Photo Jacob Okada
IM Justin Sarkar is on a roll. He followed up a victory in the King's Island Open with another stellar result at the National Chess Congress in Philly, where he tied for second by beating Yudasin in the last round . The best was yet to come though. Justin entered the 2006 Marshall Chess Club Championship(December 1-10) excited that he was underrated at 2390, and likely to win the 2400 prize. He did much more than that-he defeated a GM and three IMs , turning in a 2650+ USCF performance rating and earned his first GM norm. For what it's worth, he also tied for second. On the precipice of his winning streak, Justin sat down with Jerry Hanken to talk rating inflation, parental pressures and autism.
Jerry Hanken-When did you first learn how to play chess?
Justin Sarkar-I was quite a late starter. I didn't learn until I was ten and played my first tournament when I was ten and a half. At least for most professionals that's pretty late.
JH-Yes it is. These days if you're not a Grandmaster by the time you're 14 then you're over the hill. Izoria was saying when I interviewed him earlier, "yes, I'm 22, I am the older generation!" There's some truth in that with people like Carlsen and Radjabov and these really super youngsters. So, did your parents teach you?
JS-Actually I learnt from my dad. He was the first person to teach me the rules, the basics and what really got me going actually was that it took about a year for me to get interested in the game but then suddenly my interest developed based on an elementary after school chess program at Davis.
JH-Who ran the program?
JS-Actually the specific person who influenced me was the late Bob Perez who passed away fairly recently, about 6 years ago. Something about him seemed to really connect and then once I got interested it only developed further, especially when I got my first computer program, Chessmaster 2100. I'm sure that's totally out of date now.
JH-Everything's out of date if it's last year. Do you spend a lot of time working on computers, working on openings, studies of games in big databases?
JS-To be honest I'm in some sort of a rut, I've had the annoying issues of other things that have been affecting my chess more such as my posture during my game and things like that, but my goal is to try and get more organized in the game and I think I really needed some sort of boost and this seems like a good place to start for me.
"Everything's out of date if it's last year," says interviewer Jerry Hanken, pictured here trying to puzzle out the MonRoi device. Photo J.Shahade
JH- It's an excellent place to start! You just won a very important tournament here in the mid-west
JS-Yes I intend to use this energy wisely.
JH-Have you been diagnosed as autistic or mildly autistic?
JS-That's a good question. I haven't officially received a diagnosis.
JH-It's sort of speculation on my part.
JS-In a way there are many people who have said that. Even me being the one actually having it, sort of thinking I might actually have a mild version of it. Maybe a good way to classify it might be mildly autistic. It's hard for parents to acknowledge it, at least in my case, the good thing is they're caring people and very intelligent and did very well, especially my father who did extremely well in his youth. He grew up in India, incase you'd care to know my background, I'm half Indian and half English, my dad was born in India and my mam was born in England.
JH-That's interesting, that was my speculation and I'd assumed that because of your last name.
JS-The thing is, especially for my dad being an over achiever, it's extremely difficult to try and accept that I may have some sort of mild disorder. He's aware and of course he knows but it's not a problem.
JH-Well, I'd hope it wouldn't be.
JS-Somehow I'd need some sort of acceptance that I have some sort of thing like this but I can still do really well but I know how, based on their circumstances, it was extremely difficult to give in to me having some kind of illness or at the very least if I have to give in it's like well, what am I doing to correct this? My dad's philosophy sometimes gets too extreme, it's all about setting your mind to it, and depression is for weak-minded people, that sort of thing. I have pretty clever people that brought me up but sometimes it can get a bit too rigid.
JH-You are in the top 0.05% of chess players, maybe even higher, you have a title and have a chance to get a better title.
JS-Yes, I want to go even higher and get the Grandmaster.
JH-Of course, that's what I'm talking about.
JS-I once came close to a GM norm and would like to play like that even more.
JH-You'll have other chances to do that. You have ambitions to become a Grandmaster and there's no reason why you shouldn't.
JS-Yes definitely. I actually feel organization in the game is really holding me back. When I say I've been in a rut, it's more like a frustrating cycle of depression. I'm keeping it in a chess context, like one way to look at it is, if you look at how high I was say USCF rating 2453, I was an all over 2450 six years ago and that was my peak. I've been oscillating, going back and forth and in the outside just not accomplishing much.
JH-I would suggest to you that in the last six years there has been extraordinary rating deflation. I know many players that have been over 2400 that have woken up one morning and looked and said "gee, how did I get to be under 2400"? It wasn't because of a lack of skill; I think there was an aberration in the system, which has affected a lot of people like you.
JS-Yes, a factor to keep in mind is that I was at Columbia University, a top Ivy League university trying to balance academics with a hobby.
JH-You still see chess as a hobby?
JS-Well, a major hobby at least. It seems like I feel I need to keep playing for a while because I know I've got goals that I want to accomplish and I just don't want to give up on them. Certain people in my shoes may have just given up and I hope to at least maybe in some way be a role model in case of future people that have some sort of disability and fear that their true ability may never be realized. As long as I can even contribute in such a manner like that I'll feel like I've done something for humanity.
Justin Sarkar. Photo J.Okada
JH-That's a very noble and thoughtful way of looking at it. I like to use the old saying from the feminist movement, "you've come a long way baby!" You've come a long way, especially I see now from what you say about your parents they really haven't tried to find out if there is anything that can be done. Are you on any kind of medication?
JS-No, to be honest I've had brief moments of therapy. I've had a few sessions with someone and then some sessions with another one. At some point my mom reluctantly agreed to try it out a bit, find someone on her insurance, which was an extra complication by the way. It is sad in a way, or a bit frustrating. I cannot think of anyone who has been particularly of value and of course naturally it's their position too but I don't know whether it just means I'm tough to understand, complex or maybe they don't get to see me in enough relevant settings, there could be all sorts of factors. Once or twice I tried some medication but they seemed to have side effects without really helping me.
JH-Medication can have some bad side effects.
JS-In a way I'm struggling from a bit too much of an idealistic approach, you can do anything you can set your mind to; it's all about mental control.
JH-That sounds like your father talking. There are limits to anyone's mental control and so-called "perfectly normal people." What you have done in chess is really remarkable because chess, of all games, of all past-times requires an enormous amount of focus and you focus very well. Think about it, that's a big feather in your cap because your disability involves a kind of difficulty in focusing and in chess you focus like a laser beam.
JS-Actually, there's room for improvement or considerable improvement so maybe that just means things can only go forward. I seem to think that often my think is rather slow and inaccurate. Guess I can say that given everything I'm going through I'm making a lot of effort and doing fairly well.
JH-I didn't know you very well and when I first saw you I was puzzled because of the difficulty you have looking straight at people. I thought, "this guy doesn't like me because he won't look at me?" Of course that's something that requires a little time to understand and overcome. The first time I really became aware of you as a person was when you were so gracious and so helpful to me personally at the Foxwoods tournament.
JS-By writing down the game?
JH-That was wonderful, that game turned out to be the center piece of my story and if I hadn't had you write, I can't do it because of a disability in my fingers. Usually I have one person doing white and one doing black but you did both! I realized there was really nothing wrong with you; the fact you didn't look at me didn't mean you didn't like me.
JS-Well now you know I seem to worry what other chess players think. I'm always thinking about what others may think. These thoughts can distract me but once I start to concentrate I forget about it.
JH-People may think that Justin is mad at them or something but that's just part of his disability that he has difficulty looking straight at people. He certainly doesn't have trouble looking at a chess board straight.
JS-I feel actually that posture has been the big thing with me. If anything I've probably been losing more games due to posture difficulty rather than my chess ability.
JH-Well, your chess ability is pure.
JS-It needs some fine tuning and development. I have a focus problem that has been affecting me in everything, like university courses such as being able to take in a lecture or follow a book.
JH-Are you still in university?
JS-No, I graduated from Columbia with a degree in applied maths-- if I end up doing something it will carry weight to have gone to an Ivy League university.
JH-Absolutely. It certainly shows that when you need to focus you can focus.
JS-I struggled pretty greatly but at least I did make it, I did get my degree.
JH-Have you done any graduate work?
JS-No I haven't, see I've got to have these things on my mind too, like what I may do in terms of a job but for me things are going a bit slowly.
JH-Is there pressure on you to get a job?
JS-In a way yes of course my folks are worried about how I'm going to start making my own money.
JH-From what you told me your folks seem to be reasonably well off?
JS-Well yes I'd say so.
JH-Are you an only child?
JS-No actually I have a younger brother and a younger sister. My brother Neil is 22 and my sister, Amanda is 16. She's at a point where she's doing college applications and my brother is still finishing at university. He wants to become a stand-up comedian. Neil Sarkar, he may become famous, at least in comedy.
JH-He should come out to my neck of the woods in Hollywood.
JS-He has a rather extreme philosophy and he wants to do what makes him happy and what's right for him.
JH-That's not an extreme philosophy; everybody wants to do what will make him or her happy.
JS-You can imagine the headaches my parents must be having, a stand-up comedian and a professional chess player! Forgot it! What a failure on our part, this is all we could get out of our children, the sister, oh no is she going to go to college?
JH-Your parents sound like wonderful people but they sound like they are much too up tight. They need to loosen up.
JS-That's a good description.
JH-After so many years they're not going to, they are what they are.
JH-So there's Neil and Amanda and she is not clear on what she wants to do. So they still have hope for her, maybe she'll be a lawyer?
JS-I don't think so!
JH-You've beaten Grandmasters before; Izoria wasn't your first right?
JS-No although actually I've had a pretty rough record against them recently. Over the last year or so I've actually counted a streak of about 20 losses in a row to Grandmasters in tournaments. Somewhat ironically the player I broke the streak with 3 times is Izoria.
JH-You've beaten him 3 times?
JS-No I drew him at the US Open then I played him twice in some action event and I lost one and drew one and now in King's Island I beat him.
Justin Sarkar at the King's Island Open. Photo Courtesy MonRoi
JH-In other words Izoria stemmed the bleeding, he stopped the bleeding.
JS-I guess so.
JH-But before that you've beaten some other Grandmasters when you were at your peak there?
JS-Yes I've had some fairly notable upsets. Somehow since September 2005 I started the long streak of losses to them. For some reason I didn't match up to them but players I've beaten include big names like Kaidanov, Gulko, Stripunsky, de Firmian and from like a while back Joel Benjamin and many others like Kacheishvili.
JH-Those are pretty good names. So you've got a pretty good record. When did you make your final IM norm?
JS-The final norm was at an invitational tournament in the summer of 2001 in New York at Saint John's University. I had just missed out in a tournament before that in New York. There aren't really a whole lot of norm tournaments to play in the US. If I'm really serious about getting the GM norms I may need to consider traveling to Europe, go to Hungary or somewhere like that.
JH-A lot of GM's, like Jim Tarjan, a friend of mine, he was of Grandmaster strength but there just wasn't anything to do, he went to Hungary and he made 3 norms in a period of a about a year because he was clearly that strong, and Larry Christiansen who wasn't even an IM went to Spain and got 2 GM norms and he never even had an IM title.
JS-Yes I heard that he just made it directly without even getting IM norms but of course making all these arrangements would be rather tricky.
JH-Well this might be a possibility, if you could swing it financially it would probably be a good thing to do.
JS-Yes, I guess so. It would require specific arrangements as well as communication with my folks.
JH-This tournament will make them aware of you, this will be a good boost for you in a lot of ways. You're going to have your picture in the magazine.
JS-Yes, it's a good start. I was thinking about one tournament that really sticks in my mind where I feel I did well was the US Championship in 2003 when I got FIDE 2595 performance.
JH-Since I didn't even know that it means you didn't get the proper publicity for that.
JS-No I didn't, in fact to be honest when a speech was given with recognition for good performance after the banquet ceremony, I was kind of left out. In the Recent US Open, if I'd have scored a big victory I would have tied with Mike Aigner for the class prize and probably if the US Championship qualification, whatever is going on with that, I would probably get that too. That Seattle event from early 2003 it sort of stands out in my mind as one tournament where I played, actually not really at my ability, but played pretty well. Even I felt that I played some solid chess. Basically my result was that I got 7 draws and 2 wins.
JH-That's an incredible score, undefeated in the US Championship.
JS-Win against IM Greg Shahade and almost GM then Boris Kreiman and my 7 draws were all against GMs. I'm sure I would have had good mention if I had gotten half a point extra and made the GM norm.
JH-I don't know who covered that Championship but if I had covered it you would have been one of my featured stories.
JS-Maybe they are sort of sensing autism or something.
JH-It has nothing to do with your handicap, you're just a modest person.
JS-They're a bit nervous or apprehensive or something.
JH-I don't think that's it. I think that the people that get further and get more use out of their own performances and ability are the people that are say "self promoters"... This is a very fascinating interview.
JS-Yes, I actually really like and value it. I'm feeling good doing this.
Recent Sarkar wins:
Jerry Hanken is the president of CJA, Chess Journalists of America. He played in 40 U.S. Opens and is a longtime and prolific contributor to Chess Life Magazine. Look for his tournament report on the King's Island Open in the February Chess Life.