12-year-old from NJ becomes world's youngest chess grandmaster

Abhimanyu Mishra is now the world's youngest chess grandmaster. The tween from New Jersey, all of 12 years, 4 months and 25 days, broke Sergey Karjakin's 19-year-old record with a third norm in Budapest on Wednesday. Karjakin, who was a world championship challenger to Magnus Carlsen in 2016, had earned his GM title at 12 years, 7 months.

In chase of the GM title, Abhimanyu and his father have been camping in Budapest since April this year. He earned two norms over two months, and his final norm arrived with a win over Indian GM Leon Mendonca with black pieces at the Vezerkepzo GM mix on Wednesday in what was his final tournament opportunity in the Hungarian capital before he travels to Sochi for the Fide World Cup.

For a grandmaster title, a player must score three GM norms and touch an Elo rating of 2500 and above. The norms can be awarded only in tournaments where at least 50% of the opponents are titleholders, and at least one-third of them GMs.

Abhimanyu has made something of a habit of youngest-ever distinctions and currently holds the record for youngest international master.

Soon after he became the highest-rated under-9 player in the world, he was invited by the Kasparov Chess Foundation for a rigorous three-day assessment in November 2018. He was the youngest of the flock of players who were called, and among the handful picked for the Young Stars programme. It threw open the opportunity to interact, present his games and seek feedback from Kasparov twice a year, apart from individualised training sessions with GM coaches.

"At his age, to have Garry mentor and go over his games is straight out of a dream for any chess player," says Hemant Mishra, Abhimanyu's father. "There was a parent interview as well, and that was perhaps the best day of my life." He was granted special permission to be present in the room when Kasparov analyzed Abhimanyu's games, taking copious notes of every remark by the former world champion. Since last year, the pandemic forced a shift of the sessions online.

Even before he'd babbled his first words, Abhimanyu was introduced to chess pieces through engaging stories by his father at age 2 and a half. Learning the sport was all right, but as a young boy at tournaments, the struggle was to match the physical stamina of players at least five times older than he. In a winning position, with a pawn up at the New Jersey Open, a 5.5-year-old Abhimanyu once found himself struggling to stay awake at the board past midnight. "His opponent obviously figured there's no way a kid that young can go on 'til so late so he just stalled and didn't play a move for a whole hour," Hemant says, looking back. "Abhimanyu kind of wanted the torment to end, so he offered a draw. His opponent turned it down and was like, 'No way, I'm winning this!"

That defeat, Hemant says, "Changed everything." It was to be the starting point of the father-son team throwing in hacks, simulations and just about anything for survival in a ruthless adult universe of players. The workaround to managing sleep in games spilling into late nights has been for the young boy to develop the habit of napping between rounds in their car or spare room at the tournament venue.

At the following year's edition of the competition, Abhimanyu, playing against a 35-year-old chess coach, took bathroom breaks to splash his eyes with cold water and paced between moves to fight fatigue. They were locked in a dead drawn rook-pawn endgame, and this time too, the game dragged well past 2 a.m. The 6.5-year-old physically inched toward breaking point.

Luckily enough, his opponent overreached and lost. "I didn't win because I'm the better player, I won because you don't know endgames well enough!" Abhimanyu would cheekily retort after the hard-fought victory. Despite being a player belonging to a generation nursed on computers, a heavy diet of chess books formed his early learning tool. He'd done strengths and weaknesses analysis of on "Silman's Complete Endgame Course" by age 6.

In his chase for an IM norm two years ago, Abhimanyu put himself through a 10-day mock drill at home to wind his body and sleep schedule to California time, three hours behind New Jersey. Together with his father, he went over preparations until 3 a.m. every night, took walks outside their home to stay awake and then flew to California on the starting day of the tournament. "I was pretty certain he wouldn't be able to do well," says Hemant. "The jet lag, plus having to play black against a 2650 GM, looked too difficult. After close to six hours of play, Abhimanyu managed to force a draw. To me, it felt like a win because he'd managed to fight the challenges of his age."

Named after Hindu mythology's young hero in strategic warfare who went to battle in the face of certain death, Abhimanyu matches his age with the number of hours he spends daily on chess. He has coaching support in GM Arun Prasad and GM Magesh Chandran, and the months starved of competitions last year have been spent in doubling down in intense training.

"Up until now I've been taking the calls, but once he becomes GM, he's free to choose what he wants to do with his life," Hemant says. "Whether it's the tournaments he plays or if he wants to continue to play chess at all. It'll be his decision." The 12-year-old himself, of course, is dreaming of being world chess champion one day.
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