On a balmy Tuesday evening, I enter the Indian Chess School on the first floor of Don Bosco School’s gymnasium in Matunga. As I step into the gym, I notice eight kids sitting in rapt attention and looking at a giant chess screen on the wall. In a corner, coach Rajababu Ganjagi sits on a chair giving instructions to the children, explaining how to make the next move. My eyes turn to a petite, bespectacled girl who seems to be taking furious mental notes.
After the session, Ganjagi introduces me to her. Dressed in a white t-shirt with the words, ‘I look one move ahead, the best one…’ and green pants, Avril David greets me with a shy smile.
As she sits opposite me, Avril starts folding her fingers in nervous anticipation while stealing glances at me. Her shy disposition belies the fact that this nine-year-old is an ace chess player who has not only won the Under-7 and Under-9 state championships but has also bagged 66 trophies in a span of four years.
The beginning sounds like a familiar story: Avril started playing chess after she saw her father, Robert, play the game with his friends in their chawl at Matunga Labour Camp. Her parents were impressed with their daughter’s acumen and the rate at which she picked up the game. As she wasn’t too active in outdoor sports, they thought it was best to enroll her in professional chess classes in the vicinity. The little girl picked up the game quickly. Sensing that their daughter had a special talent, Robert and Neeta, her parents, started sending her for tournaments across age groups. For the last one-and-a-half years, she has been training under coach Ganjagi.
All the right moves
When I ask Avril what does she like about chess, the pre-teen thinks hard, as if contemplating a move but then just flashes a smile. Ganjagi steps in and explains, “She loves to play chess. It occupies her time from morning to night but she never gets tired.” The fourth standard student of SIES School in Sion indeed has a hectic schedule. After school gets over at 1:45 pm, she stays back for scholarship classes and heads back home at 3:30 pm. After a quick snack and completion of her homework, she gears up for the chess classes from 5 pm to 8.30 pm. Once she returns home, she plays an online game of chess and finally heads to bed after dinner. Her mother, Neeta says, “Nowadays, she gets a chance to study only on Saturdays. But thankfully, she is good in her studies and has a photographic memory. Once she reads a certain chapter, she remembers it vividly. Right now, the biggest challenge for her is to strike a balance between her studies and chess.” Ask Avril, how does she unwind and she replies, “I love watching Chhota Bheem. He is my favourite cartoon character.”
In chess class, Avril has made steady progress. While in August, she received an international Elo rating of 1306 (Elo rating is an international rating system for calculating the relative skill levels of chess players), in September she qualified from the Mumbai division for the District Sports Officer’s tournament in the under-14 category. Recently, she won her second state championship in the Under-9 age group. Ganjagi is happy with her progress.
“Initially she was unable to form tactics and strategies and make a combination of four or five moves. But over a period of time she has become more mature,” he says.
Apart from the daily training, on Sundays, he often accompanies her to Prabhadevi where she competes with veteran chess players who are not professional but have been playing the game since many years. “This is a confidence-building exercise for her. She has always been hardworking and obedient but now she has developed more patience,” he explains. Quiz Avril about the biggest hurdle that she faces while playing the game and she finally opens up, “Chess is a game of intelligence. One always has to be one step ahead of the opponent. When my opponent attacks, I have to think of my defence as well as counter attack instantaneously.”
The long road ahead
For now, Ganjagi has three major goals in mind for Avril. Firstly, to ensure that she comes in the top two slots in the forthcoming National Championship in Chennai that will be held from November 6 to 14; and secondly, to qualify for the World Youth Championship, which will be held in Durban next year. “If all goes well and she keeps working hard, then she can become the youngest Woman Grand Master (WGM) in the world and break the record of Hungarian Judith Polgar who achieved the feat when she was 15. Avril is hardworking and obedient. The recent spate of victories has only fuelled her focus and dedication. Her biggest virtue is that she has a lot of patience compared to other kids,” Ganjagi tells with a lot of pride.
Avril too is determined to succeed. “Gary Kasparov is my role model,” she tells me. Why not our own Vishwanathan Anand, I ask. She smiles sheepishly and replies, “Because Kasparov became the champion before Anand.”
Just when I’m about to wrap up the interview, her father Robert returns from office and greets me with a warm smile. Beaming with pride, he tells me, “Avril is a quiet child. She is one of the toppers in her school. I’m glad she manages her time effectively for chess and studies. I accompany her for all the outdoor tournaments and try to give her moral support. I had a dream that I would make my daughter into another Steffi Graf. The tennis racquet is heavier than Avril. But I’m glad she is making us proud with her prowess in chess.”