Promise of greatness in Dutch chess prodigy

Anish Giri playing Hungarian grandmaster Judith Polgar.

Grandmaster Anish Giri (15) is the great hope of Dutch chess. He will be competing in the Corus Chess Tournament, which starts this Saturday.

Anish Giri (15) is a man of few words. Do his classmates think he is weird for playing chess so much? No. Is he nervous about his upcoming tournament? No. Does he want to become the best chess player in the world? Yes.

He can be somewhat shy, his mother Olga explained when NRC Handelsblad visited the Giri home in Rijswijk.

But he does not seem shy in the least if you ask him what his favourite opening is. He laughs in your face.

“I am not going to tell you that,” he scoffs. “They might be translating this newspaper!” [Indeed – ed.]

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This Saturday, Anish will be competing in what is perhaps the most important chess competition in the world: the Corus Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee.

The great hope for Dutch chess

The Dutch chess community is brimming with anticipation. Giri, a Russian native, has lived in Rijswijk for two years and is registered as a Dutch national with the international chess federation FIDE. He just might be the next Dutch superstar. He became a grandmaster at the tender age of 14, shattering the former record. In September, he became the youngest player ever to win the Dutch chess championship. The Dutch Chess Federation hopes Anish’s success will draw new, young players to the game. Dutch clubs are having a hard time attracting new members. Many players feel Giri is a gift from the gods.

According to the Dutch grandmaster and four-time national champion Hans Ree, Giri is a rare talent indeed. “Tactical insight is common in young players,” he said. “Patience is not. But Giri has it.”

At last year’s Corus tournament, Giri gave a stunning demonstration of the former quality. The English grandmaster, John Nunn, reigning world champion of chess puzzle-solving, was visiting the tournament when the Armenian, Levon Aronian, decided to throw him a nice challenge of his own making: white to move, mate in three. He jotted the position on a slip of paper, and Nunn set up the pieces. It turned out to be a tough challenge indeed. Metres away, Anish cast a glance at the board. Twenty second later, he spoke. “The position is wrong. There are too many solutions,” he said, quickly rattling off a few. Giri was right. Aronian had forgotten to note a pawn when he wrote down the position.

Anish's working routine

The adulation has left Anish unfazed. “I don’t really care about other people’s expectations,” he said. “Not that I find it annoying or anything, but I don’t want people to think, like, that I am good.” For Anish, chess is mostly fun. Why? Anish shrugs. It just is.

Back to openings: Anish studies them using Chessbase, a database containing 4 million games, as he was more than happy to demonstrate seated behind his laptop in his attic. He prefers discussing his game with a chessboard handy.

Anish usually studies games between players boasting ratings in the 2,600s. He himself is currently rated 2,588 by the FIDE, well over the grandmaster cut-off point of 2,500. The highest-rated player in the world, 19-year old Magnus Carlsen, stands at a lonely 2.810 points.

Pieces flew over the virtual board as Anish clicked his way through a game. Chessbase allows him either to stick with a past game as it was played, or diverge from it by introducing new moves. The computer then helps out by suggesting possible follow-up moves. But it is not always right, Anish said. Its suggestions can be bland or too risky. Only recently did Anish start practicing with a coach.

Seeking out weakness

Learning how to play is one thing, learning how to win another. Anish says he learnt the latter by studying his opponents’ prior matches, familiarising himself with their strategies and openings and reacting to them in a way they would not expect, thinking several moves ahead, which is one of his strong suits. “But that alone will not win you a match,” he said. “You need a certain sensitivity. A touch of feeling.”

Anatoly Karpov has it. Carlsen has it. And Anish, sometimes, has it too. “Occasionally I run into positions I know are risky, but I can’t put my finger on why they are. I just feel it,” he said.

This Saturday, Anish will be leaving for Wijk aan Zee where he will be staying for two weeks. He seems relaxed for someone who has set such high expectations for himself. Perhaps it is because his parents don’t feel chess is that important. They think it should be played for fun, and also believe children do not perform well under pressure. They expect their son to go to college once he finishes high school, like any other youngster. Anil’s Nepali father works for a research institute in Delft. His mother, Olga from St Petersburg, taught him how to play chess.

Anish has lived in Russia and Japan. He speaks five languages and is good at math. He is also a bit of a loner. He enjoys parties, but would just as soon not attend them. He does not feel the need to go out. “I have lived in a lot of places. That means making new friends every time you move,” he said.

Time for some chess

His classmates do not tease him though. “They are very positive about it,” he said. “Some of them follow my progress on the internet. If you are normal apart from playing chess, you won’t have any problems. Some people that don’t play chess are teased anyway.”

Time for some real chess. Anish has decided to play a game of bullet on Playchess.com. In bullet chess, each side gets only one minute to play. His youngest sister interrupts him a lot while playing – which doesn’t seem to annoy him at all. A player going by the name of Karnatakagahan challenges him. In the first game, Karnatakagahan offers Anish a draw, which he turns down, only to lose later. In the second match, Anish makes a comeback, wiping his opponent off the board. Karnatakagahan goes offline immediately after that.

That is how Anish spends most of his days: school, some TV, a couple hours of analysing games, playing a few, and perhaps reading a book about chess, then off to bed. Aside from chess, he enjoys action movies, the Black Eyed Peas and table tennis.

Anish doesn’t feel he should be putting in extra practice for the upcoming tournament, but he does admit to feeling a little bit nervous. Just a little. “I get more nervous when I get new classmates,” he said.

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