When a friend in India told him he was going for chess lessons, Akshat Chandra, then 9, was surprised. He regarded it as just another board game, not one you trained to play. That was 6 years ago. Chess is Akshat’s passion, and his pastime today, and he plays to win.
The 16-year old winner of the prestigious US Junior Closed Chess Championship held in St. Louis, Missouri, July 7-15, says he was inspired to take on the game after his parents relocated to India when he was 9. Back in New Jersey since 2013, he is on the brink of becoming a Grand Master. He already has a 2500 rating and two “norms” out of 3 needed to become a ‘GM’ and hence his blog is entitled ‘QuesttoGM’.
He is the highest ranked junior rapid chess player in the country, and is among the leading junior blitz players in both online and on-board chess. He is the 2015 K-12 U.S. National Champion in both classic and blitz forms of the game. In 2013, he won the K-9 Super Nationals Championship, the Under-18 North American Youth Championship, and achieved his international master title as well
The International Master won the July tournament, a ten-player round robin event open to best juniors younger than 21 years, with a score of 7 out of 9, half a point ahead of Chicago Junior Open winner Jeffery Xiong. This tournament has been played since 1966 and is considered among the most prestigious, second only to the US Chess Championships. Among past winners of the US Junior Closed are former World Champion Bobby Fischer, Arthur Bisguier, Yasser Sairawan, and Hikaru Nakamura. Before the Juniors Akshat trained with renowned Grand Master Gary Kasparov. Akshat wants to join the exclusive club of some 1,500 GMs currently around the world, he told News India Times.
“The environment was such in India – almost everyone is playing chess, so you want to play it too,” he told News India Times. Since he couldn’t play basketball or (American) football while in India, he decided to try chess, quickly realized he had a penchant for it and found Serbian Grand Master Predrag Prajkovic to train him online for the next four years till early 2014. He began competing while in India and continued upon his return to this country.
As with the game where one’s brain kicks into high gear to plan several moves ahead, Akshat is planning his moves for the national championships scheduled sometime between March and May next year. Since Grade 10, he has been home schooled. “It allows me to have more time for chess because if you go to school you have no time for it,” he says. A bit nonplused when asked what he does in his “free time” Akshat says, “I have friends,” he pauses, “More like online friends who play chess.” He quickly adds that he likes playing basketball and loves watching football, not playing it because it’s too violent for his taste.
Born in 1999 in Livingston, N.J. Akshat says he got into the game later than most great chess players – at the ripe old age of 10, while in India where his parents relocated for four years. “The leading players in and around my age-group had started playing chess at five or six years of age, and were hundreds of Elo points above me. Whoa!” he exclaims on his blog. ‘Elo’ is an expression used for chess rating and is not an acronym. But he caught up within 5 years, amassing the score needed to become a Grand Master.
“I have a passion for the game and I love playing it. It has infinite possibilities and incredible subtleties,” he says. “There’s always something to learn. And it builds grit and other traits as well.”
Let the games begin
Like all chess players he prepares for each opponent by looking up their games on a data base. At the Juniors this July, that preparation stood him in good stead at least until round four. In Round 1, he had black pieces and faced his good friend, International Master Luke Harmon Vellotti, whom he describes as “precocious” in his blog. It was a tough game to start off a tournament with, he says and while it was tempting to play a solid opening, “I decided to go for a more fighting and complex game by revisiting an old friend.” The old friend was the Grunfeld Defense, an opening he had not played in a long time, he clarified to News India Times. It is named after player Ernst Grunfeld who used it in the 1920s. That’s another thing with Akshat- he studies not just modern day players, but those in the 1900s. “You can learn as much if not more from those old ones because then there were no computers, just the board.”
Akshat raced through rounds 2, 3, and 4 at the Juniors, but had anxious moments during round five against Ruifeng Li. The game started off horribly, he says because he got trapped in Li’s preparation “like an insect in tree sap.” Ruifeng was beating him and got a near-decisive advantage, and Akshat sweated as he made a “horrible blunder.” But lucky for him, his opponent ran out of those blitzing moves. “Ruifeng was well prepared because he had analyzed my game on the computer at home,” he said, an advantage Akshat did not have as there was not much on Ruifeng’s game openings or strategies in the data base. But once Ruifeng ran out of his prepared moves, he still had to close out the game, and he faltered, giving Akshat the opening to win.
Playing chess greats
Now he is preparing for the big games – facing off against GMs. “It will be an incredible honor,” Akshat told Chess.com, which noted that the young player might face players with scores of 2800 at next year’s U.S. Championship in St. Louis. “I went into this tournament (Juniors) with the attitude that I wanted to win it,” in order to play against top world-class players in a typical round-robin format, like other elite tournaments, in St. Louis. The lineup of high level players doesn’t faze him at all, if anything it makes him more excited that he could be playing the likes of Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Gata Kamsky. A prolific writer for several years, Akshat’s blog, QuesttoGM, makes an interesting read with its riveting accounts of matches and colorful accounts of his journey to where he stands now.
Akshat’s family lives in Iselin, N.J. where his father Tarun Chandra is a financial analyst and his mother Aparna Chandra is an independent technology professional. He has an older brother Aditya. “My parents and my brother have been really supportive,” he notes. “I am aiming to reach the top echelons of US and World Chess,” he adds. But as is typical of such a quest, a lot is dependent on the ability to gain corporate and individual sponsorship. Akshat won $6000 at the Junior Closed Championship tournament, and is hoping to raise funds to continue training and competing in future tournaments at higher levels, he said.