Sunday, March 16, 2014

Interview with India's latest GM: Ankit Rajpara

He is the latest GM of India. A feat that he has achieved at the tender age of 19.5 years. He made a super sprint towards the GM title by completing all of his 3 norms in just 6 months. That just shows the amount of talent he possesses.
Before the interview I knew Ankit as a very dedicated, sincere and hardworking person but after the interview there are so many new qualities about him that I discovered. Kind hearted, Noble, very practical, a constant thirst for improvement and above all, an extremely humble human being! In this interview you will not only get to know this talented Grandmaster better but also get a lot of tips and ideas from him as to how you can become a better chess player!

With a current rating of 2506, Ankit is the 35th GM of India and 2nd from the State of Gujarat.

In this interview AR stands for Ankit Rajpara and SS stands for Sagar Shah.

SS: How does it feel to become a GM?
AR: It feels really great especially because it was completely unexpected. I got my two GM norms and increased 51 rating points in my last two tournaments. Getting the GM title is a dream of every professional chess player and I am really happy to have achieved it. Yet if you ask me the truth I am yet to digest this fact entirely that I have become a GM!(smiles)

SS: You played two tournaments before you became a GM. i.e Casino Graz in Austria and Cannes Open in France. You were 2455 with 1 GM norm. What were your expectations from these 2 tournaments?
AR: My aims were pretty modest. I wanted to try and score another GM norm and increase my rating by 15-20 points. But I had a gut feeling that these tournaments would be special. Before going to the tournaments I even told my mother that see in the year 2013 Akshayraj Kore went to 2 tournaments in France with exactly the same rating as mine i.e 2455 and won the Cannes Open and became a GM. Maybe I can do an encore!
Thus it was quite a co-incidence that I and Akshayraj Kore both became GMs by winning the Cannes Open!

SS: That is really wonderful! You became a GM by beating GM Yuri Yakovich in the 8th round of the Cannes Open. Can you tell what exactly was going on in your mind when you were so close to becoming a GM and also your feeling after becoming one?
AR: My game with GM Yakovich was extremely complicated but suddenly he made a mistake and I was able to sacrifice a knight. After that I knew, if I played normal chess, the point was in the bag. But I must tell you that in the past I have often fallen prey to some wishful thinking in such tense situations. Before I became an IM, I had made 7 IM norms. So that just tells how many times I had botched up during crucial moments. So I knew its not over until its over and hence tried to control my emotions. I wasn't nervous. Infact I calculated with extreme focus and concentration right upto the end and finally when I won I knew I had become a GM!

SS: So then the celebrations began?
AR: No! The last round was still left and I was facing the super strong Chinese GM famed for his opening preparation GM Li Chao. I had a half point lead and I had the chance to win the title and hence the celebrations had to wait!

Ankit taking on Li Chao in the final round of the Cannes Open 2014.

SS: That is exactly my next question. Inspite of becoming a GM, how did you contain your emotions and prepare yourself for the final round?
AR: When I made my first GM norm in Greece, I did it with a round to spare. So I was in complete celebration mode. I called almost everyone, my parents, relatives, coaches, friends etc, In the last round I had the chance to win the championship. I had a winning position too towards the end. But because of all the energy I wasted on the previous day, I was not able to focus and I couldn't win the tournament. That event was etched in my memory. In fact there had been many tournaments in the past where I took back with me some or the other regret. In this trip, I had played 17 rounds perfectly. There was absolutely no regret. I just didn't want to spoil it this time. So I prepared hard before the round. I just called my parents and told them that I had become a GM and asked them not to tell anyone. They could wait for 12 more hours. Because if people get to know your achievement, they start writing you emails and on facebook and if by mistake you see it, it can really bother you during the game! So I kept the news in the family, cooked my food, had a good sleep and went to play the final round which I drew thanks to my preparation and thus became the Cannes Open 2014 Champion. Thats when the real celebrations began!

SS: Wonderful control over emotions and nerves Ankit. I think your behaviour was so very matured after becoming a GM. Truly GM material!
So, lets begin with your initial journey in Chess. Where did it all begin from?
AR: I started playing chess when I was 7 years old. I live in Mehsana and I used to go my uncle's place quite often. He taught me how to move the pieces. And ever since I started playing, I started performing well in the tournaments. Local coaches were pretty impressed by my talent and asked my parents to get me seriously involved in this game. Basically thats how the journey began!

SS: So we can say that you were a natural at the game of chess!
AR: Well, you can say so but I was into sports right from the age when I was 3 years old. It was my mother's dream that I should excel at the some or the other sport. I was the State skating champion and I was pretty good at Karate too. But soon we realized that physical sport was not really my forte and that's when we found the wonderful game of chess!

SS: Whom do you attribute your success of becoming a GM to?
AR: Of course, first and foremost it has to be my family. My father is a teacher in a school and hence cannot accompany me to the tournaments. Besides he has to look after the financial aspect of the family. So my mother would accompany me to the tournaments. My mother's support during the tournament was the key reason for me improving at this game. At the same time, I salute my father who managed the house in the absence of my mother and took care of my younger brother.
So in short my entire family has worked at least as hard as me for me to achieve this Grand Master title and I shall always be indebted towards them.
My sponsors, Adani group who have helped me always with their financial backing
And yes not to forget, Gujarat government. Because it was them who sponsored this foreign trip in which I became a GM. Also in December I had a 2 week camp with GM Elizbar Ubilava which was also sponsored by the state government. So they have helped me a lot!

SS: Usually it is said that Gujarati's are more into fields related to business (dhandha) and money making. But here you are, with your Gujarati background excelling in the field of sports. How did it become possible?
AR: In my family there were lots of teachers. For example my late Grandfather was a teacher, my Maternal Grandmother was a Principal of a school and as you know my father is also a teacher. So my family was never into business. And it was my mother's dream to see me excel in sports. Thus you can say we were not at all a typical Gujarati family!

SS: What has been the impact of chess coaching in your life? Do you give the credit of your success to your coaches. If yes, then to whom?
AR: Of course! Coaches have played an important part in my chess improvement.
The thing is that its very easy to find a coach these days but extremely difficult to find a GURU who is really interested in your chess progress. I was lucky in that aspect that I got the guidance of many such teachers in my life.
When I started playing chess I went to a doctor who used to teach chess as his hobby! His name was Dr.Kashyap Joshi. He used to enjoy the game of chess and I was under his tutelage for 1 year. Thus due to him, my basics became pretty strong and I also became the u-9 state champion.
The next person who really helped me reach the 2200 level in chess was Raghunandan Gokhale. Right from our first session we developed a bond that was unique. He is a very kind person. Apart from his excellent chess coaching he would often lend me books, send me informative material on email, even find some sponsors for me and really be my moral support in times of difficulty. It was thanks to him that I crossed the first hurdle of 2200.

SS: So then who was your next coach?
AR: My next coach was the very famous Indian coach GM R B Ramesh. I couldn't go on a regular basis to Chennai to learn from him and hence we worked online most of the times. It was only when I became 2380 that I went to study chess with him personally in Chennai. He is a great coach and it was he who primarily helped me to become an IM. And even now we stay in touch and he helps me to improve my game and contributed to my feat of becoming a GM.

SS: From 1900-2200 it was Raghunandan Gokhale, from 2200 to IM title it was GM RB Ramesh, so who took you upto the coveted GM title?
AR: It was GM Alexander Goloshchapov from Ukraine. We have never met in each other in person till now. It has always been online coaching. But I feel extremely comfortable to train under him as he is a 2580 player and has passed through the stages where I am right now. I have developed a good rapport with him and I intend to work with him in the days to come.

Ankit's Coaches.

SS: Do you think coaching is really indispensable for every ambitious chess player? 
AR: I was able to bear the expenses of coaching in my bid to become a better player. Not everyone can do that. But I think if you work on quality books then you can improve your chess. Take for eg the Grandmaster Preparation series by Aagaard. Those are wonderful books and any student who seriously indulges himself in the study of such books is bound to improve. Of course its not a substitute for coaching. But if today someone comes to me and says that you cannot become a GM without coaching, I don't believe him.

SS: So which other books according to you are really worth reading?
AR: These books on Gandmaster preparation series by Aagaard are really good. And of course the books by Dvoretsky are just excellent. But I do not recommend Dvoretsky's Analytical Manual! (laughs!) Dvoretsky himself mentioned that that book is for 2700+ players and personally I think he has written that book to make the chess players feel miserable and to tell them that they still have a lot to learn in chess!
But when I personally met Dvoretsky in Russia a few years back, he recommended 2 books to me for knowing more about chess pyschology and those books were:
1. 7 deadly chess sins
2. Chess for Zebras.
Both the books are written by GM Jonathon Rowson and you have to read them many times to understand the depth of what he is trying to say!

SS: Ankit, one thing which I have never been able to understand seeing your games is what is your real strength. What do you think is your biggest asset when you play a game of chess?
AR: Thats a difficult question. I can tell you a lot about my weaknesses, but strengths (takes a pause) I really do not know.

SS:Come on you are being too modest!
AR: (laughs) Well, one thing that I feel I am good at is making intuitive decisions. You know I will often make a move that is the best in the position and I won't have any good explanation as to why I made that move. So in short you can say that my intuition is my strongest point in Chess. And one more thing that I am good at is that I rarely make huge mistakes. Maybe once in a while, but more often than not my opponent's will have to play good chess to beat me, I won't give them the point on a platter.

SS: What is your approach to the opening phase of the game?
AR: I am not really a computer guy (doesn't use much of chess engines). So I need to play lines with limited analysis and more understanding. Thats why my usual approach to chess openings is to play some sideline where my superior understanding will take precedence over my lack of knowledge or concrete analysis of that variation.

SS: Many strong players have mentioned in the past that to become a strong player you must play the main lines. Don't you think not playing the main lines affects your chess?
AR: I think playing the main lines is important but then how much time can one devote to the opening phase of the game also should be taken into consideration. I am a student who has to go to college, give exams every 6 months, I know my limitations! The best thing about my style is that I am not searching for an advantage with white. I just don't want to fall into my opponent's computer preparation! So for eg. I play the Bb5 lines as white in the Sicilian. I know that its very difficult to play for an advantage with that line but the resulting, dry positions are to my liking! I just want a playable position and shift the focus to the middlegame where if you play better than me then you can beat me! But I will not have a losing position from the opening!
Now that I am a GM I will try to play more main lines but still I believe that the right mixture of main lines and side lines is the most optimum mix for a chess player.

Ankit's Advice: More than playing the main lines or the most topical lines, it is more important to play the openings in which you feel comfortable!


SS: That was some really good advice you gave regarding the opening! So let me ask you for your approach about the middlegame in chess!
AR: I think the most important thing to remember when working on your middlegame is the balance. There are so many facets of the middlegame like Calculation, Intuition, Positional play, Prophylactic thinking etc. You have work on all of them. You cannot just say that I will become a GM based on my calculation or intuition alone. I will give you my example. Before the tournaments when I focus excessively on calculation, I tend to overthink in critical positions during the game and then I get into time trouble and lose the game.
So I feel a balance is the key here. Suppose you have one month for an important tournament and you are working on your middlegame then first and foremost be truthful to yourself and make a list of things that you are strong at and what you are weak at. And then you can give less time to your strengths and more time to your weakness. But neglecting any part of middlegame preparation will not be beneficial for you as a chess player.
And finally this is the key: No matter how much time you have in the day, do not neglect tactical training(solving tactics from any book). You must do it for an hour everyday. Its just like going to the gym. It keeps you fit and prevents you from blundering! Just do this religiously and you will see immediate results in your upcoming tournaments.

SS: The Opening has been successful, and so has been the middlegame! Please, your inputs on the last phase of the game!
AR: I think first of all every player must have good idea about Rook endings because half of your endgames will be rook endgames. To find a good source to study those endgames is the key.
I recommend Fundamental Chess Endings by Mueller and Lamprecht for a structured study of the endgame.

If you see carefully in the above picture, then you will realize that Ankit is not alone in recommending the Fundamental Chess Endings!

But everyone must know that there are always two types of endgames. One is theoretical and other is practical. Usually you have to play the latter first in order to reach the former. So FCE will cover the theoretical endgames and for practical endgames I recommend books written by Shereshevsky. They have commented games and show you in general how you can be better at practical endgames.

SS: What is your opinion about physical fitness for improving at chess?
AR: I was not giving much importance to physical fitness till very recently in my chess career. But after my dismal performance in Chennai in Jan 2014, I decided to start jogging. I have been jogging quite regularly and it helps to build my stamina. Of course in long events like National B and also in foreign tournaments, stamina is very important and hence physical fitness can make that difference in the 5th hour of play or in last few rounds!
I would like to share my experience of meeting the very famous sports psychologist Bhishmaraj Bam in Nashik before going to my trip to Austria and France this year. My reasons for performing badly recently have been more psychological than due to chess reasons. So Bhishmaraj Bam told me to focus on certain Yogasanas and also pranayam and breathing techniques which could be done before the round or even during it. He told me to have faith on myself and to believe in my abilities. The meet with him was one of the key reasons for my good performance in the recent tournaments.I would like to thank him and I highly recommend his book to all chess players as there is a specially dedicated chapter in it for chess!

The meet with Bhishmaraj Bam helped Ankit become a GM and he highly recommends his book: Winning Habits. (you can buy it from the one of the ads in the top left corner of this blog) 

AR:  I think this book can really help those players who are stuck in some phase of chess improvement.I really want this interview to benefit as many chess players who read it and hence I really don't want to hide or keep any secrets.
SS:Thats really a noble thought!

SS: Ankit, There are a lot of players in India say very strong IMs who are struggling in the 2400-2475 zone and you literally blitzed through this phase to become a GM. How do you explain this? 
AR: Let me first make one thing very clear before answering this question. There are many IMs in India who I think play better chess than me. So lets be very clear about this.
Secondly I too was stagnated in this zone for almost two years. Like in mid 2012 when I went to Greece I was 2412 and came back with a rating of 2469.
And now before this trip in Feb 2014 I went with a rating of 2455. So that's almost 2 years without any significant improvement in rating. But the important thing is that I reached the title of GM now.

I have a very interesting story regarding stagnating in chess and not just stagnation but  degression.
In Aug 2010, I was 2380 with 3 IM norms. I was on the verge of becoming an International Master. But then I played 3-4 tournaments in a row and decreased 100 rating points! I was 2281 now! And as a chess player it was the most horrible phase of my life. No words can describe what I went through back then.

SS: I can understand what you are saying. I myself am going through that same phase. So tell us how you got out from that situation?
AR: I must say that at that point I had no energy to fight back. It was my parents who motivated me and told me that I had what it takes to be an IM. From that experience I know that the most important thing is to get back to working on chess with the same zeal and enthusiasm that you had before your rating fall. Its very difficult but you must make a start. Once you get back into your daily grind of working hard on chess, you slowly start forgetting about your rating loss and focus more on becoming a better player. Those initial days of getting back to sincere hard work on chess are the toughest according to me.

SS: So sincere Hard work and motivating yourself is the key?
AR: Yes. It will often happen after a setback that during critical moments in the game you will start doubting yourself because of the lack of confidence in your abilities. At such points I think you have to believe on the hard work that you have done prior to the tournament and that can help you to be more confident.
If you have the strength, then with hard work you are bound to make a comeback. Believe me. Because I was 2281. I put my heart and soul in preparation thanks to the motivation of my parents. Then I played National Juniors and gained exactly 19 points to come back into the 2300 category. And then the next tournament was Mayors cup in Mumbai where I was unbeaten and gained 50 rating points! and within no time I was back to 2350! And in the next 3 tournaments I became an IM!!

A lot of focus, grim determination and tenacious hard work is the key to making a comeback after a setback in chess!

SS: What an inspiring story! I think if I become and IM soon, a lot of the credit will go to you for this story! (laughs)
AR: Thank you! I will look forward to that day!

SS: Ankit the next question is pretty direct. I hope you will not take it in good spirit.
You have often offered draws in winning positions and shown a lack of fighting spirit on many occasions. Most notably your recent game with Abhijeet Gupta when you were winning and you offered a draw in the recent Parsvanath tournament. What's the reason for that?
AR: Let me first talk about this specific incident with Abhijeet Gupta. Prior to the Parsvanath Open, I had decreased a lot of elo points in Chennai. I was a little jittery. Then I face Abhijit Gupta with whom I have lost of 3 previous occasions. And instead of his usual 1.d4 he played 1.c4. There went all my preparation out of the window. When we reached the position where I was completely better, I was not focused on the position on the board. Rather my mind was in distress thinking about the fact that if I draw this game, then I ll need 1 out of 2 to make a GM norm. I was black and I thought I will be white in the next round. All this comes down to 1 thing, I was scared, and I offered a draw.

SS: Hats off to your truthfulness.
AR: Well, the Abhijeet Gupta incident was a great shock for me. Because not only did I draw that game but also lost the next two games! It was then that I decided that I will never make premature draws. Its a different story if I cannot find an advantage and I make a draw but if I know that I am better then I am sure I won't make a draw unless of course I am winning a Championship or qualifying for an important event. Lesson was learnt and it was applied in Austria and France and the result has been great!

SS: More fighting chess will be on show from India's latest GM now!
AR: Yes! I won't be offering draws in fighting positions now.

No more premature handshakes for Ankit!

SS: Which according to you is the best game of chess you have played till date?
AR: I think it was my recent game in France against a 2613 GM Fernando Peralta in the 4th round. The best thing about that game was that I made absolutely no mistakes. I kept the advantage and even in the analysis I was able to show that white(Ankit was white) was better. So I can say that this was a game in which I completely outplayed a 2600+ player! 
Here's the game

SS: Whats a normal day for Ankit Rajpara like?
AR: I go to college in the morning and come back home and prepare! Thats my simple life! :) I don't have many friends outside chess mainly because I am quite an introvert. I feel sad sometimes but I think it helps me to stay more focused.

SS: I was going to ask you whether you have a girl friend or not but I think that is ruled out now! :)
AR: No no no no!(even before I could complete my sentence!) I don't have a girlfriend!

SS: Do you think having a girlfriend is a distraction in chess?
AR: Yes! Why just chess, it can be distracting for any profession! There are lots of ups and downs and I didn't want something to come in between my dream of becoming a strong chess player. Also the fact that its the dream of my parents makes me more focused about it.

SS: Do you think studies are also an hindrance to you in your path of chess progress?
AR: Sometimes it all becomes very hectic and tedious. Like I come back from a tournament and within 2 days I have to appear for an exam. So it is quite difficult but I would like to maintain a balance. Its my choice that I wan't to pursue studying. No one is forcing me to do it. So currently I am doing B.Com. Later if things fall in place I would like to become an IAS officer. Those are my ambitions related to studies.

SS: What are your hobbies?
AR: I love to read books and also like to listen to Music. These things relax my mind.

SS: Who is your favourite chess player?
AR: It is definitely Viswanathan Anand. I think before being a good chess player, you must be a good human being and Viswanathan Anand is an epitome of that. He is so modest and Kind. Such qualities are seen rarely in top level chess players today.

It doesn't come as a huge surprise that Vishy Anand is Ankit's favourite player.

SS: And what about your favourite non chess sports player in India?
AR: Without doubt the great Sachin Tendulkar! If you see, the qualities of Kindness and Modesty are common between my two favourites Anand & Sachin. And Sachin has also the quality of being so consistent. Even when he failed he made it a point to make a thumping comeback just about everytime. In the end he retired from the game of cricket with great dignity. I really respect him for that.

SS: Who do you think are the brightest chess talents in India currently?
AR: (thinks hard) Quite a difficult question. I have two youngsters in my mind. They are Murali Karthikeyan and Aravindh Chittamabaram. I was with Aravindh in Austria and France and I must say that he is a real talent.
Murali Karthikeyan (L) and Aravindh Chittambaram (R) are according to Ankit the brightest stars of Indian Chess.

SS: Your answer was really refreshing because I was expecting either Adhiban, Lalith, Sethuraman or Vidit.
AR: Of course each one of them is a great player but the above two players that I have mentioned have age on their side.

SS: What are your future plans?
AR: I have become a GM now and I am 19.5 years old. So I think I will atleast pursue chess with my highest intensity for another 3 years and after that I will take a call.

SS: So we can expect Ankit to take the place of Anand to spearhead the chess in India?
AR: Its quite difficult! Every chess player in India dreams to be like him. But to tell you the truth, the chances of me reaching Anand's level are very low. The main reason being I have other priorities and ambitions in life. But we never know what the future holds for us! (smiles)

SS: I really haven't seen a more practical and realistic chess player than you!
AR: (laughs) Yes I try to be objective and take into account the circumstances that I am in. Its one of those things chess teaches you!

SS: Ankit I asked you so many questions, you answered each one of them with so much sincerity and concentration. I really want to thank you for it. 
AR: You are welcome! I also love reading your articles and I think you are one of the best chess writers currently in India!

SS: Thank you very much for such a huge compliment. I am sure with the insights that you have provided are really going to benefit many chess players all around the world.
AR: I will be very happy if that happens! You never know where someone can find that one hidden hint or key by which a new path of success can be created!

SS: Very True. It was a pleasure chatting with you Ankit, I wish you All the best in your future endeavours.
AR: Thank you!

About the Interviewer:

Sagar Shah is an Indian Chess Player with an Elo of 2304. He has 2 IM norms to his credit and aims to make chess as popular as possible.

12 comments:

  1. Yay ankit!! superb interview :) ......U truly rock buddy!!

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  2. Excellent Interview. Way to Sagar! And very genuine, straightforward and insightful responses from Ankit...Appreciate his noble attitude and intension of sharing chess and life lessons for the benefit of other aspiring chess players... Both u guys rock!

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  3. Brilliant interview. Thank you.

    And congratulations to Ankit Rajpara.

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  4. Yes quite informative & lot lot for young players to follow, again your best interview (the first one was with GM Abijit kunte sir) & many many congratulations to GM Ankit Rajpara..........

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  5. Informative and balanced interview... CONGRATULATIONS to ANKIT for achieving the feat of becoming GM and to SAGAR for conducting a brilliant interview! I even added a few words to my vocab like ENCORE! Thanks..

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  6. Thanks a lot Sagar bhai for giving in such interview with depth views of Ankit Bhai !!!!
    Many points mentioned by Ankit are very useful. Thanks both of you again.

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  7. True sportsman spirit.
    The way Ankit has been straight forward without turning talks round and accepted his weaknesses is commendable!
    Sagar Shah your articles have always inspired me and this one is the best of all the columns..

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  8. Super interview sir..... Its very useful for young players...

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  9. Super interview sir..... Its very useful for young players...

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  10. Thank you for the informative interview :)

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