CHANDLER – At the end of every match, Sandeep Sethuraman looks his opponent in the eyes and mutters one word: checkmate.
“The expectation is 36-0 every year. Winning every game I play within the year. The goal is again to win the state championship,” said Sethuraman, a 15 year-old worldwide ranked chess player who is a junior at BASIS Chandler. “There are five boards and we need three-out-of-five every match to win.”
The high schooler has risen through the chess world since he first started playing when his grandma taught him the rules as a young kid. Midway through seventh grade, Sethuraman had qualified as a National Master and by 2021 he reached the title of FIDE Master.
He currently ranks 2,532 out of all active players in the world, according to the International Chess Federation.
These titles, which take years to earn, are decided through national and international tournaments and follow the Elo system, chess’s most commonly used rating system. The system breaks down international chess players into number categories starting with novices and continuing until the Super Grandmaster, the unofficial title for players with a rating of above 2700.
Sethuraman currently sits at 2371 – a mere 29 points below the title of International Master, according to the Elo system.
“I am pushing to become an International Master. I have two out of the three required norms and I am at 2370-ish and need to reach 2400 to become an International Master. I hope to become one by the end of this school year,” Sethuraman said.
However, his quest for chess supremacy will not distract his commitment to the BASIS Chandler team. In last year’s AIA season, Sethuraman swept the individual competitions along with defeating the highest-ranked player in the championship, Brophy’s Mason Miller, to capture the state championship for BASIS Chandler.
One year later, Sethuraman’s role is both captain and coach for his fellow teammates. He has become so good that even his coach, Radhika Guruju, has realized she has little to teach him. Instead, Guruju aids her superstar in the mental side of the game.
“Chess is a very mental game. Teams can intimidate you, opponents can intimidate you so (you) don’t want to look at them too much and listen to their trash talk,” Guruju said. “Ignoring everything around you makes your game the most important game of the day.”
With Sethuraman poised to captain the BASIS Chandler team for the next two seasons, anything less than a state championship would be a disappointment. However, Guruju is accustomed to lofty expectations. After gaining approval to join the AIA, she is the only coach the BASIS team has ever known and has never finished below the top five since the program’s inaugural season.
“We feel the pressure, because you win so many years and you have this reputation and expectation to win again,” Guruju said. “I tell my team just play the board, do not play the person sitting across from you, the team across from you. Make your game the most fun game for you, so you aren’t focused on a teammate’s game. From the time you step into a tournament to the time you step out you have to stay focused.”
Matt FritzMiller, BASIS Chandler’s principal, has taken a backseat while watching his chess program become one of the state’s best.
“What I do is, I don’t hold them back. I let them do whatever they need. They are so talented and such amazing chess players, and years ago they wanted to join the AIA so we let them, and it’s gone really really well,” FritzMiller said. “The best thing I can do for them is let them do their thing and support them anyway I can.
Sethuraman is primed to take the next step in the international chess world. He plans on bypassing the state’s individual tournament in November to focus on the U.S. Masters tournament in Charlotte over Thanksgiving weekend, where a successful showing will put him on the path to the International Master rating.
He also has used chess to give back to the community having created The Chess Effect, a non-profit that is designed to teach chess to underprivileged children. Through his efforts he had raised $900 for Arizona Helping Hands, an organization focused on providing essential services to foster care children.
The chess prodigy has no doubts that the sport will continue to play a significant role in his life. Nevertheless, he knows it is just one of many paths that his future holds.
“I am going to try and get the Grandmaster title,” Sethuraman said. “I want to continue to play chess for the rest of my life and while I want to go to college and may not be able to put the same amount of time into it, I still want to be a player and or coach.”