The 86th edition of the Tata Steel Masters that ended on 28 January, welcomed three Indian grandmasters: Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh and Vidit. Three players from the same country in a 14-player field may invoke criticism, but if there were any objections, I never heard them. And rightly so. All three of them – who will also represent their country in the upcoming Candidates tournament in Toronto - played truly exciting chess and everyone was happy that they had come to Wijk aan Zee. Perhaps the only grumble that was heard was the regret that their countryman Arjun Erigaisi, another guarantee for creativity, was lacking.

Despite the prominent role that the three Indians played, there’s no certainty for any of them that they will return to Wijk aan Zee next year.  
But there is one Indian player who already knows that he will! With a fantastic final sprint 17-year-old Leon Luke Mendonca snatched first place in the Tata Steel Challengers, earning the right to play in the 2025 Masters.
After six rounds Mendonca was still stuck on fifty per cent, but then everything went his way as he scored 6½ from 7 in his final games to edge out two other young GMs, Belgium’s Daniel Dardha (18) and French Junior World Champion Marc‘Andria Maurizzi (16).

LEON LUKE MENDONCALeon Luke Mendonca is the only Indian GM who knows for sure that he will play in the 2025 Tata Steel Masters.(Photo: Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam)

Rated 2608, Mendonca was only the seventh seed in the Challengers, but that did not affect his ambition to play for first place, as he told me at the end of the tournament. ‘I definitely came here with the intention to win, because I felt I was more than capable of it. The first half things weren’t going as well as they could, but I knew it was a long tournament and that I would get my chances. I know that I am strong enough, but maybe because of psychological aspects, I wasn’t able to increase my rating as much as I should have. Basically, I feel that I have a lot more potential than my rating currently shows.’

The big turning point was his game against Anton Korobov in Round 8. ‘He was winning and I was basically playing on time increment. I could have easily lost that game on any other day, but managing to swindle him even in that position gave me confidence. I kept going into these messy positions and it worked perfectly because I kept outplaying all my opponents in complicated positions.’

His games were certainly wild, which funnily confirmed a firm conviction of his coach as Mendonca explained: ‘I always thought I was a positional player, looking for a small edge where you can press forever, whereas my coach thinks I am better at these sharp situations. My thought process is better in those situations. Maybe he is right, after all. He knows me better than I do myself. That’s crazy, but maybe he's right.’

His coach is Indian GM Vishnu Prasanna, who has also worked with other talents, including Mendonca's good friend Gukesh. Mendonca and Prasanna have been working for the last six years, from when he was rated 2100. ‘He knows my thought process inside out.’
Contrary to most coaches who have a strict program for their players, Vishnu Prasanna prefers a philosophical approach. ‘Most coaches tell you all these things you have to do. Vishnu questions all those things, saying you have to do what works for you. Even things that have been known for a long time, he questions. For instance, Botvinnik used to say you have to analyze your games very deeply, with many variations. I honestly don’t do that too often. I basically analyze my thought process, what I should have done at a certain moment. I don’t go into variations at all. We look at my games together and I tell him what I was thinking when I made a decision or made a mistake and he analyzes my thought process and suggests what I should change in my thought process, basically like doctor and patient.’

With a smile Mendonca explains how unorthodox his coach’s approach can be. ‘One of his students had problems in a part of the game, having bad results and all. I don’t know what it was, but in the end he recommended that student to read Harry Potter! Who would think that would help? But that student did well after that and said it helped.’
His coach also got him into reading sports autobiographies, not so unusual, but certainly inspiring. Among his favourites he names Pete Sampras’s A Champion’s Mind and Andre Agassi’s Open.

Outside the playing hall, two Indian fans were waiting for Leon Luke Mendonca and his father, to congratulate the winner of the Tata Steel Challengers and hand him a small present. (Photo Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam)

Leon Luke Mendonca became a grandmaster at the age of 14 years, 9 months and 17 days. In a way he had the pandemic to thank for his title. In March 2020 he was with his father in Hungary, where he was playing in the First Saturday tournaments, when suddenly India decided to close its borders with a one-day notice. Their first reaction was one of panic as they desperately tried to book a flight home. They managed to do so, but when they were about to board a flight to Doha, from where they would fly on to India, they were not allowed on board as they would be too late to still enter India.
It was only after some months that they began to realize that being stuck in Hungary also offered opportunities. Gradually some tournaments were organized again, in Hungary and neighbouring Serbia, and it was in those tournaments that he made his grandmaster norms. ‘Being stuck turned out to be a blessing. I was the only Indian playing tournaments, and I became a grandmaster.’

He believes that it’s because of their stay in Hungary that one of his favourite composers besides Chopin and Beethoven is Liszt. Leon Luke has played the violin since he was seven and likes to listen to classical music. He also loves sports, most recently basketball and also table tennis.

In 2021 he was invited to the Westbridge Anand Academy, as one of the six best Indian juniors at the time. Together with the other youngsters he would get regular trainings from Vishy Anand and his coaches, for free thanks to the Westbridge sponsorship. He is full of respect and gratitude towards Anand. ‘Those sessions have been a great boost to my confidence, an absolute blessing. It has helped me a lot.’

Mendonca’s ambitions are big. ‘I want to push myself as much as I can. Next year’s Tata Steel Masters will be a great stepping stone. My coach and I believe I might go all the way, but first I have to work on a lot. There’s a lot to improve, as is obvious.’

Have a look at the game that proved to be the turning point in Leon Luke Mendonca’s tournament, his win against Anton Korobov with his own notes. Including some variations, and peeks into his thought process.