Aryan Joshi, 14: Imagining the board

The partially blind chess player wants to be an International Master, but will need a full-time coach

At the 2015 National Paralympic Championships, Aryan won two silver and two bronze medals in swimming. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
At the 2015 National Paralympic Championships, Aryan won two silver and two bronze medals in swimming. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

On the wall of his room, which he shares with elder brother Omkar, Aryan Bhalchandra Joshi pastes sheets of papers with his daily schedule for the week—one for each day. Each hectic day is broken neatly into compartments, for the number of things he must do need to be documented carefully.

The partially blind class X student’s roster of activities include school, homework, swimming and chess, besides diversions like “relax”, TV and “snacks”. Pasting the schedule also helps him juggle and negotiate—there is always something clashing with the other, like a tournament with his exams later this year, for example.

Aryan, who will turn 15 in December, was born with partial sight. He can see distances better than closer up, he sees better in artificial light than in sunlight (he has photophobia), and he uses the computer with a screen-reader software.

One of the promising players in the field of blind chess, Aryan mixes relentless optimism with a mature sense of practicality. He harbours hopes of becoming an International Master in chess—which no visually challenged Indian has ever achieved—and making the natural progression to Grand Master. His current ELO rating, a method to calculate the relative skill of chess players, is 1,598. An International Master, for example, needs an ELO of at least 2,400.

Aryan says he is able to do everything that any 14-year-old would, though his approach to it might be different. This is clear from the way he demonstrates his use of the computer to further his expertise in chess—aided by the metallic voice of the software, his fingers fly over the computer, driven by instinct and the sure touch of someone who has done this many times over.

Seated in his living room in Dombivli in Thane district, Aryan is a wiry, short-haired boy bubbling with nervous energy. He speaks rapidly, unhesitatingly, showing a distinct clarity of thought, remembers the names, numbers and email addresses of everyone associated with him, recollects dates in a flash and is clearly excited—enough for his grandfather, seated next to him, to ask him to slow down.

Aryan started playing chess after watching his father, Bhalchandra G. Joshi, and brother Omkar and realized he was pretty good at it—as did the others. Propelled by supportive parents—mother Archana is his travel companion for tournaments, his father helped with books and initial lessons—the interest grew into something bigger and led to tournaments from 2012 onwards: He finished first in the IES inter-school tournament in October 2013 in his age category.

He outgrew his father’s coaching, switched to online lessons and part-time, long-distance coaching over Skype from Durgaprasad Mahapatra.

“What’s unique about Aryan is that he plays well even against the sighted,” says Mahapatra, who is also the chief coach at the Goodricke National Chess Academy in Kolkata. “He is very competitive. I have been coaching for 30 years and have seen many players, but no one like him. He does not fear anyone.”

"You get to explore—different openings, different tactics…. I like studying its different theories. It’s got the same charm as solving puzzles."

Since 2013, Aryan has participated in a number of competitions, which he reels off in a jiffy—they include the All India Rating Chess tournaments, the National Junior Chess Championships for the Blind and National B and National A for the blind among zonal, state and national events.

The All India Chess Federation for the Blind has more than 22,000 registered members, with more than 1,300 who play in national-level events, according to federation president Charudatta Jadhav. Among them, 161 are rated, including Aryan. Zonal events help players qualify for the National B and then National A, which is the highest level of tournament nationally. Aryan qualified for National A in June, finishing eighth.

By his own admission, Aryan’s style is aggressive but slow, and he likes the sport’s endless possibilities. “You get to explore—different openings, different tactics…. I like studying its different theories. It’s got the same charm as solving puzzles,” he says.

They play on a special board, and a visually impaired chess player is allowed to feel the board, which has sockets for every piece. On the computer, the screen-reader software, NonVisual Desktop Access, calls out the piece on which the cursor is and the square—each square is numbered (rows 1-8, columns a-h). This allows Aryan to learn and practise.

As someone who can’t see the board, Aryan has to visualize it and memorize the position of every piece, including his opponent’s. All his moves are based on these visualizations. His understanding of these positions early, at the age of about 6, led his father to believe he was a special talent.

“He would know where the pieces are located, it was all there in his head,” says Bhalchandra Joshi.

“He has all the qualities needed for a great player, including dedication,” says Mahapatra on phone from Kolkata. “If I give him a time, he will be ready in front of his computer half an hour before. He is willing to go on forever; he never tires. And he learns in half the time it would take others.”

Aryan tries to put aside 3-5 hours a day for chess—it goes up to 8-10 before tournaments—but there are sometimes other pressing matters that “interfere”, like his board exams at the end of this academic year. His other activities too are divided neatly into necessary distractions and mandatory ones.

Necessary is swimming, which he started on a doctor’s advice for better simulation and to see moving objects better. But over the last five years or so, he has become so good at it that he has won some medals in state and national paralympic competitions. But no swimming in the sea yet, because “it clashes with other things”.

Mandatory is academics, which he enjoys to a large extent as long as it’s science or math. He dreams of being an astronomer, or getting into information technology. What he does not enjoy as much is studying history, his least favourite subject; he tries to overcome this by joining a trekking group organized by the National Association for the Blind. “We have been to different forts in this region, like Sinhagad, Pratapgad (both in Maharashtra), and it helps me learn better when someone talks about history rather than teach it,” Aryan says.

Mahapatra says Aryan needs to work on his endgame, as his opening and middle game are much better at the moment. But what he needs, most importantly, is structured coaching and a playing partner, which he does not have. Long-distance coaching has its limitations—Mahapatra predicts that Aryan will outgrow him soon.

Ask him what his strengths are, and he says confidence and a positive attitude. “I am mentally stronger than others. I am not affected by any setbacks, plus I have strong family support.”

He is also emotionally balanced, his father adds, so he has the right temperament for the sport.

And weaknesses?

“I want to be taller,” says the 5ft, 4 inches tall Aryan, whose brother is 5ft, 10 inches.

Here the competitive spirit kicks in: “I want to be taller than Omkar.”

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