KOCHI: At one of the tables in a chess championship at Devamatha CMI Public School in Thrissur in 2010, the tension was quite palpable.
On one side of the table against the chequered board with the pieces deployed in an indiscernible order, a player breathed heavily as sweat exuded from his forehead.
On the other, the seat remained empty. As the sweating contestant’s move took longer to materialise, a boy, several years younger, walked by, took the empty seat and asked him, “Chetta, kazhinjo (brother, are you done)?”
And a couple of moves later, the boy ended the senior guy’s agony and checkmated him.
The boy is Nihal Sarin, the current world under-10 chess champion, the first ever Keralite to be so.
Not belying his age, he has all the playfulness of a child. Unlike the usual breed of world champions, who read online chess journals for leisure, Nihal is of an altogether different mould.
In a competition, the Thrissur-lad would rather roam around than sit in a seat and fret over his next move. But his moves, though seemingly incidental, are as layered and perceptive as those of a strategist. And if the opponent is not careful, they can most certainly be fatal.
“He would seem very immature with his mannerisms at the chess table, but that is just a belying facade,” said his coach and former Kerala chess champion E P Nirmal.
“He won’t lock his eyes to the board like most of his opponents do. Instead, he would play with the clock next to him after a move or check out the table beneath the board. But as soon as the opponent is done with his move, Nihal is ready with his — not just a random, reflexive response, but a measured, debilitating counter,” Nirmal said.
For this class five student, chess is something meant for him to enjoy, something to cool him off when he is bored of his routine sources of entertainment, and not the other way round.
“Chess is something I like to play more than badminton or caroms,” Nihal would say if asked what chess meant to him. He simply cannot make things complicated.
Nihal was introduced to chess by his grandfather A A Ummer at the age of three. He did it to make the hyper-active boy sit in one place.
“At first, he was not very keen about playing chess, but slowly, he got immersed in it,” said his father A Sarin, a skin-specialist at the Thrissur Medical College. His mother Shijin Ummer is a psychiatrist.
Then settled in Kottayam, his talent was first spotted by his trainer at Excelsior English School, Mathew P Joseph.
When the family shifted to Kottayam, he started training under N R Anilkumar. Currently, he is under the guidance of Nirmal, who works at Devamatha School.
His first major achievement came in 2013, when he won the national under-9 chess championship in Chennai.
That was his first national title. Since then, he has won numerous international titles. The latest feat being a thumping victory over higher ranked International Master Jonathan Westerberg of Sweden, in the World Junior Chess Championship in Pune in October.