Nihal in Hamburg: impressions of a super-talent (1)

by Frederic Friedel
4/10/2017 – At the age of just twelve years and eight months, exactly the same as Magnus Carlsen, Nihal Sarin became a full IM, one of the three youngest in the world. This remarkable young chess talent from the southern Indian state of Kerala last week visited us in Hamburg, deeply impressing all and sundry in the ChessBase office. The idea was for him to get instructions in the optimum use of our software, and a little bit of GM training on the side. The only question was who learned what from whom?

First of all: who is Nihal Sarin? He was born on 13 July 2004 Thrissur, Kerala (a southern state in India). He learned chess at the age of five from his grandfather because the boy was feeling bored at school and especially during vacations. He advanced rapidly and earlier this year entered the record books by becoming an International Master (IM) at the tender age of 12 years and 08 months. His feat is reminiscent of the current world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, who had also become an IM at the age of 12 years and 08 months in 2003. Nihal is the second youngest International Master ever in India, and third youngest in the world. The next obvious goal is to fight for the grandmaster title, the youngest in the world.

For Nihal, the process of becoming an International Master began when he played his life's first GM tournament outside India, in Cappelle la Grande Open 2016, held in France. He earned his first International Master norm by beating a grandmaster for the first time in his life and also drawing several other strong GMs. After a long struggle in numerous international tournaments with various ups and downs, he scored his second International norm in Sunway Sitges Open in Spain. In the Aeroflot Open B 2017 that took place from February 21 to March 1, Nihal scored his final International Master norm, by totalling a splendid 5.5/9, including wins over two grandmasters, to register the incredible feat.

Nihal won the World Under-10 title in Durban, South Africa, in 2014, he was a silver medallist in the Under-12 World Championship in Greece in 2015, and tied for second spot in the 2016 World Championship in Under-12 category (but this time was fourth on the tiebreak). Nihal was chosen for the 'National Child Award for Exceptional Achievement 2016' award, for which he was personally honoured by the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.

He's in the news! Read this enthusiastic article – if you are fluent in the Dravidian language of Malayalam

Nihal at ChessBase

Last week Nihal visited us in Hamburg, and one of the first items on the agenda was lessons in finer points in the use of our software.

Above you see Nihal receiving instructions from our chief training expert (and Playchess tournament director) Martin Fischer. On the right is Nihal's father Sarin. A word regarding names: as we explained in a previous article: at birth South Indians get a single name (you may have heard of "Anand"), with the name of his father tagged on. So it is simply Nihal, to friends and foe – later, when he is a foot or two taller, he will be called Mr Nihal, but never Mr Sarin, because that is what you call his father (who by the way is a dermatologist teaching at medical school).

Next a session with GM Dr Karsten Müller, one of the world's leading endgame experts

It was the start of a running gag (during the days Nihal spent in the ChessBase office): when the session was over I went in and said: "Well, what do you think? Is he talented?" Karsten turned towards me with the words "Yes, quite extraordinary, he will..." and then saw that I was not looking at him but at Nihal. "Quite right," he said, "I hope this boy will recognize that I have some potential for the game."

Nihal and Karsten also recorded a Playchess show which you can watch here in our video archives. It is an hour and a half of intense instructive analysis. I would not advocate missing it.

The same during his session with GM Rainer Knaak, the chief editor of ChessBase Magazine. "Did you learn anything new?" I asked. Rainer broke into a grin when he realized I was talking to him and not the lad. "Yes," he said, "he has some splendid ideas. I learned quite a bit."

Lessons from the master: Pascal Simon, André Schulz, Sarin and GM Rainer Knaak watch as the boy shows them some of his ideas in the Vienna Game. After this Nihal recorded an extensive session on that opening – we will include the video recording in the next issue of ChessBase Magazine.

In between sessions there was lots of blitz against 15-year-old German chess talent Luis Engel, rated 2362. Luis is an wonderfully bright lad who is doing an internship in our company. He thoroughly enjoyed the games against Nihal, even if he did not win any of them.

Personal assessment

I can only echo what some of the ChessBase experts said: Never seen anything like it before! Actually perhaps I have, in the 13-year-old Magnus Carlsen. But this lad is basically in a category of his own. His instant tactical vision, but also his deep understanding of positional aspects of the game, impressed everybody. And his size is an aggravating factor: Nihal is small for his age – the ladies in our finance department thought he was eight or nine. So to hear instant cutting-edge analysis spouting from him is even more surreal. Can you imagine what it is like for a bulky GM to sit across from him and fight unsuccessfully for survival? Incidentally I told Nihal I suspected he is in reality a 23-year-old midget. He liked that, and when I would ask him how he could have possibly solved something very difficult, he would reply: you can do it when you are 23 years old!

I did a number of experiments with him. One was to show him studies, my favourites. But that had little point. He would inevitably say: oh yes, I know that one. In one case he didn't, and paced my study frowning.

White to play. The question is: can he win this position?

This was a study that Garry Kasparov gave another young prodigy, Vincent Keymer, which he asked him to solve without moving any pieces. Not so easy – try to work things out in your head while staring at the above diagram. Vincent came up with the solution fairly quickly, but Garry was not satisfied with just the key move. "Great, but now find a defence for Black which makes things really difficult for White to win," he said. The study was tougher than anyone could imagine, and Vincent got a little help from Garry, who after the key defence was found explained some of the geometry involved. Here's the solution.

Nihal , on the other hand, dictated the entire solution, difficult defence and all, after four minutes of pacing. No board or pieces required.

Okay, so there was a suspicion that he was just remembering everything. But there is a great way to check that: I have the 85,000 studies database compiled by Harold van der Heijden on my computer (go get it – you will never regret the 50 Euros it sets you back). Well, I loaded a number of studies, at complete random, with the notation window of ChessBase switched off (so he could not see the solution). It rarely took him more than two minutes to come up with the correct solution, including all relevant lines of defence. And the ChessBase staff did a corroborating test: they set the lad up with our Tactics Trainer, one that has over 50,000 puzzles. Nihal went through scores of difficult positions like a rhino through the grasslands (as one spectating GM put it).

Finally the question of memory: his Wiki description tells us that Nihal could recognize the flags of all the 190 odd countries by the age of three. Reminds me of Magnus, who had memorized all the countries in the world, with capitals, populations, area and flags, at the age of five. Perhaps that is the best way to spot extraordinary chess talent at a very early age?

I discovered another strange ability that Nihal has: he can tell you the age or any top player from memory. I tested it, with obscure GMs, for example Vladimir Epishin. The answer comes after a few seconds of thought (he has memorized the birth years): 51! I asked him if it would not be more useful to fill the empty space in his brain with other information, but he assured me that there was still plenty of free sectors available for other stuff.

All of the above is pretty effusive, and already one of my most trusted friends, a 2800+ GM, after he got a verbal description, sighed and told me that I was going over the top, "once again". I reminded him that I had picked up Nigel, Judit, Anand, Sergey, Magnus, Yifan at very early ages – and he reminded me of a couple of prodigies whose names we have now forgotten. Anyway the bet is that in five to ten years, I predict that four of the top ten players in the world will be Indians. As I said in lectures I held in India last November, I can name two of them already today (the other is Praggnanandhaa, and my friend has promised he would at least try to learn how to pronounce that name).

All that Nihal now needs is proper training and full sponsorship. And that should not be too difficult to find.

Just before he left for his next tournament (in Fagernes, Norway) Nihal spent a midnight hour on my computer, playing blitz on Playchess. Now, when I go to my ChessBase Account or our news page, I am greeted with "Welcome, Nihal". I must find my password and log in as Frederic.

He's Indian, he can levitate! We had a lot of fun with Nihal, who is highly entertaining, blessed with a keen sense of humour, always open to pranks. We bring you some examples of his escapades, especially in chess, in part two of this portrait.

Like Nihal's Facebook Community page here, to stay updated with his journey.


Editor-in-Chief of the ChessBase News Page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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Chessbaser Chessbaser 4/10/2017 04:56
Great article FF! Deep understanding like Mihail Marin at the age of 13. That's Nihal Sarin! :)
benedictralph benedictralph 4/10/2017 05:32
I wonder if the racist trolls are going to show up on this article too.
JiraiyaSama JiraiyaSama 4/10/2017 06:10
He is still 12 years old—few months before he turns 13. :) Beautiful article.
Bostonian Bostonian 4/10/2017 07:57
Fantastic article Mr. Frederic! And all the best to this young genius!
TMMM TMMM 4/10/2017 08:04
"All of the above is pretty effusive, and already one of my most trusted friends, a 2800+ GM, after he got a verbal description, sighed and told me that I was going over the top, "once again". I reminded him that I had picked up Nigel, Judit, Anand, Sergey, Magnus, Yifan at very early ages – and he reminded me of a couple of prodigies whose names we have now forgotten." - I agree with that. Even though there is a chance he will reach the top, the real challenge will only start soon. Everyone in the elite was extremely gifted when they were young, but there are also many players who were extremely gifted but did not make it to the very top. (Parimarjan Negi comes to mind, being the youngest GM ever and never making the final step.) So let's not rush into comparisons with Magnus.
Bright Knight Bright Knight 4/11/2017 01:10
@TMMM
I fully agree. Being a "super kid" never guarantees becoming truly elite. Bacrot, Negi, Bu Xiangzhi, Humpy, and many others have fallen short. I'm still waiting for Nyzhnyk to bloom, while Rapport and Wei Yi have much more to prove. There is an x-factor that has carried only a handful of phenoms to the very top (Carlsen, So, Caruana, Nakamura). It would be much more interesting to discuss what that x-factor is than getting impressed by yet another "whiz kid".
jpg64 jpg64 4/11/2017 10:10
Why are you so sad ?
It's a young prodigy, it seems to me that's the only thing sayed by FF...
the comparison with Magnus is interesting.
Just wait, and we will see if Nahil becomes World Champion... but despite your commentaries, i find this article very interesting !
Keep your child mindset and be enthusiastic about this young prodigy!
daftarche daftarche 4/11/2017 05:50
the problem is that when these kids grow up, they realize there are other forms of entertainment and also maybe they should look for a better income with their talents.
mikejfitch1 mikejfitch1 4/11/2017 07:31
Excellent Article!!!...Lets hope this amazing young talent gets the training, advice etc. to reach his full potential!!!
BelowZero BelowZero 4/12/2017 07:10
At age five, I could tie my own shoes.
JiraiyaSama JiraiyaSama 4/12/2017 10:11
@daftarche: How is that a problem? :P And regards to reliance on income, I guess it boils down to your upbringing. If you live in a surrounding where income is stressed upon, you will value it more, and vice versa.
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