Shiyam Thavandiran, BSc’15, MSc’16 (Mathematics), was seven years old when he came upon his mother and older brother playing chess. He was instantly intrigued.
“This interesting game, where two people sit in silence, staring at a board, drew me in,” he said. “But I felt left out. I wanted to join the game, so they taught me how to play.”
Not long after, Thavandiran’s mother enrolled the Toronto native and his brother in chess lessons.
“It took off from there,” Thavandiran said, putting the success that followed mildly.
By the time he was 10, he’d placed fourth in the world youth chess championships. When he was 12, Thavandiran made history, becoming the youngest winner of the Canadian junior chess championship. In 2017, one year after earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Western, he achieved the international master title.
Today his sights are set on the pinnacle prize — the grandmaster title. Pursuing his dream demands his full attention, and the decision to take a one-year leave of absence from his data scientist role at RBC.
“The pandemic made me realize anything can happen in life,” the 29-year-old said. “I’m not getting any younger and I am still very passionate about chess.”
A grand objective
There are millions of chess players worldwide, but only 1,500 of them have reached the height of grandmaster.
To earn the title, a player must have an Elo chess rating (the strength of a player compared to others) of at least 2,500 at one time. They also must have three favorable results, called ‘norms,’ in tournaments involving grandmasters from other countries.
Improving at chess is “complicated,” Thavandiran said. “You can get overwhelmed by all the information, so you have to be smart about how you spend your time.”
His tactic involves analyzing games from every tournament and solving calculation exercises that test his ability. “You want to stay sharp by being able to find the best moves,” he said. “You’re trying to deviate from your opponent’s preparation. There’s a little psychological battle going on.”
And, of course, he plays the game.
After two years of playing online, he was thrilled to return to the board recently for the Canadian Zonal Championship in Kingston, Ont. At the beginning of May, he is heading to El Salvador, to compete in the XV American Continental Chess Championship.
Sharing his passion
Wherever he plays, Thavandiran “finds beauty” in both the scientific and artistic aspects of the game.
“You have expectations of what the good moves are, but it’s not obvious, so you have to take some time to look at it and think outside the box. When you come up with a surprising move, that’s the sense of beauty right there. It can make you gasp when you realize it’s a good one.”
He credits his success in chess for bringing him confidence in other parts of his life. The game has also taken him to many countries, including Colombia, India, Iceland, Uruguay and Vietnam.
“Above all, the biggest and greatest thing is just connecting with so many people,” he said.
A former member of the Western Chess Club, Thavandiran was part of the team that hosted and won the 2012 university championship. As a master’s student, he presented simulations of his games, and played (and won) 20 concurrent exhibition matches against chess club members.
Thavandiran recently launched a YouTube channel to share his passion and to teach others the intricacies of the game.
“I’m fully focused on playing, but I like the idea of bringing people on a journey and sharing my knowledge,” he said. “I definitely want to do more of that, along with getting better at chess.”
Follow Thavandiran’s journey on twitter.