Arjun Erigaisi believes he’s set himself free. The 20-year-old Indian has lately decided to cut loose from the chase of results, rankings and ratings. Some of it was born out of the disappointment of missing a major goal. It can sound fanciful but it seems to be working. He’s gone from world No 30 in December 2023 to being ranked No 4 in the live ratings. The top three – Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana. Pretty rarified company.

Arjun Erigaisi(Fide/Anna Shtourman)

Arjun was in China and didn’t have access to some of his social media apps when he became India No 1 in the live ratings in March. On April 1, his feat was official – he became only the second Indian chess player after D Gukesh to go past Viswanathan Anand in the Fide published rankings and become India’s highest-ranked chess player.

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“Being No 1 Indian feels good,” Arjun told HT, “But I’ve decided to stop caring about results, ratings and rankings in general.” In a game where a lot can hinge on where you’re placed, it seems like a remarkable approach, even outlandish. Especially in Arjun’s case, since he was earlier given to some meticulous goal setting. Like the time he put himself down for scoring 10.5 points at 2022 Wijk aan zee Challengers and didn’t miss the mark.

He’s suffered its downside too.

“For the Candidates and the World Cup, instead of Praggnanandhaa, it could have easily been me. Again at the Grand Swiss (Nov 2023) instead of Hikaru (Nakamura) or Vidit (Gujrathi), it could have been me. I was very close. But this tendency of caring too much was a problem. I think my performance at the clutch suffered because I was too attached. That’s why I’ve taken a conscious decision to focus just on my play and not the results.”

Missing out on Candidates qualification left Arjun hurting for a while. He switched off completely from chess for two weeks, and decided on a mentality shift when he returned.

Lately, the Super GM from Warangal has evoked some awe and bewilderment over his decision to play a bunch of open tournaments. They are generally seen as risky for top players since they carry the possibility of bleeding rating points. Arjun’s reason to play them – he simply hasn’t been getting enough invitations to elite super-tournaments. It’s a situation born out of the glut of bright, young names from the country. Two of the most prominent ones – Magnus Carlsen-slayer Praggnanandhaa and World Championship challenger D Gukesh. Given his recent rise, the invitations should be trickling in soon. “There are three-four of us from India so it’s been tough for me to get invitations to the top classical tournaments. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if they come my way.”

He’s just wrapped up the French Team Championships with a performance rating of 2902 and is top seed at the Stepan Avagyan memorial, a closed tournament in Armenia. Then there’s the Olympiad in September. No classical tournaments in between. “It’s best for my chess if I play stronger opponents in closed events. Of course any chess is good I think, so I play open tournaments. But they’re unpredictable and not ideal for me.”

The recent years have been about change and self-discovery for Arjun. He parted ways with Viswanathan Anand-helmed WACA, as well as coach Srinath Narayanan. “I had to choose between sponsorship and WACA and Anand sir was very understanding about it.” With Srinath, the relationship seemed to have reached its logical end after last year’s World Cup and his dramatic quarter final tie-break loss to Praggnanandhaa. “Arjun was under intense self-inflicted pressure to make the Candidates last year. It affected his play. This year he’s just been himself, and relaxed and that’s getting him the results,” said Srinath, “He’s also adjusted to playing at the elite level and with all the new things that happened to him. Now he understands what works best for him.”

When Srinath first met Arjun at the Under-16 world youth championships in 2018, he noticed two things – that Arjun was a special player and his diet was largely potatoes and chicken.

Since January last year, Arjun has overhauled his physical routines. He hired a personal trainer, and is more conscious about his fitness. “I somehow never took physical fitness seriously until I reached a point of realisation. At the 2021 Grand Swiss in a long game that I should’ve held without much difficulty, it hit me that I couldn’t think straight towards the end.”

The improved fitness is already paying dividends, he pointed out.

“I had two long games in Biel last year. Against Yu Yangyi I was completely losing but I resisted well and in the end he ran out of steam, and couldn’t calculate. I had to spot the sequence of only moves and I managed to find all of them. Against Vincent (Keymar) it was evident that I could just see better than him in the last hour of the game. In the first two hours, everyone can play well. It’s the final couple of hours that can be crucial. It’s surely made a huge difference.”

In an ecosystem teeming with prodigies, Arjun has largely flown under the radar. Unlike fellow Indian breakout stars, Gukesh – with his Candidates win and Praggnanandhaa – with his run to the World Cup final, Arjun is yet to have a headline-grabbing finish at a major tournament. What he does have with a world No 4 rank at 20, is renewed belief that his moment could be round the corner.

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