A Former Child Chess Prodigy Studies at NJIT: Meet Chitra Sridhar

Former Chess Champ Chitra Sridhar Studies Computer Science at NJIT

Chitra Sridhar started playing chess when she was 6.  Her father taught her how to play.  He loved the game and she loved him and his passion for the game soon became her passion.  The two played constantly, lovingly, and she swiftly blossomed into a child prodigy. They lived then in Bangalore, where Chitra would become a chess sensation.

The same year she started to play, she won the six-year old girl’s state championship.    (She entered the boy’s state championship and won that, too.)  A year later, she won the Girl’s Under 8 title – her first national championship.  And at age 10, she was the youngest girl to win a women’s state championship – an Indian national record. 

At 12 she made her mark on the international chess world. She won a bronze medal in the Under 12 World Rapid Chess Championship in Paris, the first girl from India to win a medal in the world championships. She has twice ranked among the top 10 winners in the World Championships, and she tied for 10th place in the World Youth Olympiad held at Moscow in 2000.

She’d go on to many more victories and represent India in more world championships.  But it’s hard to make a living playing chess, especially in India, so after high school Chitra enrolled at a university in Bangalore and majored in computer science. She learned to love programming and before long was applying her considerable analytical powers -- the same powers she applies to chess -- to writing code.  She became an adept programmer and, after she graduated, worked as a programmer for a healthcare company in Bangalore – India’s Silicon Valley.  But after a year and half of that she wanted to return to university to gain a deeper understanding of computer science.

A few friends of hers in India knew about NJIT and told her it was a great university. She researched the College of Computing Sciences, loved what she read about the college and applied. She was accepted in January of 2009, and is now working towards her master’s degree.

Why did you start competing in chess tournaments so young?
I loved the game and played a lot so it was a natural progression for me to test my abilities in tournaments.  My father was then and has always been my coach and my guru. 

What was it like competing as a child?
It was fun. I wasn’t nervous; I was too young to be anxious.  I recall the first tournament I was in. I just felt a good vibe and enjoyed it. So I kept at it.  

What do you like most about chess?
What keeps me coming back to the game is not only the passion I have for it, but also the beauty involved it.  To me, chess mimics life, in the sense that both involve decision making and thinking ahead and weighing options.  

Does chess help your analytical thinking? Is chess a cousin to math? 
Chess definitely helps analytical thinking.  Typically, any position calls for analysis, in which you think about possible moves and analyze the repercussion of these moves. Chess involves patterned thinking and I would say it’s the same in math.  So I was always quite good at math, even as a child.

What about your major: computer science. Is it allied to chess?
I’m deeply passionate about programming and think computer science is allied to chess.  I have dabbled at writing software that could play chess. I see programming as a meeting point between my two overriding passions: programming and chess. 

Do you compete against men, too?
I compete against both men and women in international competitions. Women are allowed to enter men’s tournaments, which I’ve done since I started playing. I don’t think about gender differences in the game, I just play to win.  

When you were 12, you were the first Indian girl to win a medal in the World Chess Championship.  Were you heralded in India? And how did you feel after you won?
I was in the newspapers (Frontline; The Hindu) and on television.  I did many interviews. But what excited me the most at the time was meeting Anatoly Karpov, the former world champion. He gave me the prize.  I had studied his chess games and moves in books and admired him, so it was great to meet him.  My parents were happy for me and proud and my school teachers were happy for me.  I didn’t let it go to my head, though it was a nice to have some notoriety.    

Did your parents encourage you to excel in math and science?
My father, S. Sridhar, has always been my guiding light, in every sphere of my life. He studied science in college, so my interest in science comes from him.  But at home in Bangalore, we also have a huge library and both my parents are avid readers. Though I study computer science, I also love to read the American classics – Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck -- as well as English and Russian literature.    

Do you practice a lot before tournaments?
Before a tournament, I put in long hours of sweat and toil. Typically I’ll analyze my game and work toward eliminating the weaknesses in it, while also maintaining my strengths. I spend a lot of time analyzing my opponents’ games, studying their strategies and trying to see where they err.  Chess is divided broadly into three phases: the opening, the middle game and the end game. If I lose a game, I try to pinpoint what about my preparation for the game failed. Every game is a lesson learned -- on what to do and what not to do.

Do you aspire to be a chess grandmaster?
Yes, perhaps in a year or so I could make it to that level. But you need a lot of money to travel to international tournaments.  And you sometimes must hire coaches to help develop parts of your game. Chess doesn’t pay a lot of money, so most players must work a day job, too.

What do you plan to do after you get your master’s degree from NJIT? Compete in chess tournaments. Work as a programmer?
I love programming -- that’s why I’m studying computer science.  I’ve worked as a programmer for a healthcare company in India (Cerner) that is headquartered in Kansas City. I’m considering working again as a programmer -- yet still competing in chess. But I must first finish my master’s degree here first.  I just arrived here a few weeks ago -- this is my first semester -- and so far the professors and staff at have been warm and welcoming.  I’m happy to be here. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)