The Rediff Interview / Srinath Narayanan
From the land of Anand... Srinath
Shobha Warrier in Chennai
He is only eight-and-a-half years old but his work starts at nine in the morning and goes on till nine at night. No, he is not complaining. He doesn’t even mind missing out on his favourite cartoons on Cartoon Network.
"Cartoons are for enjoyment and chess is my profession. I don't miss playing outside with my friends. You know, playing chess is my profession and I want to be the best in it."
He doesn’t even sound like an average eight-and-a-half-year-old. Yes, he is not an average child; he is the youngest FIDE rated chess player in India. He is Srinath Narayanan.
On the day I met him, Srinath’s father, Narayanan, a United India Assurance employee, picked him up a couple of hours before the stipulated time from the chess academy where he is practising for the Under-9 National Championship, to be held in Lucknow in December. So, we met at seven in the evening.
The little boy looked a little tired. But he said he neither wanted to relax or eat something nor freshen up. He sat down cross legged on a chair next to me, and started answering my questions like a true champion.
Amused at his behaviour, I asked, have you been giving a lot of interviews?
"Yes, I have given a few interviews, including one for the BBC Radio."
Srinath's fascination for the chess board began on a train journey from Chennai to Mumbai, at the age of five. His uncle, his elder brother and his cousin were playing chess. Srinath couldn't now explain what attracted him to the game but he was sure that something dragged him to the board. His frequent pleas to include him also in the game were rejected outright.
"All of them said I didn’t know anything about the game but I stood away and watched them play. They never allowed me to even play once. So, I wanted to play the game badly and beat all of them!"
Back from the holiday, Srinath started pestering his father for a chess board. "I bought a chess board for him just to keep him quiet for some time. You know none in our house plays chess seriously, and I felt it was an intellectual game. So, we were surprised to see his passion for the game," said Srinath’s father.
Having learnt the conventional moves, he started beating his brother and cousin who had teased him on the train. It was then that Narayanan saw an advertisement in the local newspaper about a chess academy, and without thinking twice, he admitted him in the academy on Vijayadasami Day, 1999. Srinath was just five-and-a-half-years-old.
The way the little boy grasped various moves and proceeded further surprised his parents. "None of us play chess but we saw in Srinath a talent which was unusual. We are sure he is born with this special talent. We never expected him to come this far," Prasanna, Srinath’s mother, said with pride in her eyes.
Within two weeks, Srinath was participating in a tournament. "On the first day, I lost a game and got a walk-over point. But on the second day, I won a game, and lost two but I was happy."
A few months later, he participated in the state under-9 tournament, and to everyone’s surprise, he won the State championship.
"I wanted to be in the top five but what excited me was my first win against an experienced player in the fourth round. I was not thinking about winning or losing then. When the opponent made a mistake, I capitalised on that, and won the game. The fourth round win gave me a lot of confidence. But I didn’t feel sad when I lost to a senior player in the fifth round. I was not expecting to win the title. So, I was not sad losing the round, but I was not happy either."
Srinath was talking more like an experienced chess player, and not an eight-and-a-half-year-old!
Srinath celebrated winning the state championship title by eating half a cup ice cream as he doesn’t relish ice creams much! "I like juice more."
When he came to know that Parimarjan Negi from Delhi was the youngest FIDE-rated player in the country, he wanted to beat him for the record. He didn’t know anything about FIDE rating till he played his first rated tournament this year.
"I wanted to beat Negi and become the youngest rated player, and when I became one, I felt normal; not very happy. Now, I want to be the youngest IM in India, then the youngest GM and I also want to be the youngest world champion. But I am going step by step only!"
Srinath’s rating is 2088 now.
To the question why he likes chess so much, he replied: "You know, it is an individual game and not a team game. So, winning and losing are in my hands. I love it for that."
It may be his extreme youth that gives him the extreme confidence to say this, but Srinath believes he can beat any player in the world "if they make mistakes".
"See, they are also human beings. They can also make blunders. So, if I can capitalise on their mistakes, I can win! I know it will not happen. But I am not afraid of anyone."
His mother, Prasanna, regrets that he misses out a lot of childhood pleasures because of the taxing schedule of chess. "He is busy all the time. By the time he comes home, it is past 9.30 at night. Now that the Nationals are coming, he doesn’t go to school. So, it is after 9.30 only, he starts learning his school lessons because the school will not give him permission to skip the tests. I feel sad because he is working very hard, and missing out a lot."
To relieve him of the pressures of school work, Narayanan approached the principal to get exemption from attending school when the National Chess championship was going on, and the answer he got was, 'We give importance only to academics, and we do not encourage sports. If your child wants to play any game, let him do it after school! Our aim is to send our children to IITs and not to play sports!'
Narayanan was asked to take the child away from school if his priority lay in "sports" and not academics. "With great difficulty, we got one months’ leave now so that Srinath can prepare for the Nationals. How can he participate in the Nationals without any preparation?"
Asked what would they prefer for Srinath, when the time comes to choose between studies and chess, "Surely chess," was the parents' reply.
But for now, finding sponsors for their son is high on their priority list.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj