Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to check your mate!

Lev Psakhis, one of the foremost chess coaches in the world, gives lessons to Kerala’s first grandmaster, G.N. Gopal

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7 p.m. on a Friday, Israeli chess coach Lev Psakhis, 49, leans back in his chair and runs his hands through his dishevelled hair. It has been a long and intense day for him. In his hotel room at Kochi, there are CDs placed haphazardly on the bed, a half-open novel -- ‘Hyperion’ by Dan Simmons -- and a laptop. On a low table, there is a chess set, with green and white squares and cream-coloured pieces.

Sitting opposite Psakhis, looking cool and composed is G.N. Gopal, 19, Kerala’s first grandmaster, who is ranked No. 7 in India. Thanks to Geojit Financial Services Ltd., which has paid for the expenses of Psakhis, Gopal is being tutored for a month. “Gopal had wanted to be trained by a foreign coach, so we decided to help him,” says Jaya Jacob Alexander, the chief of human resources at Geojit.

T.M.S. Nampootiripad, Gopal’s first coach, says that Psakhis is one of the foremost coaches in the world. “He has a phenomenal memory,” he says. “He can recall every move in all the games that the former world champion Bobby Fischer had played in twenty years.”

So what is Psakhis teaching the youngster? “Gopal’s primary weakness is his inexperience,” he says. “So, I am passing on some tips that I have gained from my many years of international competition.”

Gopal says that since he is an attacking player, Psakhis is working on strengthening his defence and positional play. “He is also teaching me on how to make the right decisions during the critical moments of a game,” he says.

Another key area is the control of emotions. “The coach says that Asians tend to be over-emotional at all times,” says Gopal. “This is a genetic quality. Sometimes, this is good, and, sometimes, it is bad. However, it is better to be calm.”

The Russian-born Psakhis, who was once ranked World No. 7, was a calm player. In 1981, he was joint Soviet champion with Garry Kasparov. Later, Psakhis, who migrated to Israel in 1989, assisted Kasparov in his preparations for the world championships duel with Anatoly Karpov.

So, what does he think of Kasparov, who retired from chess in March, 2005? “He was the greatest player in history,” he says. “He was talented, self-motivated, and worked very hard. However, he had trouble in maintaining relationships. You may like or dislike him as a person, but as a player, he was supreme.”

When asked to compare Kasparov and Vishwanathan Anand, Psakhis says, “Both are strong players, but they are completely different.”

According to most media accounts, Kasparov destroyed Anand psychologically during the 1995 World Championship match at New York. “Kasparov is a killer,” says Psakhis. “He tries to finish off a rival forever, but Anand kills only for the match and does not mind facing the rival again.”

But Psakhis says that Anand has recovered strongly from the defeat and is a respected world champion. “There are no arguments about Anand’s stature,” he says.

Gopal listens intently to Psakhis. Every day, this lanky college student comes from his home at Aluva and starts training with the coach at 10 a.m. For the past few days, they have been doing an in-depth analysis of well-known games. The hours pass in a blur. “Sometimes, we have lunch only at 3 p.m.,” says Gopal. “After a two-hour break, we work again for two hours.”

As a result of this intensive labour, Psakhis has been unable to see Kochi. “Nine hours with Gopal and before he comes, I prepare for three hours,” says Psakhis. “It is work, work, and more work.” However, Gopal says, “For Psakhis, chess is a passion.”

After this stint, Psakhis’ next assignment is in Kozhikode where he will coach the Indian team, which includes Gopal, for the Chess Olympiad that will be held in November in Dresden, Germany.

Asked why, apart from Anand, no Indian player has made much of an impact at the international level, the coach says, “It is because of a lack of exposure. The more you play against foreign players, the better you will become.”

He says the situation will improve because, thanks to the rising affluence, Indian players are taking part in many more international competitions.

At this moment, he says, apart from Anand, only three players have reached the international level: K. Sasikaran, P. Harikrishna, and Koneru Humpy.

And Gopal is hoping to be the next player. “My immediate goal is to reach 2,600 ELO points. At this moment, I have 2,562 points. And, of course, my long-term goal is to reach the Top 10.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express,Kochi)

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