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CUP OF JOY S. P.Sethuraman with his haul of trophies
CUP OF JOY S. P.Sethuraman with his haul of trophies

Hard work and no play have enabled young chess player S. P. Sethuraman to win all those shiny trophies, the latest being the World Under-16 title

Name: S.P. Sethuraman

Title: International Master (Has completed 1/3 GM norms)

Current Rating: 2470

Chess Idols: Kasparov, Fischer, Anand

Favourite opening: Sicilian defense

Next tournament: The National ‘A' championship at Mumbai.

T he shiny trophies sit atop a table that has been white-clothed. The biggest of them, is the latest — the World Under-16 title at Antalya, Turkey — and it sits in Sethuraman's arms a bit heavily. Our photographer asks him to tilt it at a rakish angle, implying that the unusual posture would somehow dispel the imperturbable air of calm the chess-player seems to carry around him. Will not do for an ‘action picture'. The request brings out a brief smile like a fluorescent sign board that goes whizzing past on a dark highway. The flash misses it.

The Sicilian defense is smooth, sharp and, in spite of the dark alley, casinos, fedora and gangster connotations, is well-respected in chess circles and often considered the Cadillac of chess openings. To see it employed by a mild-mannered sixteen-year-old, annulling threats and opening up flanks of attacks, with devastating effect at that, seems a bit of a contradiction. But chess as a sport (a colleague refuses to acknowledge it as one for, according to him, it lacks a prerequisite — the physical dimension) stubbornly resists beatification by analogy and appreciation through an easily recognisable flair that poeticises other sports.

Sethuraman's daily schedule includes rounds of yoga, meditation and exercising at his in-house gym. Sitting four to five hours at a board, and considering, appraising, discarding and choosing one set of moves over a million others requires a fine-tuning of physical and mental capabilities that often goes unnoticed. (The number of combinations on a chess board of 64 squares, considered over any serious length of time, easily exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe).

Gary Kasparov in an interview once said there is nothing like a perfect chess game. It is often about how one player makes a bigger or more obvious mistake. Sethuraman says his play on the 13th move in his game against Drev played along the Rossolimo variation which gave him the match soon after was an occasion where he came pretty close to ‘the perfect game' of baseball, or ‘the perfect 10' for a bowler in cricket. A nuance, an intuition that changes the course of events in a subtle way that is not immediately apparent, with a delayed but deadly effect is the appeal of the game.

The insular nature of competitive sport, is something that doesn't necessarily jump out on meeting Sethuraman. Then while talking about his barren run last year, when his rating had plateau-ed at around 2,400 for about a year and more, he says he had to keep faith, train harder, mix up his training methods and wait. Except that he used ‘for a year, tournament adikkale' a word hardly used outside chess circles, the Tamil verb that intones with aggression, intent and a streak of uncompromising competitiveness. The Standard XII student of Velammal HSS prefers to train than attend school. The hall in his home at Mogappair, incidentally, doesn't have a television set.

Before leaving, I blurt out a semi-random question that has been floating in my head with the insistence of a half-remembered fable. Sethuraman assures me it is quite easy to identify if an opponent is human or if it is a computer software he is up against, even if over the Internet. The androids still haven't taken over, I mutter. He smiles again.

RAAKESH NATRAJ

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