Nine-year-old chess whiz Ram Aravind, the country’s current youngest FIDE master, shares his grandmaster dreams

Long before he could form A,B,C, this kid found himself writing P for pawn, K for King and Q for Queen.

It is the chequered board alone that keeps the otherwise restless nine-year-old in his seat. Our photographer asks him to play a few moves for the camera and begins to adjust the lenses. We look up to find half the pieces gone in less than a minute. As we start all over again, the youngest FIDE master in the country (the lowest of three titles in chess, below International Master and Grandmaster) is only too happy. Ram has returned only the night before from Sri Lanka as the new under-ten Asian blitz chess champion. Despite his coach’s instruction of no chess for 48 hours, he is back at the board. “I must play,” he says, sitting up straight, “At least one hour a day.” How else would his plans of becoming a grandmaster before class X materialize, he wonders aloud. But why class X? “Because I want to concentrate on becoming a doctor,” he blurts out. “Oh, world champion can come later.”

From rectangles to squares

As a four-year-old, Ram often accompanied his elder brother to the tennis club. But instead of swinging a racquet, he told stories. “He used to pore over picture books when he was two and by four, he could read fairy tales and general knowledge books,” recalls father Nagappan, the director of a leading building materials corporation.

Concluding the boy was more brain than brawn, the coach suggested he would fare better at the square board than in the rectangular court. When introduced to chess by his first coaches, Venkatraman and Lakshminarayan from Srirangam, Ram took to it like fish to water and a flurry of victories in inter-school and district-level tournaments followed. Coached by Manikandasamy from Vellore, Ram went on to win the under-seven state championship at Erode in 2010.

From there on the road led straight to the under-seven nationals, where a win qualified him for the under-eight Asian championship, which he won. The biggest moment of his nascent career came in 2011 when he clinched the silver in the world chess youth championships in Brazil. Though happy he is numero uno in the blitz version of the game, Ram is quite disappointed that a tie-breaker left him in fourth place in rapid and classical chess, after sharing first position in both versions. “Perhaps I was not lucky,” he muses.

Blitzkrieg moves

Is this kind of competition too much pressure for a nine-year-old? “The pressure is only on us,” sighs mother Muthu Nagappan. “He loves it.” Though Ram can take most losses in his stride, he gets upset when he loses after coming close to tasting victory. “He thinks it a matter of prestige and never cries or throws a tantrum in the game room. He would analyse his game like a grown-up.” his mom says. “But when he reaches the hotel room, he vents his frustration by pinching, kicking and crying in my lap.” Ram justifies himself. “I cry only when I lose to a higher-ranking player or when the game is too close. I don’t let it bother me if it’s because of a silly mistake I make.”

A quick thinker, Ram has a fast and aggressive style, ideal for blitz chess. “His favourite pastime is to ask me to guess if black or white would triumph. He becomes delighted when I give the wrong answer,” says Muthu Nagappan, lamenting the lack of higher-ranked or equal players in the city to help him better his game.

Far removed from the competitive climate of Chennai with its titled players, Ram’s scope for improvement, apart from a weekend’s coaching every month in Chennai, comes from books and online chess. Open tournaments where players of all ages compete are another learning experience. “I have this ‘veri’ to beat the best players,” he says, referring to rare occasions he played against grandmasters and international masters. “He is the pet of the Indian youth team,” says his dad. “He has no inhibitions on going up to senior players and questioning their moves or giving suggestions.” “They tell me why my suggestion can or cannot work and explain why they did what they did,” explains Ram. Little wonder he has friends from international masters in Portugal to autorickshaw drivers in Orissa.

Schoolboy champ

Yet the same is not true at school. Between tournaments, the class V student finds few schooldays to nurture close friendships. Though he has admirers among the girls, the boys are a tad envious, he feels. “They won’t show me notes anymore.” Perhaps it is unpleasant to be bested by the kid who is out of class for umpteen days and still ends up with the top marks!

The race between academics and chess may get weary as he progresses, feels Muthu. Mother and son attend at least 15 tournaments a year. “Life seems one continuous motion of packing, travelling and unpacking,” she says. Clearly she is his mainstay and her interests have rubbed off on him, as evident from the M.S. Viswanathan vintage number he hums at intervals. Muthu’s touring has meant not only additional expenses for her travel, but little time for her elder son. “Last year I stayed home with him as he sat for his board exams. But Ram’s game suffered. Thankfully, the elder is understanding.”

As Ram leaves the board and turns a sudden somersault, I ask him what is his favourite piece. “The pawn,” he affirms, taking me aback. “It may be the smallest but it has the potential to become the most powerful.”