friends! He has some warm words to say for his friend. “Arjun is soft spoken like me and I don't know exactly why but we gel well with each other. He understands me very well and vice versa. We have had training camps, and tournaments where we have a good time cracking jokes, playing bullet, and other games.”
The two future Grandmasters met for the first time during the National Under-9 tournament at Ahmedabad in 2012. They even played against each other in this tournament and Arjun emerged victorious on that occasion. “I don't remember when we got talking and started becoming friends.”, adds GM Sarin. Thus, their friendship too is like many of ours, they can’t quite put a finger to when exactly it began but it’s going strong to this day and has only blossomed since 2014 when they started meeting regularly at tournaments.
When asked about how he relaxes, GM Arjun tells me that he plays Table Tennis or Badminton with his sister. "Off late I have been playing Among Us with my friends!" Another facet of Erigaisi’s personality is the social responsibility that he shows. In 2018, GM Arjun contributed ₹50,000 from the prize money that he had won to help those who had been suffering due to the floods in Kerala. This social responsibility comes from a deeply personal space and he narrates how his parents had to go through a lot of financial hardshipx when they were younger and as a consequence have developed and nurtured Arjun’s habit of giving to those in need. At 17, we see how Arjun shows a maturity on and off the board that many people take years to achieve.
Looking into the Future
On the board, Arjun’s goal for the near future is to just improve as fast as possible and to do his best. He plans on taking up a career as a professional chess player and says while speaking about his ultimate goal, “Maybe, World Champion one day.”
When asked about what a player requires at this stage, IM Sagar Shah talks about two important things, “When someone is close to 2600, it is very important to invest in good trainers and seconds because the people who invest in their chess during this period are able to reach the next stage which is 2700 and become a top player in the world. That being said, it is important for Arjun to have financial support in the form of sponsorships so that he can achieve this aim. I hope that people will recognise his talent, achievements till now and support him.”
The teenager also echoes this and hopes that the government and other authorities would extend more support to him. He and his family met KT Rama Rao, the current IT minister in Telangana and the son of the Chief Minister of Telangana, K Chandrashekhar Rao just after he became a grandmaster, but that has been the extent of Government support in his chess career.
In January 2020, Arjun Erigaisi took part in the MicroSense Kramnik Gelfand Programme in Chennai. Sagar Shah who was involved with the programme recollects, “One thing that has always impressed me about Arjun is his seriousness whenever a session was going on and how he would become really focused trying to pick and soak in the things that were being taught there. Also, there used to be morning yoga sessions and Arjun was one of the first kids who would be there with his mat. I don’t know if he enjoyed it, but he knew that it would help his chess and anything that helps his chess he is ready to indulge in. Which is why he’s reached where he is right now.”
“I like doing anything that is related to chess”, Arjun says, when quizzed about what he gains from playing formats such as Ultra Bullet. This love for chess and the hard work that he puts in are sure take him to greater heights in his journey. The sky is the limit for his career and as fans of Indian chess, all we can do is hope and pray that he is able to achieve his ultimate dream one day.
About the author
Saishyam Srikanth is a journalism student who is currently studying in the final year of his bachelor’s programme at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru. He has been a sports fan from the time he can remember and one day, aspires to translate this love for sport into a career as a media professional.
More coverage on Arjun on ChessBase India