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Coach's Corner

What it takes to coach the 'Ice-Man'

GM Vishnu Prasanna cites the importance of psychological preparation in this exclusive interview with The Bridge.

Gukesh D

Gukesh D, pictured alongside Tan Zhongyi, holds aloft the FIDE Candidates 2024 trophy. (Photo credit: FIDE)


Arjun Mylvahanan

Published: 1 May 2024 7:24 AM GMT

"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 chess board. 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-cut lead in the Open Candidates standings after Gukesh's agonizing loss against Alireza Firouzja, slipping into second place.

At that point, one would not be mistaken for backing Ian to do the three-peat in Candidates.

But as it turned out, it was 'Ice-Man' from Chennai, who weaved through, persevered, and fought his way back to the top, winning the whole tournament in some style.

Gukesh has now made it a habit of defying the odds.

In what is considered to be a brutal competition, the Candidates can push any chess player the extreme.

But with a zen-like persona, the Indian teenager was undeterred.

Back in 2019, the then little-known 12-year-old, after becoming one of the youngest grandmasters in Chess, made a bold statement - "I want to be a world champion".

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

Although the 17-year old has a big coaching team, his Indian coach GM Vishnu Prasanna knows the ins and outs of Gukesh's game like no other person.

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

In an exclusive with The Bridge, Vishnu talked about the world of chess, the success of his ward, the psychology of being a chess player and about Gukesh's upcoming battle against Ding Liren for the title of world champion in November.

An appetite for chess

Apart from working hard, being focused, and having mental clarity, hunger for the game is something that Vishnu felt Gukesh had that drove him to such heights in a short span.

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

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

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

Fighting against setbacks

Although a Candidates winner now, his qualification was in danger when he suffered a 40-point drop in ELO ratings between October and December 2023.

"His Polish coach and I mainly discussed a lot about dealing with losses and learning to bounce back after losses," Vishu said, while stating that such sudden drops in performance have been sorted out to a large degree and his results have become far more consistent since then.

"There were times when Gukesh had a collapse in his performance. He is getting better at avoiding those things and now he is stable when it comes to results. There is chaos on the chess board but the predictability of his results has become stable," Vishnu remarks.

His consistency was there to see in the Candidates, with the teenager notching up a move accuracy of 95.4% across the 14 rounds, as opposed 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 done by his coaches in helping him keep a calm mind.

He managed to keep calm and got back to winning ways soon. A large part of it was due to his team of coaches headed by Polish GM Grzegorz Gajewski and also inputs given by Vishnu, albeit sparingly.

"I did not talk much to him during Candidates. The one time we spoke was after his game with Firouja. I always give him recommendations, as does his team and it is Gukesh who takes the final call. I sometimes insist on certain things but it is left to Gukesh to decide what to do," Vishnu said.

Sowing the seeds of performance

Although a very rewarding job, coaching can also be very tough as one needs to figure out individual needs while maintaining a framework based on which the coach will train students. Vishnu had this to say 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 when you do everything right, results are not a guarantee. That is where mindset comes into play."

He further added, "Financial stability is another challenge. When you stand out then you get sponsors to participate in tournaments or else you have to work outside while playing to sustain a career which can be difficult. What brings me 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 you keep a good mindset and how you sustain it is what makes a successful player. I show my students strategies of other players and players from other sports to inculcate that positive mindset," he said when talking about fostering talents under his tutelage.

As a coach, Vishnu has a mix of both intuitive training and a more strategized framework based on several parameters that he has come up with.

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

Apart from teaching the intricacies of the game, Vishnu also had the responsibility of ensuring his students, particularly Gukesh, did not suffer from mental burnout to keep themselves in the best possible frame of mind ahead of tournaments.

"This was my biggest challenge with Gukesh. He would simply refuse to take a break. He was not very interested in social life. He spends some time with friends and family but most of the time he spends playing chess. People generally tell him to relax but he was very keen and automatically," Vishnu said.

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

"I wouldn't say he had a difficult childhood, but a different childhood. He travelled a lot, and his parents were very supportive of Gukesh's chess aspirations," he commented.

He also added, "There was always pressure. We had daily, and monthly goals, and the pressure was constant. But Gukesh likes the pressure and thrives in it, something other teenagers don't do very well."

Outside the chess arena, Gukesh was a lot of fun, according to his coach. Once he steps in, he is very serious but outside, "he is not serious about anything at all," Vishnu jokingly recounts.

File photo: Maria Emelianova/ Chess.com.

The ultimate prize beckons

Winning the Candidates has given Gukesh a shot at becoming the world champion by challenging the current champion, Ding Liren of China.

The innocent words of a 12-year-old have now manifested into a very attainable reality.

Interestingly, Gukesh is currently ranked world no.6, with 2763.4 points, and his opponent Liren is ranked world no.7, just two points below.

Being the highest-rated Indian in the FIDE Live Ratings, Gukesh would surely fancy his chances at the showdown.

On his part, Vishnu feels Gukesh's game is improving by the day and come the end of the year when he goes up against Ding Liren, he feels Gukesh has a very good chance at 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 do not know how strong he will be in November. We will try to be as innovative as possible," Vishnu remarked.

"Gukesh's victory is going to motivate a lot of younger people coming up. His peer group will also be motivated to do better and reach Gukesh's level. They have always pushed one another and I am sure this will also be a motivation for everyone," Vishnu concluded.

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