Youngest chess grandmaster on his biggest victory and the secret to success

Thai Dai Van Nguyen, photo: archive of Czech Radio

His father is a Vietnamese businessman and he was born here in the Czech Republic. Thai Dai Van Nguyen is one of many second-generation Vietnamese who are fluent is Czech, as in other foreign languages, hard-working, disciplined and ambitious. At just 16 Van became the youngest chess grandmaster in the Czech Republic and less than two years later he is among the five best players in Europe in his age group. I asked him how his success story began.

Thai Dai Van Nguyen,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“Actually I started playing chess due to the fact that my dad showed the game to my older brother, who is three years older than me. I was eight at that time and I was really fascinated by the game. I wanted to try to beat my brother at it and that’s how it all started. ”

When did you first realize that you were really good, that you had a special talent for it?

“It was not long after I started. When I was about eight-and-a-half I played my first tournament and it was a very big success, I beat the under-10 Czech champion at the time and it was then that I realized I had the potential to become a very good chess player.”

How did you practice? Who did you play against – was it family members?

“Yes, I would make my dad play chess with me all the time. In the summer we would play out in the garden for long hours because I was really into it. I also played against my brother, but once I beat him he wouldn’t play with me anymore.”

When did you first beat him?

“I beat him quite soon, when I was eight-and-a-half, when I realized I had a special talent for it, before I had that big success at the tournament, I beat both my brother and my dad.”

It must have been an incredible feeling…

“Of course. That was my first goal –to be the best in my family. I didn’t have any bigger goals at the time.”

You became the country’s youngest ever grandmaster at the age of 16. How difficult was it to achieve that and what qualities do you need to become a grandmaster?

“Actually, becoming a grandmaster is not an easy feat at all. In the Czech Republic there are only twenty to thirty grandmasters. In order to become a grandmaster you need to achieve a certain level of play, which is very high, plus you need to have three very good results at tournaments, which is not easy to achieve at all. And as to the qualities you need – it is very important to have a love for the game, a passion for it. That is extremely important. But of course you also need to be hard-working.”

Thai Dai Van Nguyen,  photo: David Prouza / Czech Radio
So, practice, practice, practice.

“Yes, that’s very important.”

How many hours a day do you practice?

“On average two, but sometimes five to six hours.”

Do you find opponents for that?

“Well, mainly my trainer, or trainers, because I have more of them now. We usually practice at my place, we play and do some solving positions and so on.”

When you are playing in a tournament how much do you need to know about your opponent?

“Quite a lot, actually. I am playing at a very high level and so the preparations for the game sometimes take much longer than the game itself. The preparation can take three, four or five hours and you really need to study the patterns and openings of your opponent’s game.”

And when you are playing against a stranger, how long does it take you to figure out their tactic, whether they will be aggressive, where they will take the game?

“Already after about thirty minutes it is quite clear what their intentions are – whether to attack or not.”

Has playing chess made you a better psychologist than most of us?

“Honestly speaking, I do not think so. Actually psychology is one of the many weaknesses of chess players in general. It is not easy to explain why, but it is a fact.”

Do chess players do things to unnerve each other during the game? Does that go on?

“Not really. Chess players are usually polite people and they do not try to disturb the opponent.”

You spend so many hours a day playing chess, a lot of strategic thinking, logical thinking there, does it help you in your everyday life or decision-making?

“I definitely think so. Chess is a game where you really need to have this logical thinking which helps in everyday life. The decision-making in chess is not easy at all, you have a limited amount of time and you need to make good moves fast, so it also helps with decision-making. You learn to make decisions faster, also when there is a lot on the line. It helps you be more patient and it teaches you to work hard, which is important in all other areas of life as well.”

What do you think of chess computer programs, Van?

“Chess computer programs nowadays are extremely strong. They are much stronger than all human players in history. Human players cannot compare to chess programs. I have to say, I really like chess programs because without them I wouldn’t be as good as I am today, because I learn from them.”

Illustrative photo: David Lapetina,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
So you have never beaten a chess computer program, right? You just learn from your mistakes…

“Yes, I have never beaten one and it is virtually impossible since they are much, much stronger even than the current world champion.”

Is there a championship, a victory that sticks in your mind, something that you are particularly proud of and that meant a lot to you - whether you were eight, ten or sixteen?

“Yes, there was this one tournament…it was the European Union Chess Championship in 2010 and I was playing in the under-10 category. I was eight-and-a-half back then and it was only my second tournament. That was my biggest win; the one that started my career. I became the European Union champion which boosted my confidence and really started my career.”

And what is your goal now – where are you heading?

“Well, I want to improve every day and in terms of a concrete goal –right now I am in the top five in the under 18 group in Europe in terms of ranking and I want to stay there and keep in touch with Europe’s and the world’s best players.”