In Conversation with Om Vitalkar

Today, we are in conversation with Om Vitalkar, a third-year BSc student at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics. A native of Nagpur, he started playing chess from the young age of 6 and pursued the sport professionally till his 10th grade. Om is currently preparing for entrance exams for MSc Economics courses in colleges all over India. Apart from chess, he loves to play and follow football.

In this interview, Om talks about his journey with chess, the unseen physical nature of the game and the necessary attributes of a good chess player.

  1. Can you tell us about how you began to play Chess and your relationship with it?

Ans: The game of chess was introduced to me by my father when I was six years old. Even though he wasn’t an expert at the game, he taught me the basic rules and I started playing with him. I was instantly attracted to the game and found it very interesting (even though I knew almost nothing about chess!). Next year in the 1st grade, forms were rolled out for chess classes being conducted at school (also the first year of the classes!). Just a week after joining the classes, the coach told my dad that I should pursue the game and hire a private tutor. I grasped the soul of the game and learnt quickly. A few months after I started playing tournaments and this began my journey.

  1. To an outsider, chess seems like a game that is heavily dependent on your innate mental ability. Yet chess coaching suggests otherwise. Is chess something you can actually get good at? How does one get good at it?

Ans: Certainly, the game of chess tests your mental ability, but that does not mean that only a limited number of people can learn to play the game. In my opinion, people can reach a certain level in the game but after that if you want to dive deep into the game, you will have to exceed your limits and play what the game asks for, like for example: patience, the imaginative path and calculation skills. Even if there is someone with low patience, slow calculation skills, etc. they can gradually learn how to gain expertise in the game and understand the game. 

Technically the game is divided into 3 parts: opening, middlegame and the endgame. Generally you start by learning the endgame, then the middlegame and finally the opening. If you play the opening accurately, you enter the middlegame with an edge over the opponent. The middlegame is the part where you need to show your creativity and outsmart the opponent. You convert your advantage obtained from the middlegame in the endgame. Accurate opening play matters the most at the highest level, so to improve yourself when you’re at the early stages of the game you should focus on the middlegame.

  1. How did chess help you in your younger days to develop you mentally, physically and emotionally?

Ans: Chess helped me a lot while growing up. I used to play a lot of tournaments and it became a part of my life. As I would miss my school for playing the tournaments, I learned to manage both, studies and chess, simultaneously. I also developed patience over the years through chess. Today I’m pretty good at mathematics and calculation which I again attribute to the beautiful game. As you are aware that playing chess includes analysing the position at every instance; this made me develop an analytical perspective

towards life. I learnt to introspect myself and improve regularly. No one is perfect at the game, which means you can’t always win. Chess also helped me cope up with loss and bounce back stronger.

  1. What lessons have you learned from playing the game itself? 

Ans: Given the level of complexity the game of chess involves, you always need to be a man with a plan. Developing a strategy, choosing when to be aggressive or when to defend your king, how to build coordination between your pieces, taking crucial decisions at decisive moments and doing all this while managing your time are some of the things chess has helped me develop.

  1. What went through your mind every time you competed in a tournament?

Ans: It actually depended on the level of the tournament and when I was playing the tournament. In an open category tournament I would play more casually, experimenting and enjoying the game. When I would play with the players of my age group, I often lacked confidence; thinking that their knowledge about the openings was superior to mine and I would end up in a worse position arising from the opening stage itself. My approach towards a tournament also changed with age. As I grew up, I got to know more about the game and the factors other than chess itself which affect your performance. Gradually my aim in a tournament changes from winning a prize to learning from each match and improving right in the next match.

  1. When we think of sports we conjure images of something physical. That being said, chess isn’t something that comes to mind when one thinks of sports. What are your thoughts on this?

Ans: I’m aware that chess doesn’t pop up instantly in your mind when someone mentions sports. Many people think that it’s a game confined to the capacity of the human brain, but the truth is that this game requires mental as well as physical fitness. World no.1 Magnus Carlsen is also a professional footballer who has played football for his University team. The game demands a lot from your body and is pretty  exhausting. An average world chess championship game lasts for 5 hours in which the players lose 3-4 kilograms! The game requires good posture as well. There’s a reason that you won’t find a world champion who’s not in a good shape as it is indeed a game demanding physical fitness as well. 

  1. You mentioned how you missed the podium by a half point in the U/7 Nationals, how did you cope with that defeat, it being your first major tournament?

Ans: Actually there has been a mistake from my side while mentioning this instance. I missed a prize (best Vidharbha player) by half a point in the U/7 Nationals. U/7 Nationals was my first major tournament. I hadn’t played a lot of tournaments before that and given that I was just 7 years old back then, I didn’t even know that this was a tournament at the national level. It was a great experience for me, I encountered players from all over India and had to deal with communication issues, even losing a game because of it! I played

the tournament without any worries and enjoyed it. It was during the closing ceremony that I realised that I had missed the chance to be on the stage by half a point.

  1. Your last tournament, as you stated, was the U/15 Nationals, what made you stop playing chess tournaments further? How difficult of a decision was it for you?

Ans: The U/15 Nationals was held in the month of December and I was in the 10th grade back then. I remember that year I had missed school for almost 4 months, despite it being a crucial academic year. Even though the tournaments before the U/15 Nationals went well, my performance in the last tournament was disappointing. After that my father asked me to focus on the board exams and I agreed. Three months passed by studying and I performed quite well in my final examination. Up till that point I had assumed that I would resume chess in the 11th grade but I joined tuition for engineering entrance exams and got no time. A year after playing U/15 Nationals I realised that it was probably my last professional chess tournament. The toughest part was realising that I won’t be pursuing chess as a career and not spending hours focusing on the 64 squares.

  1. Lastly, as a participant in this sport from a very young age, who inspired you to take up this beautiful game? 

Ans: It has to be the game itself!! I never had a particular idol in chess and I admired a lot of great chess players. It was the beauty of the game, the infinite nature of the game which made fall for chess. The game gives you a sense of freedom as you can formulate your own strategies and literally do anything you want. It’s a game of much more than 64 squares.

-Interviewed by Rukmini


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