From taking a break to playing tennis, how shift in lifestyle helped Gukesh turn 2023 around

With Anish Giri missing out at World Rapid and Blitz, D Gukesh sealed the spot for Candidates 2024 on Saturday
Indian chess grandmaster D Gukesh calculating his next move. (Photo | D. Sampathkumar)
Indian chess grandmaster D Gukesh calculating his next move. (Photo | D. Sampathkumar)

CHENNAI: When D Gukesh returned home from Grand Swiss — where he did not have a good tournament — in November, he thought qualifying for the Candidates was out of question and decided to take a break. Back then, little did he know that the decision, among a few others in the days to come, could play a crucial role in turning things around and finish the year with a spot in the Candidates for 2024 alongside R Praggnanandhaa and Vidit Gujrathi.

While Gukesh winning the Chennai Grand Masters event brought him closer, Anish Giri missing out the first place at the World Rapid Chess Championship 2023 on Saturday, sealed the deal. "After the Grand Swiss, he psychologically took the mind out of the candidates," recalls, Gukesh's father Dr Rajinikanth. "He said he just wants to take a break. He used to sleep late at night and wake up in the afternoon, that's been his life for the past five years. But suddenly he changed it overnight," laughs Rajinikanth, who himself was taken aback to find out that Gukesh had joined tennis when he woke up the day after they landed in Chennai.

The 17-year-old and his father arrived in the city in the afternoon, but much to his dad's surprise, Gukesh had woken up early the day after, went cycling in the Korattur neighbourhood and found a tennis academy. Next thing Rajinikanth knew was that Gukesh had enrolled himself in tennis so that he can go for classes at 6.30 AM. And just like that his routine had changed. He would wake up at 5.30 in the morning, go through his routines, then tennis, start working around breakfast and go to bed by 9-9.30 PM. Gukesh continued the routine for a week, and that is when the invitations for the  London Chess Classic and Chennai event came along.

While he was not sure initially, Gukesh thought he would take part and see how it goes. It was during this time Gukesh had an honest conversation with his coach GM Vishnu Prasanna. After the meet in Douglas, they decided not to think about Candidates and focus on playing well and that alone. And the results came slowly, but steadily. He came back from London, won the Chennai event and now holds a ticket to the Candidates in Canada next year. The magnanimity of it has not hit Prasanna just yet.

"To me, I'm working with him, so it's hard for me to be excited. I'm just thinking about dealing with it, so it's a part of the job that is done to me and I have to mostly focus on the next part," says Prasanna. However, it is hard to miss the pride in his voice whilst talking about the rapid strides Gukesh has made at the highest level. "I mean, the spirit was the most surprising thing for me, how far he has done it and how quick, young he has done it all, that is really crazy. That is most impressive for me. But I think, there's still a lot to do," he adds.

For Dr Rajinikanth who left his practice to travel and take care of Gukesh everywhere he played,  the frustration and the struggle he and the family went through was all worth it. "It's any parent's dream, you know. If your kid is succeeding, you can't be prouder and happier than any as a parent. The last two months have been really tough for the family, like more for him, for sure. As a player, he was going through a very tough phase emotionally. He was putting too much pressure on himself which as a parent, it's very tough to see him struggle like that. He was getting too worked up and he was training himself too much than what he should have.

"As a parent, we can advise and we can tell him that. 'Okay, it's not the end of the road. You can try again next year or something like that'. But it's tough to see as a parent when we all know that he has the talent and requisite qualities to be there, but still he is not able to clinch it. It's very tough for us as a parent to watch, to see your kids struggling. But again, I would have been really happy if I had known he would get it eventually, but he has to struggle. I would have taken this thing rather than take an easier spot, to get the spot four-five months back. But this is better, this is going to be a lifetime lesson for him," says Rajinikanth, crediting the coaches for all the extra time and work they put in with Gukesh.

While neither Prasanna nor Rajinikanth hadn't spoken to Gukesh about Candidates as of Saturday evening. They both know what lies ahead. What they also know is that Gukesh is ready and it is all about preparing to play good chess and planning which tournament to play carefully. "We have clarity on what we can do for the next year, that's a good thing for us. Even this year, I think he would have preferred to play slightly less. That's something we spoke about. So probably next year, he has to play less I think. It can't be like how he was very young. He has only a couple of invites at the moment and then we'll decide what to do. He has to prepare a lot for this event," Prasanna signed off.

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