In the folding moments of 2020, India got its 67th Grandmaster (GM) when Leon Mendonca, a 14-year old from Goa, clinched the GM title in a tournament in Europe. Leon has been competing in the continent since March 2020 and has participated in 16 over-the-board tournaments there.
With this victory, he became the 29th youngest GM in the world, and the second player from the Goan state to accomplish the feat. In a period when the world is largely online and on lockdown, Leon has been able to overcome all obstacles in his way and achieve glory, gaining the highest title that the game has to offer at only 14.
Having managed to train with the likes of Kramnik, Anand, and Gelfand, besides interacting with Judit Polgar, the youngster has done the country greatlproud at such a tender age. In this interview, we find out more about his journey right from the initial days to the GM title and get a glimpse of his future goals. So let's move onto the questions now.
1. Firstly, congratulations on achieving the GM title. How does it feel to finally be called a GM?
Thanks! It is absolutely awesome and rewarding.
2. Let’s go back in time. Tell us about the journey from your beginning moves to the coveted GM title.
Well, I always wanted to beat my elder sister in whatever she ventured into. Since it was chess at that time, when I was around 5 yrs old, I was eager to learn and excel. In the process, I fell in love with the game.
My first major breakthrough came in 2014 when I won the bronze medal in U-8 at the prestigious World Youth Chess Championship held in Durban, South Africa. Since then, my parents decided to fully support me. My parents enrolled me in Velammal Vidyalaya in the chess hub of Chennai, a school that strongly supports chess players.
I started training professionally with amazing coaches. Since 2018, I have trained under GM Vishnu Prasanna from Chennai, who has moulded me into the player that I am today. We both share a very special chemistry that has brought the most creative, philosophical chess out of me.
Thanks to the Microsense networks, I was one of the six prodigies to be selected to train under the legendary Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand. These two camps helped me think like a world champion. I knew that I had the strength, but I missed the GM norm on several occasions. My coach, Vishnu sir, kept motivating me during our online sessions.
3. Coming to the preparation to become a GM, can you tell us a bit more on how you trained and those who helped you?
During the lockdown, my coach Vishnu Sir had many online training sessions with me. I kept working on my chess and focused on converting my weaknesses into my strengths. Meeting up and interacting with Judit Polgar made a huge impact on me. The 2-hour session with Vishy Anand really helped me overcome the pressure and achieve the final norm and title.
4. You have been based in Europe for the past nine months. Share with us your experience playing in tournaments in Europe.
From 18th March to the beginning of June 2020, we were literally locked up in our apartment in Budapest. In June, when the in-person tournaments resumed, I decided to play as there were no options of returning home. I won the first tournament, and then there has been no looking back since then. We decided to continue playing and converting adversity into opportunity. I won several tournaments in the process, including my norms and the GM title.
It felt different playing under the new conditions. It can be quite uncomfortable competing with a mask on and sometimes a shield. My spectacles tend to fog up, which only adds to the misery. Going through so many PCR tests and uncertainties regards to returning home, the tournaments, travel and accommodation have made this journey very challenging.
5. You have trained with the likes of Boris Gelfand, Vladimir Kramnik, Judit Polgar, and more. Can you share with us your thoughts about these sessions?
My first training camp was with only Vladimir Kramnik and the next one was with both Boris Gelfand and him. Both of these really helped me get into the mind of a world champion and have been most enriching. I have not yet trained under Judit Polgar, but we met on several occasions in Budapest. Interactions with her have most definitely been inspirational. She gifted me two of her three authored books, which further motivated me.
6. You are also a talented musician and have played the violin. Talk about how you discovered this activity and what you like about it.
Both my parents and sister being musicians themselves really influenced me in picking up this hobby. The violin came most naturally to me. I love listening to western classical music, and playing the violin helps me relax and destress.
7. What are your near future goals?
I want to keep working hard and bring more laurels to my state and the country.
8. What advice could you give to the readers?
Be sincere in whatever you do, work hard and passionately towards your dreams, stay focussed and committed, and never give up. Everything else will follow.Published 04 Jan 2021, 00:48 IST