Arjun Erigaisi: the new chess player of chess

The small North Sea town of Wijk Aan Zee experienced two storms that hit its coast. Corrie, screaming at 100mph, toppled trees and disrupted flights at Schiphol Airport on Monday, and the other, who goes by an Indian name, swept away the pitch the night before.

Eighteen-year-old Arjun Erigaisi is getting used to analogies. He’s just come off a months-long breakout spell – most recently winning two Tata Steel events (Rapid and Challenger) on two continents. One of them, a brilliant 10.5/13 finish at Wijk Aan Zee last weekend with a run to spare, moved him up 49 places in the live classic standings and into the top 100 with a Rating of 2659.5. He is now the fourth highest ranked Indian – after Viswanathan Anand, Vidit Gujrathi and Harikrishna Pentala. He also ranked world No. 4 among juniors and received praise and a “soon to be 2700 Elo” from reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen.

Arjun is back home in Warangal, now trying to make sense of everything he has done. He speaks softly, a decibel that can be drowned out by the hum of an air conditioner. He cracks up when he recounts his favorite fan moment from the past week. “I asked Magnus if we could take a picture together and he said ‘of course’ and congratulated me on my win,” Arjun said in disbelief. “It was pretty special.”

Despite all his dizzying success, Arjun is still without a sponsor.

A few years older than other Gen Z Indian prodigies, Arjun was not winning the youngest Grandmaster (GM) title in his pre-teens and was relatively unknown. GM Srinath Narayanan who coaches both Nihal Sarin and Arjun had to deal with polarity. “Before, Nihal often had excess tournament invitations, and I was trying to negotiate with the organizers so that Arjun could play some of them instead. I would tell them that he is an equally strong player and that “He’s only a year older, but rarely found a positive response. . He just wasn’t at the top of Google search engines,” Srinath says.

A key word that has turned his fortunes around in recent months, according to Arjun, is opportunity – in the form of enough tournaments. In May last year, he became the surprise winner of the Indian tour to qualify for the elite Champions Chess Tour, led by Carlsen. At the following Goldmoney Asian Rapid, he snapped former World No. 2 Levon Aronian’s 16-match unbeaten streak and turned on himself. It was also a sure sign that he had solved a major challenge he was facing: being bullied by higher rated players. At root, this fear stemmed from the realization of glaring weaknesses in his own game. His opening repertoire lacked bite, an aspect he has been working on with his coaches over the past three years. He still needs more ideas for Black, he thinks. Arjun’s current strengths – superlative calculation and a distinctly well-rounded game that pivots on flexibility, all rolled into one. “Before, I was just a very strong positional player. Now I think my style is more universal, more adaptable.”

In November, at the Lindores Abbey blitz held in memory of legendary player Mikhail Tal in Riga, Latvia, Arjun won 13 out of 18 matches, gained over 107 rating points at 2723 Elo, moved into the top 30 in the crushing Aronian blitz and current world No. 4. Fabiano Caruana, and finished third.

“At the moment Arjun is the strongest among our young group of guys,” says former world champion Anand, who mentors India’s younger generation of GMs, including Arjun, under his WestBridge-Anand Chess Academy. . “The ability to spot a line to its final move, to get there first and, more importantly, to be sure that what you have spotted is correct, is crucial. In chess, a confident calculator is better a good calculator. Arjun is not only good at math, he also has no doubts about himself.”

Arjun also trains with Uzbek general manager and former longtime Anand second-in-command Rustam Kasimdzhanov. “After training top players for more than a decade, coaching a young player, who really wants to learn, made me feel good. I felt like I could be of use,” said Rustam, who coached Caruana for six years. “Arjun and I started working together in September last year and he impressed me with his endless willingness to change and evolve. We work on openings, reckonings, endings and analyzing his plays. I try to give him as many insights as possible from my experience so that he doesn’t hopefully repeat my mistakes.”

Arjun is grateful for the learnings so far. “I didn’t realize,” he says, “that I didn’t have the aggression to finish games from winning positions until Rustam pointed it out to me. Working on it helped me tremendously.”

Shortly after Lindores Abbey, Arjun was invited to the Tata Steel fast-paced event in Kolkata. He turned out to be a leader. He won the Rapid title, a full point ahead of a much stronger field that included Aronian and Sam Shankland, among others, and then found a last-minute spot in the Blitz event after B Adhiban withdrew. He tied for first prize with Aronian before losing in the Armageddon tie-break. He arrived at Wijk Aan Zee last week as the highest rated player in the Challengers section. The unsurprising title at the end of the week earned him a place in the 2023 Masters section of the tournament, which Carlsen won this year. This is the only tournament Arjun has some invitation to at the moment.

A few weeks later, at the World Blitz in Warsaw, Arjun had impressive draws against a battery of big names – Carlsen, Aronian, Daniil Dubov and Ian Nepomniachtchi. After 16 laps he was placed 11.5 points behind, just 1.5 points behind leader Aronian. Three losses thereafter – against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Alireza Firouzja and Martyn Kravtsiv saw him drop in the standings.

“It worked well for him and it’s kind of a complete player package,” Anand said. “It’s healthy to have this group – Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin, Gukesh, Raunak Sadhwani, Leon Mendonca driving each other. They have their good streaks but we are still far from declaring victory. Arjun is clearly the breakthrough player Hopefully the buzz will get him more tournament invites and maybe a sponsor that will cover his training and tournament costs.

A whiz at numbers, Arjun’s goals are usually numerical. Like the time he wanted to play on a lower board at the U-16 Olympiad in 2018 to collect more points, but ended up doing the same on a higher board. Or when he set an end goal of 10.5 for Wijk Aan Zee and didn’t miss the mark.

While the pandemic opened up streaming opportunities, online coaching roles and a whole host of side gigs for senior players, juniors had no such commitments. Little academic pressure and plenty of time to pull sleepless nights of blitzes, four-man chess, Among Us, and squat to work on their game.” With the senior lot, post-pandemic fit slides have been quite apparent because they had been involved in so many different things over the past couple of years and it was not easy to go cold turkey once the tournaments resumed,” Srinath said. “Also, they needed a regular schedule of regular tournaments much more than the younger ones to stay competitive. The emerging group, including Arjun, didn’t have to deal with any of that and could react better once events return.”

“Once the chess obsession set in, I lost all my other interests. Before, I used to do math for fun and watch tennis.”

At the moment, Arjun has no tournaments on the horizon. It is usually given in a frenzy of good results, followed by a calm. After waddling around the 2300s for two years, battling self-doubt and crisis of confidence, Arjun entered 2018 with zero IM or GM standards. By August he had ticked both boxes, winning six standards and gaining 200 Elo points that year. Today it is valued above 2650.

In the short term, Arjun’s goal, according to Srinath, should just be to win a lot of matches. “It’s the only way for him to hit 2700. Once he gets to 2750 he might have to get a bit more solid in his game and be able to get acceptable positions, especially with the black. Until then he has to continue what he is doing. Now get more opportunities to play against 2600 and be able to beat them.”

Outside of chess, Arjun finds it difficult to name his interests. The reason also has a lot to do with chess. “Once the obsession with chess set in, I lost all my other interests,” he says bluntly. “I used to do math for fun and watch tennis earlier.” He hasn’t found the time for either in a while and learned of Rafael Nadal’s epic fightback after two sets and three breakpoints for a record 21st Slam last weekend only by the reporting bias.

During tournaments, he finds enough willing peers for the Avalon fantasy board game sessions, and chooses the practice of meditation as a habit he wants to learn to soothe the nerves after scares and defeats. “Sometimes I can shake and make a mistake in the lap after a loss. It happened to me last year in Spain,” he says, “I don’t have a fixed pre-match routine at this stadium. Meditation might just fit right into it.”

Now, after the storm he unleashed, Arjun slips into the calm – Puzzle Rush, calculates the numbers for a crack at a 2700 Elo goal, waits for tournament invites, and hopes he’s done enough to lure the attention of a sponsor.

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