Abhimanyu Mishra is in a race against time. He has less than four months to achieve his target: becoming the world’s youngest chess Grandmaster. He’s won two of the three required GM norms in consecutive events, and is closing in on the final one. Along the way, it’s a hectic schedule of checking on possible tournaments to compete in, raising funds, juggling flight timings and negotiating Covid-19 protocols across countries and continents.
At 12, that’s a lot for Abhimanyu to deal with. It’s also a lot for his team – essentially his parents Hemant and Swati. It’s taken him a long way from home in New Jersey. Yet if there is one bit of experience he can draw on from 12 years, it’s this: he’s done something similar before, becoming the world’s youngest International Master.
Abhimanyu and Hemant have been camping in Budapest for over a month now. It’s one of the few cities hosting over-the-board chess tournaments in the current pandemic era.
“We booked a one-way ticket and jumped on a plane,” Hemant tells ESPN. “He gets the third norm and we take the first flight back home to New Jersey. Or we stay back till that happens.” He hasn’t had the best outing so far at the Vezerkepzo GM event that runs until Friday this week, with two points from five rounds. A 7/9 finish, which would have been sufficient for a final norm, now appears to be a stretch. He has another tournament starting this weekend to recalibrate his chase.
For a GM title, a player has to touch an Elo rating of at least 2500 and pick up three norms on the way. For a norm, a player has to play against at least two players from national federations other than his own and a minimum of 50 percent of opponents should be titled players with a minimum rating of 2380. Abhimanyu, part of the Kasparov Chess Foundation’s Young Stars programme, currently has a rating of 2473 and needs 27 Elo points to get to the 2500 mark.
“When he started playing, we always made it a point to set intermediate targets,” Hemant adds. “He broke the youngest National Expert record by six months, and then he took down the IM record too. In the long run, these records may not mean anything but the belief he’ll draw from chasing down these goals will stay with him for life.”
At last week’s Budapest First Saturday event, Abhimanyu’s play was “almost of Nakamura level”, Hemant, who has roots in the central Indian city of Bhopal, puffs with fatherly pride. A comparison with the top-20 ranked American Super GM Hikaru Nakamura isn’t grossly exaggerated. The pre-teen had a Tournament Performance Rating of 2739 and scored an unbeaten 8/9, three points ahead of the rest of the field.
For all his success, though, Abhimanyu has no corporate sponsors. His family is running a fundraising appeal to cover future tournament expenses. The GoFundMe page titled ‘Support Abhi to become youngest GM in the world’ has so far rung in close to $14,000 in contributions.
In a sport where prodigies are not a rare phenomenon, Abhimanyu holds the record for being the USA’s youngest national chess master at nine years, two months and 17 days. In late 2019, he went past R Praggnanandhaa’s record to become the world’s youngest International Master at 10 years, nine months and three days. And now, he’s chasing the GM record.
The record – currently held by Russian GM Sergey Karjakin – has been standing for 19 years at 12 years and 7 months. There have been several attempts at cracking it, particularly by India’s wave of pre-teen talents. D Gukesh positioned himself within touching distance of it two years ago, eventually missing the mark by 17 days. Abhimanyu, going by his birth date, has time till September 5 to get there. The deadline is seared in his young mind.
“The GM title will mean a lot,” Abhimanyu says. “It’ll help me get calls from lead events. I also badly want to go home. It’s scary to be travelling at this time and I miss my family and mom’s food.” Abhimanyu and his 44-year-old father have rented an apartment in downtown Budapest — religiously showering, changing into fresh clothes and inhaling steam out of the vaporiser they packed in from home, after every trip outdoors. At tournaments, masks are to be worn by players throughout the length of the games. “It’s a war-like situation,” says Hemant. “We are assuming that we could get infected so we’re firefighting in every way we can in anticipation.”
They’ve also had to battle uncertainty and virus-marred interruptions. “One of his recent tournaments was cancelled after a player tested positive,” Hemant adds. “There’s only so much we can control, so we’ve stopped worrying. He’s already lost 14 months of competitions to the pandemic. Now he has to get to his goal in perhaps just a fraction of the number of events he’d get in any normal year.”
The cost of grooming a GM — both monetarily and otherwise — on the family, Abhimanyu’s mother Swati says, has been immense. One half of the family spends 30 hours shut off from the other every week, poring over chess and travelling from tournament to tournament. The other half – Swati and Abhimanyu’s seven-year-old sister — go about work and school, with an eye on tournament results. Both Swati and Hemant, who moved to the USA in 2006, work for a data management firm and their last family vacation was an India visit five years ago for a relative’s wedding.
With a GM milestone around the bend, Swati admits to struggling at being able to focus on anything else. The time difference – morning rush in New Jersey colliding with Abhimanyu’s evening games in Budapest – doesn’t help either. “I’m distracted these days, trying to check what’s happening at the events he’s playing. It’s a struggle to get office work done. I don’t follow chess much so I wait for Hemant to call and fill me in on the updates. The whole family is in it together, it’s almost as if we are chasing this one goal.”
It’s reflected in her response to a query on the family’s most trying challenges in recent times. “Abhi didn’t get any tournaments for more than a year because of the Covid-19 situation,” she laments, almost in reflex. Rifling through recent family pictures, she noticed something else that had been missing. “It’s just me and our daughter in photos from social gatherings of the past few years. We barely have any of the four of us together.”
Financially, the family has, according to Hemant’s back-of-the-envelope estimate, spent roughly INR 2 crore (approx. US$ 270,000) on Abhimanyu’s chess journey so far. “I’ve had no life outside his chess for the past seven years,” Hemant says. “There have been a lot of failures through which we had to stay patient. In one such phase, Abhimanyu went 35 games without a single win. Despite him being the world’s youngest IM, we haven’t had luck with sponsors. We weren’t even looking for anything big, just enough to cover tournament expenses. We applied for at least five scholarships. All of them were rejected. The whole model appears to be skewed in favour of those trying to get into Ivy League colleges. We were told to wait eight years so that he’s of college-going age and someone 400 points below Abhimanyu was picked. That’s when I gave up and decided to put out a GoFundMe campaign to raise money.”
Even in the fulfillment of his young boyhood life’s greatest ambition, Abhimanyu’s already picked, almost out of habit, the next goal to chase. “I’ve missed a lot of things along the way,” he says. “Once I have my GM title, I want to take a break, spend time with my friends and then go get a martial arts black belt.”