Abhijit Kunte( born in 1977) is an Indian chess Grandmaster and for those playing chess is an absolute chess legend. He has so many achievements that it is really not possible to mention all of them here. But here are a few:
1.Two time National Champion in 97 and 2000.
2.Winner of British chess championship
3.Silver medallist at commonwealth chess championship
4.He has played olympiad for India on 4 ocassions
5. Won so many medals for the country at World and Asian level.
More than all this he is a smart and intelligent person with an excellent sense of humour and It was a sheer pleasure to interview him. Here is the interview for you!
(SS stands for Sagar Shah and AK for Abhijit Kunte)
SS: How did you start playing chess?
AK: I started playing chess because of my sister, Mrunalini Kunte. At that time, very few girls used to play chess. Mohan Phadke spotted her and wanted her to come to his class. In 85-86 going to a chess class was an entirely new concept! The funny thing was that the fees were just 10 rs per month! And he gave us 50% concession! So when my sister went to the class on the first day, she was the lone girl! So she kept the condition that someone should accompany her otherwise she wont go to the class. I still remember it was a Saturday afternoon and I was playing a cricket match and my mother called me back and asked me to go with Mrunal.
SS: So you must have been really upset?
AK: Well what can I say! India lost a good cricketer! (laughs!)
SS: But gained a good chess player!
AK: I will reserve my comment on that! (more laughter!)
Though India lost a promising cricketer in Kunte, he still keeps his ties with cricket!
SS: Were you like an extremely talented chess player in your childhood? Like lets say by the present standard like Adhiban or Lalith or Vidit?
AK:I dont know. We just used to play chess. There were not many books, no laptops. So mainly we would play at home, then at the class and then go and play at the tournaments! So it was more fun than the present standards. I didnt really take chess seriously in my initial stages as all the focus was on my sister Mrunalini. She was an excellent player at that time. I on the other hand would keep winning some age group nationals! But I started to take chess seriously only in 1997 i,e when I was already 20 years old.
SS: So you were not sure about making a career in chess?
AK: Yes I was not at all sure about it.
SS: How was Abhijit Kunte as a student?
AK: I was a pretty good student. I cleared my graduation B com with distinction, then I did Diploma in Business Management with distinction, then I did my Masters in Management Science (Finance) and that too with distinction!
SS: Wow! Thats quite an impressive list of educational qualifications you have got! So coming back to chess, Who was your role Model in chess when you were young?
AK: We were brought up by seeing Anand. So it was always Anand who was my role model. But I like the games of Garry Kasparov!
Vishy Anand who is 8 years elder to Kunte has always been his role model!
SS: You became a GM at the age of 23. Who were the people instrumental in your success?
AK: First of all my parents for their support. Without them it would have been impossible. My two coaches helped me a lot. They were Mohan Phadke and Arun Vaidya. I was working with Arun Vaidya from 1992-94. And finally my employer Indian Oil which supported me a lot. Without the support of a sponsor its very difficult to excel in sports. So these are the people who have played a major role in my success.
Abhijit's parents who have always supported him.
SS: You won the National Premier title in 1997. Was it true that in the previous edition in 96 you finished last?
AK: Yes! And it was very funny! When I finished last I had 7 losses and 1 win. And when I finished first I had 7 wins and 1 loss! (laughs)
SS: So What exactly happened in that one year?
AK: Well, I used to play mainly junior events till that time. There werent many open tournaments in India. So whenever I would play age category events I would try to win! But when I played the National A in 1996, I was pitted against experienced IMs like Thipsay, Murugan, Prasad, Hegde, Sahu etc. So when I drew the first 2-3 games, I was already very upset that I was not winning. So i started pushing and trying too hard in every game and started losing game after game.
Also I was very bad at opening preparation at that time. Maybe even now! (smiles) But after that tournament I realised that I couldnt do without good opening preparation. So in the one year from 96-97 I worked on my openings and that paid off I think!
SS: Some of my friends told me that you used to practise night after night in your bid to become a GM. Is it true?
AK: Well that wasn't really practise. That was mainly blitz!! I can still play blitz for 16-18 hrs! So it wasnt hard work. It was more of fun. The problem was that, the people with whom I used to practise i.e Chandu Dongre, Panditrao, Wagh, Jayant , Shekhar, etc had their jobs during the day. So it was only possible to play in the nights. So they would come at 6 in the evening and then we would start. And our sessions would usually end around 6-9 am in the morning. That meant 12-15 hours of blitz! It was great fun, But of course to improve further I had to work more seriously. So from 1997-2000, I became serious in chess. In that period I won the National Juniors, then became the Asian Junior champion, won National Premier, Also finished my graduation.
SS: So from 97-2000 you worked really hard?
AK: Yes. I was also doing my Masters. So in short I had to go to college, devote some time to studying. Whatever time remained, I would devote to chess. I didn't have much time but I am very happy about it. Sometimes it is only when you have limited time that you give your best and fulfill all your promises.
SS: Was it really difficult to get chess information back then?
AK: So when I decided to work on my openings, Informator was the only source of information. When you order an informator it comes by Sea Mail and that takes around 4-5 months to arrive. That means by the time you see the novelty it is already old (laughs). So the whole idea till 1997 was to avoid theory. I would play some offbeat line which no one would know. I cannot even imagine where we have reached today. Back then maximum 8-10 moves would be theory. But then I realized that without theoretical preparation I wouldnt go too far. So I started working very seriously on the openings.
SS: How exactly did you work?
AK: For eg if you are preparing the Scheveningen opening, then First I would take the xerox of the pages in the informator that would contain the scheveningen line. I would cut the games and paste it in a notebook. Then I would write my analysis in it. And then after a few months or years when some novelty would come and all the previous work becomes useless, then you add a page to your book and write down that novelty. It was really hard work to get information and prepare. The only sources were informator and some magazines like chess mate. Back then I had also subscribed to a US magazine called inside chess. So my basic point is that what today takes around 3-4 days to prepare, used to take around 6 months to prepare back then!(laughs)
SS: So you think in today's age of information explosion, its easier to become a GM?
AK: Yes! I think its not a tough task to become a GM. But very important is to have a strong will. And you must work hard. There are absolutely no short cuts. And your entire concentration should be only on one thing i.e to become a GM. If you have some distractions then I think its already very difficult. But bear in mind that education is not a hindrance. My philosophy is that education and chess complement each other very well. And I think that when you have more time you do less work! (laughs) So it makes sense to not leave your studies!
SS: What was the high point in your chess career?
AK: Well surely it was the 2000 Istanbul Olympiad (In 2000 olympiad Kunte beat Leitao Rafeal, Adrian Mikhalchishin, The very strong Zoltan Almasi, talented Bruzon Batista, famous US player Gregory Kaidanov)
I also won the British Championship in 2003 but I think the year 2000 was better as the olympiad performance was good and I also won the National A in 2000 in which Ganguly, Harikrishna, Sasikiran, Chanda, were playing. I scored heavily in that tournament scoring around 14 or 15 points out of 20 odd rounds. I think winning a tournament in general is always more pleasant than performing well and finishing second.
Though Ganguly (L), Harikrishna and Kunte have had fierce battles on the board, off the board they maintain great friendship!!
SS: So you were going strong, beating the best in the world, you were only 23 years old, your rating was also 2550. What happened then? Why didnt you progress further?
AK: I think I didnt have the right guidance. Not chess wise but otherwise. It was very important at that point to move out of India. Actually I would highly recommend to the talented youngsters to move out of India and start playing overseas.If you see any top Indian player in any sport, they stopped playing in India and settled abroad because the opportunity to play in India are very less. Where as when you go abroad, then the opportunities increase enormously and there are very few distractions. Also you are staying alone, so you need to earn your livelihood which motivates you to work harder and to push your self more. So I feel that was my mistake because in those times, staying in India and reaching a very high level was very difficult. Maybe now that there are more events, it might be possible but not back then.
SS: So it was not a case of lack of hardwork or motivation but improper planning?
AK: Yes. See in India we had only 2 major tournaments. And if you want to go abraod, the foreign currency limit was 500$ per year. There were so many hurdles to become the best by staying in India and thats why I say I didnt have someone to give me the correct guidance back then. I am not saying that I would have become the best but I think it was my chance around 2003.
SS: But Anand had already settled abroad, so you could have taken his example.
AK: For me Anand was more like an exception to the rule! I never thought I could follow his footsteps!
SS: Ok! You were a fierce attacker back in your hey days, How did you develop your style?
AK: I dont think I was a fierce attacker. I was an extremely good tactician. If I had the tactical opportunities then I would never leave it. So the finish to my games used to be pretty clean. But I would never go all out for a wild attack.
Kunte was a highly dangerous opponent. He would shoot tactics with great speed!
SS: How did you become so strong tactically?
AK: Thats what 12 hours of blitz does to you!! (laughs) In fact I used to have these 12 hour blitz sessions for atleast 8 days in a month. So in a blitz game you are just concerned with tactics. That helped me develop tactically.
SS: I think the readers have now got a new way to improve their tactical strength! But how do you explain that you have become such a positional player now and your games are simply devoid of tactics?
AK: Yeah I agree, my games have become very boring now! But e4 became very difficult to prepare. So I shifted to 1.d4 and to play d4 you need to develop that positional style of play. Also I did some work with Vladimirov on the endgame and control of squares and such concepts so gradually this new style evolved. But still if someone is playing for tactics, I welcome him wholeheartedly!! (laughs)
SS: As a chess player, whats your aim now?
AK: (thinks for sometime) Very hard question. I dont see that I have a very long career as a chess player now but I think before going out I need to go out with a bang!! (big laughter!)
SS: And what would that bang be?
AK: It can be anything. you will have to wait and watch.
SS: What do you think about chess organisation in India?
AK: For the middle level player i.e rating between 2000-2300, I think this below category tournaments are killing them. There is simply no opportunity for them to make money. But players about 2400 rating are pretty fine because they have a lot of international opens to play in. The number of events are huge in India but this below rating category tournaments will affect the level of chess in India.
SS: So its a bad development for chess in India.
AK: I cannot say bad but I think its illogical. Because you cannot be paid more for performing less (laughs!). In Parsvanath Open the first prize of below 1600 is 1 lakh and the 3rd prize of the open event is 1 lakh. So it just cannot be compared.
SS: You are a person with some new ideas always. For eg in 2006 you came up with this knockout rapid tournament in Pune and in 2013 now you organised the Maharashtra Chess league. How do you come up with such ideas?
AK: Till now traditional tournaments have been conducted in India. These tournaments are of course very important but along with it fresh ideas should also come up. I believe that as organisers we have to sell our top players. We have to make the top players visible to the general public. Because when children take up chess, their parents will want to know how are the best in the field of chess being treated. Like how much money they make etc. So we have to make new entrants to the game of chess believe that its possible to have a good life playing chess and your child can be one of them. Only then they will take up this sport. And these events can bring the game of chess to a new stature.
Organising such tournaments is not easy because getting dates from all the players is very difficult but if organized well, its very easy to attract the public.
The Maharashtra Chess League idea wasnt really new. It was already introduced in cricket as IPL and someone had to do it in Chess and I decided to do it!
SS: Do you think it is a problem to attract sponsors to the game of chess?
AK: No I dont think so. There are so many events being held all over the nation in the year. Where is all the money coming from. Someone is definitely sponsoring them. Ok, maybe to get in big sponsorship we must organise big events. We had a huge world championship and we were able to raise 29 crores. So if we bring in big events, we can raise the funds. So the problem is not money, the problem is organizing good events!
SS: Its possible that soon you will get into full fledged organisation. So what will be your primary aim as an organiser?
AK: I think Chess in schools is a very important program that I am pursuing. You see to make chess popular, you need viewership and to increase the viewership, we need more chess educated people. And thats why it is important to introduce chess in schools. And there are benefits of playing chess as you already know. I was sent to chess because I couldnt sit still in one place. Chess solved that problem. What I am trying to say is that this chess in schools program is not just benefiting chess but also the students. So its a mutual benefit and hence a wonderful program. And once we have a huge audience then Chess will surely be easier to sell.
Abhijit Kunte is a man with a vision. His Chess in schools project is a perfect example of how to work at grassroot level.
SS: What do you think is so special about Anand? What seperates him from other Indian players?
AK: I think sheer talent. I dont see anyone coming near him from India in the near future.
SS: That was precisely my next question. Who do you think is the next hope from India to take Anand's spot?
AK: I can say this confidently that you can have another World Champion from India. But you cannot have another Anand. This man is a sheer genius. He has been in the top 3 in the world since 1990 to almost 2012. Thats nearly 22 years! Someone being at the top of his game for such a long time. Its just mind boggling.
SS: Ok so you say there cannot be another Anand but another world champion? Who are your candidates?
AK: Frankly speaking I dont see anybody!! (laughs a lot!)
SS: Are you serious? Is it because chess players in India dont work a lot?
AK : (Becomes serious) No its not a question of hard work its about lack of opportunities! Where are the events where our top guys can play against the top players of the world. Sasikiran has been in the top 50 or 100 in the world for nearly 10 years now, but tell me leaving aside the olympiads, how many times has he played the top players of the world? So how will he become the best. Only if he continuously plays against them can we expect him to win against them. So Sasikiran doesnt get invitations to foreign top events, then Indians must organize events for him. We must invite the top players in the world to play with him. Once in a while if he plays with Nakamura or Caruana or Gelfand and if you want him to beat them, its really difficult.
Take for eg Anish Giri or Caruana. A few years ago they were equivalent to Negi but now they have surpassed him. Its only due to the exposure.
This was just an example. Thus I think its very difficult to create a champion in India. And we come to back to the point I mentioned before, that an ambitious chess player must move out and settle abroad. Then his opportunities will increase and he can really become the best.
SS: What would be your advice to chess coaches in general, as you are an excellent coach too.
AK: (laughs) I am not a good coach! But coaching is really a huge subject, Maybe we can have another interview on it some other day! :)
Abhijit has always been a good coach and a great Mentor for many young players.
SS: This next question is also a huge topic but you will have to answer it! You are a balanced person. Means that you have excelled at chess, well qualified educationally, married at the right age, have 2 children. My question is : Is it possible to be the best in the sport and still be a balanced personality?
AK: I think the family has to sacrifice a lot if I have to succeed as a chess player. Like everytime I leave my house, my wife has to single handedly manage everything. Take care of the children, do the household chores etc. That sacrifice from the family is essential. If the family is not ready for it then I think its almost impossible to become a sports player. And I think it really depends on your luck! (laughs)
SS: So in that aspect you have been very lucky?
AK: Yes without the support of my wife Meghana and my kids Maithili and Arnav, I dont think it was possible. Everytime I call my wife and say I was winning and stuff like that, she could have simply got frustrated and told me" you are telling me this since last 10 years!" (laughs!!) But there are always encouraging words. So I think that encouragement is very important. This time I travelled to this tournament and missed my daughters gathering. This is unavoidable but I think I am really lucky that they understand me and support me.
SS: But do you think its worth missing all this for a sport like chess?
AK: When you go back with a trophy, you see that joy in their eyes! And I think to see that joy, I can make any number of sacrifices! :) So if you are winning trophies then its fine otherwise you should not play!! (laughs a lot!!)
What a cute and lovely family! Abhijit with his wife Meghana and two kids Maithili and Arnav!
SS: So, Mr Kunte, My final question to you is: what would you like people to remembered as: A chess player, a chess organizer or a chess coach!
AK: Definitely as a chess player!!( laughs) Once a player is always a player! and unfortunately a chess player can never come out of the " I was winning or I was better syndrome!!" (huge laugh!) But still I always want to be remembered as a chess player! :)
Thank you so much for giving your precious time. It was really enjoyable to chat with you and the knowledge that you have shared with the people will surely help them not only in their chess career but also in life!!
AK: Thanks a lot.
I hope you enjoyed the interview. Do leave a feedback as to how you liked it.
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