Why you should care
The leader of a new wave of chess phenoms shows no fear and plays aggressive, entertaining games.
Last spring, Ashritha Eswaran announced her presence at the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship with authority. The lowest-rated and least-experienced entrant in the 10-player round-robin tournament upset a women’s international master and a women’s grandmaster in her first three games, impressing many commentators with her aggressive, resilient play.
Then she finished middle school.
Eswaran is a soft-spoken 13-year-old from San Jose, California, with a flower in her hair and a big smile that shows off her braces. Just a typical smart teenager — aside from holding the title of national master after learning the game only a few years ago.
Few 13-year-olds have the attacking poise Eswaran showed in her first game in the U.S. championships. Her opponent, women’s international master Viktorija Ni, 22, had the advantage of playing white, which in chess terms is like getting in the first punch. Ni built upon that advantage after 33 moves, with menacing pawns in the center and a roaming queen. But Eswaran gave up two of her rooks to take Ni’s queen, and went into a complex endgame with strong pawns of her own.
By move 70 — an eternity in a game in which elite players usually agree to draws much earlier — Eswaran had turned the tide, leaving veteran commentator Maurice Ashley dumbfounded that such a young newcomer could find such brilliant moves under pressure. She seemed to miss an opportunity to win, but when it presented itself again she won the 83-move epic game, and headed home with a $1,000 prize for the best game of the tournament.
A name we’re going to be talking about in the years ahead.
— Yasser Seirawan, chess grandmaster
“Ashritha Eswaran,” intoned grandmaster Yasser Seirawan on the championship webcast. “A name we’re going to be talking about in the years ahead.”
Being young and aggressive means absorbing some losses, and she suffered five in the tournament. But the three wins and single draw caught everyone’s attention.
“She had tremendous fighting spirit,” says two-time U.S. champion and commentator Jennifer Shahade. “She also seems to love the game, and that passion keeps people working hard. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her fighting for the title within a few years.”
Eswaran herself is more modest about her playing style: “That was just the way the games played out.”
But her father, Eswaran Ramalingam, said her decisive play was no accident: “She did not have any mindset to play draw and wanted to have the results in every single game. Even the game she was drawn was forced.”
Young phenoms are, of course, nothing new in chess. Bobby Fischer won his first U.S. championship at age 14 and went on to win the world championship, but spent his later life as a recluse. Josh Waitzkin, the young player whose story inspired the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, and fellow prodigy K.K. Karanja, at ages 11 and 14 respectively, were the only two players to manage a draw against Garry Kasparov when the then-world champion played 59 simultaneous games in the Bronx in 1988 — but both left competitive chess in early adulthood.
Why do young phenoms often drift away from chess?
“Different reasons, but the chess subculture turns a lot of people off,” says Stuart Rachels, who reached master level before his 12th birthday and shared the U.S. championship at age 20, but retired a few years later. “Also, there is no money in chess. The best players tend to come from countries in which there is much less economic opportunity than in the U.S.A.”
She’s played in Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Slovenia and Dubai…
Rachels hasn’t followed Eswaran’s young career but has some general advice for parents of prodigies: Don’t be the coach, and don’t put any pressure on a child to play. “Let kids be kids,” Rachels says. “Remember that playing good chess is not like ending world hunger. Also, if the kid is going to do well and stick with it, his/her motivation must be internal.”
Eswaran says she heeded advice from Irina Krush, who also made her U.S. championship debut before high school, and at age 30 continues to have a productive chess career. “She just said to have no fear and to play your best.”
Eswaran Ramalingam came to the U.S. from India in 1994. In the process of adapting his name to Western style, his first name is used as his children’s surname.
Eswaran and her sister, Aksithi, are two of the star pupils at the NorCal House of Chess in Fremont, Calif. Their father has cut back his hours as a serial entrepreneur and software consultant to travel with them to chess tournaments. The girls’ mother, Jackuline Theagarajan, helps with her husband’s business and organizes the kids’ schedules. “She is the powerful queen and makes all the key decisions,” their father says.
Ashritha has played in Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Slovenia and Dubai — the last two for the World Youth Championships. She’ll go to that tournament again in September, this time traveling to South Africa. All while balancing chess with her classes.
So far, so good for Eswaran. She grew up with diverse interests — painting, playing piano and singing carnatic music, a traditional Indian art form dating back several centuries. She has kept these up, along with reading and swimming, as she developed chess skills with coaches such as grandmaster Dejan Bojkov.
Eswaran isn’t the only U.S. youngster making waves internationally. Jennifer Yu, born in 2002, has already attained the women’s FIDE master title with a lower rating than Eswaran. So has Annie Wang, age 11, who became the youngest woman to reach U.S. national master status.
Then there’s the top-rated 7-and-under U.S. female player, who at age 7 hasn’t played enough games for an international rating yet but has already taken the global title of women’s candidate master. Her name? Aksithi Eswaran, Ashritha’s younger sister.
Something tells us these sisters will never be at a loss for playing partners.
Players are rated on a point system, the more points the better. U.S. Chess ratings tend to be higher that those given by the international chess organizer, FIDE.
– National master – Awarded by the U.S. Chess Federation at 2,200
– Women’s FIDE master – 2,100
– Women’s grandmaster – Another international title, awarded at 2,300
– Eswaran’s U.S. rating is 2,224 her FIDE rating is 2,011