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What it takes to coach the ‘Ice-Man’

“Psychologically speaking, he is an ‘Ice-Man’. Chess-wise, he is a pure tactician.”

That’s GM Vishnu Prasanna’s take on his ward Gukesh D’s modus operandi on a chessboard. And after the Candidates, everyone saw that for themselves!

It was the end of round 7 of the FIDE Candidates 2024. Ian Nepomniachtchi, the two-time winner and defending champion, took a clear lead in the Open Candidates standings after Gukesh’s painful defeat to Alireza Firouzja, dropping to second place.

At that point, one wouldn’t be mistaken as someone supporting Ian in executing the three-peat in Candidates.

But it turned out that it was ‘Ice-Man’ from Chennai, who pulled through, persevered and fought his way back to the top and somehow won the entire tournament.

Gukesh has now made a habit of defying the odds.

In what is considered a cutthroat competition, the Candidates can push any chess player to their limits.

But with a zen-like personality, the Indian teen was undeterred.

In 2019, after becoming one of chess’ youngest grandmasters, the then little-known 12-year-old made a bold declaration: “I want to be a world champion.”

Five years later, in what was his first appearance at the prestigious FIDE Candidates 2024he went in as a dark horse and emerged with the ultimate prize and a shot at the world champion’s crown.

Although the 17-year-old has a large coaching team, his Indian coach GM Vishnu Prasanna knows the ins and outs of Gukesh’s game better than anyone.

He has been coaching him since 2017 and has been the guiding light in the teenager’s quest to the top.

In an exclusive with The bridgeVishnu spoke about the chess world, his ward’s success, the psychology of chess and Gukesh’s upcoming battle against Ding Liren for the title of world champion in November.

A hunger for chess

Besides working hard, being focused and having mental clarity, hunger for the game is something that Vishnu believed Gukesh propelled him to such heights in a short span of time.

“One thing that sets Gukesh apart is his hunger for chess. Besides winning, his hunger was to understand the game, play the game and learn from it, and that was a big difference between him and the average person,” says Vishnu.

Vishnu even had a nickname for the young chess prodigy that sums up his playing style.

“Psychologically, he is an Ice-Man. Chess-wise, he is a pure tactician. He can thrive in chaos and remain calm during the chaos, something modern players find difficult as they strive for control,” he added.

Fighting against setbacks

Although he is now a candidate winner, his qualification was jeopardized when he… A drop of 40 points in ELO ratings between October and December 2023.

“His Polish coach and I especially talked a lot about dealing with losses and learning to bounce back from losses,” said Vishu, stating that such sudden drops in performance have been resolved to a large extent and his results have become much more consistent. From that moment on.

“There were times when Gukesh’s performance collapsed. He is getting better at avoiding those things and now he is stable when it comes to results. There is chaos on the chessboard, but the predictability of his results has become stable.” Vishnu comments.

His consistency was on display among the candidates, with the teenager recording a 95.4% movement accuracy over the 14 rounds, in contrast to the 93.6% accuracy his opponents had against him, according to Chess.com.

Gukesh’s comeback after his loss against Iran’s Alireza Firouja in round seven of the candidates was also a reflection of the work of his coaches in helping him stay calm.

He managed to stay calm and soon returned to victory. Much of that was due to his team of coaches led by Polish GM Grzegorz Gajewski as well as input from Vishnu, albeit sparingly.

“I didn’t talk to him much during Candidates. The only time we spoke was after his match with Firouja. I always give him recommendations, as does his team, and it is Gukesh who makes the final decision. Sometimes I insist on certain things, but it is left to Gukesh to decide what to do,” Vishnu said.

Sowing the seeds of achievement

Although it is a very rewarding job, coaching can also be very tough as you have to figure out individual needs while maintaining a framework based on which the coach will train students. Vishnu said the following when asked about the challenges of being a coach and the most rewarding part of the profession:

“The biggest challenge as a coach is dealing with the unpredictability of the game. Even if you do everything right, results are not guaranteed. That’s where mentality comes into play.”

He added: “Financial stability is another challenge. If you stand out, you will get sponsors to participate in tournaments, otherwise you have to work outside while playing to maintain a career, which can be difficult. What gives me the most joy is getting a player out of bad form by giving tips and strategies.”

“Performance is all about maintaining a mindset, not knowledge. How to maintain and maintain a good mindset is what makes a player successful. I show my students strategies from other players and players from other sports to instill that positive mentality.” he said when talking about nurturing talents under his wing.

As a coach, Vishnu has a mix of both intuitive training and a more strategic framework based on various parameters that he has devised.

“I have a set of 15 to 20 parameters, 10 to 12 of which are based on chess and the rest are psychological. But I can also be very intuitive. It may not be logical, or how it’s supposed to be done, but it is yes.” is what I do,” he said.

Besides teaching the intricacies of the game, Vishnu also had the responsibility of ensuring that his students, especially Gukesh, did not suffer from mental burnout so that they could remain in the best possible frame of mind ahead of the tournaments.

“This was my biggest challenge with Gukesh. He simply refused to take a break. He was not very interested in social life. He spends some time with friends and family, but most of his time is spent playing chess. People tell him usually he has to relax but he was very enthusiastic and automatic,” said Vishnu.

When asked about Gukesh’s childhood, Vishnu said it was different from other children.

“I wouldn’t say he had a difficult childhood, but a different childhood. He traveled a lot, and his parents were very supportive of Gukesh’s chess ambitions,” he noted.

He added, “There was always pressure. We had daily and monthly goals, and the pressure was constant. But Gukesh loves the pressure and thrives on it, something other teenagers don’t do so well.”

Outside the chess arena, Gukesh was a lot of fun, according to his coach. Once he comes in, he’s very serious, but outside of it, “he’s not serious at all,” Vishnu says jokingly.

File photo: Maria Emelianova/ Chess.com.

The ultimate prize beckons

Winning the Candidates has given Gukesh a chance to become world champion by challenging the current champion, Ding Liren of China.

The innocent words of a twelve year old have now manifested into a very attainable reality.

Interestingly, Gukesh is currently ranked sixth in the world, with 2763.4 points, and his opponent Liren is seventh, just two points lower.

The highest rated Indian in the FIDE Live RatingsGukesh would certainly rate his chances in the showdown.

On his part, Vishnu feels that Gukesh’s game is improving day by day and if he takes on Ding Liren by the end of the year, he feels that Gukesh has a very good chance of ousting him.

“The preparation will be different. For now we have nothing planned, but we do have a few ideas. His game is evolving every day and we don’t know how strong he will be in November. We will try to be as innovative as possible,” noted Vishnu on.

“Gukesh’s victory will motivate many younger people coming forward. His peer group will also be motivated to do better and reach Gukesh’s level. They have always pushed each other and I am sure this is also a motivation will be for everyone.” Vishnu concluded.