Harshit Raja is an International Master (IM) from Pune, India. He has secured two Grandmaster norms and is on the brink of achieving the premium title for all chess players.
The 19-year-old was recently admitted to the chess team of the prestigious University of Missouri. He aims to pursue his academics along with his chess career, and the university provides him with an opportunity to do so effectively.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Harshit Raja talks about his journey, his progress towards the IM title and more.
1. Can you please introduce yourself to us?
Harshit Raja: International Master Raja Harshit, currently pursuing my Bachelor's degree at the University of Missouri.
2. How did you start playing chess? What were the early days like?
Harshit Raja: The journey began when I came back home from school to find my sister learning chess one day. This made me intrigued, and I started learning from my first coach. I was seven years old when I first began playing the game but I remember working on chess quite extensively even then.
3. When did you decide to become more serious about the game and play professionally?
Harshit Raja: My first international tournament was the World Youth U-12 in Al-ain, UAE, where I had a great result with 8/11, and I almost finished on the podium. After this, I knew that I would stick to the game in the future.
4. What was the training process like to become an International Master?
Harshit Raja: The training was definitely a lot different then than it is now because of how the AI engines have changed the way we look at chess. I used to focus a lot on problem-solving and dynamic play, which helped me to develop my intuition and imagination on the road to becoming an International Master. Nowadays, chess has been more or less centred towards finding new ideas in the openings!
5. You have also achieved two GM norms apart from your current title of International Master. Tell us about your journey in achieving these.
Harshit Raja: I became an International Master in 2017 and struggled to achieve my first GM norm until December 2019, when I managed to score 2 GM norms in a row. I started to focus a lot more on my psychology before my tournaments. That really helped me to keep a positive frame of mind during the game.
6. What has been your fondest memory from a tournament that you participated in?
Harshit Raja: My fondest memory in a chess tournament was not about playing chess but rather football with the World Champion-Magnus Carlsen in the Qatar Masters 2015 and also at the Isle of Man, 2018!
7. How did you decide to switch gears and go to the US to pursue chess and education? How have you managed to balance the two? What was the procedure like to get accepted into the university?
Harshit Raja: I always had a plan to join a university team in the US to pursue both chess and my education since I find it important to balance between the two.
My first semester began last month, and I will be attending remotely. I hope to attend the classes on campus in the near future. As of now, I feel like I am doing a decent job of managing both of them.
The process of joining the University was really smooth thanks to the Head Coach GM Cristian Chirilla for helping me out with the same.
8. Tell us about your university and its chess program. Why did you choose this college specifically?
Harshit Raja: After serious consideration, I decided Mizzou is my first choice since it not only boasts of an amazing academic culture but it also has a brand new chess team with GM Oparin G, GM Gordievsky, GM Repka C and WGM Tokhirjonova under the guidance of the strong and experienced trainer GM Chirila. It seemed like a great opportunity for me to develop my game and maintain a healthy academic standing.
9. What are your plans for the near future?
Harshit Raja: I would love to complete my Grand Master title as soon as OTB (over-the-board) chess resumes.
10. Finally, what advice could you give to those who also aim to pursue chess alongside academics?
Harshit Raja: The universities that have a chess team know how to strike a balance between the two. I would really recommend them to go ahead and join a "Chess University" even though it might seem challenging at first.