On his fifth birthday, Dhairya Mehta was gifted a chess board. The box stayed unopened in his house for months. Bored one day, Mehta asked his father, Mitul, to teach him how to play. His father showed him the basics and later enrolled the boy in chess classes.
At 6 years old, Mehta was encouraged by his instructor to compete in a tournament.
“We just showed up there, and we were not expecting anything,” his father said. “His coach said that he only knew the basic rules.”
Much to everyone’s surprise, he finished in third place.
Although he is only a fifth-grader at Hopkins School, Mehta already has participated in more than 114 chess tournaments. He has finished first, second or third in most of them. The large collection of trophies and medals at his home attests to that.
Mehta practices chess for 1-2 hours daily and trains with chess coach Steve Winer.
“Practicing to me means playing chess games, of course, watching chess YouTube videos and analyzing my game to study from my mistakes,” he said.
Mehta recently took second place at Massachusetts’ Barry S. Spiegel Cup, which consisted of four matches.
“The first game I got destroyed,” Mehta recalled. “I was not feeling well, but I talked to my dad, and he gave me some confidence.”
He went on to win the second and third games and drew the fourth.
At local tournaments, Mehta often sees and competes against the same faces. Over the years, some of the competitors have become friends and played friendly games against each other.
Like most activities, the pandemic forced chess tournaments to go virtual. Many players, including Mehta, started playing much more online, and players who were used to playing one tournament a week could now play a tournament every day.
“As I kept playing, I kept getting better throughout the pandemic,” he said. “After the pandemic, I have been playing much better than I used to play.”
Added his father: “Because of the pandemic, [kids] started playing every day. There was a lot of practice, and when the pandemic got over, there was a big jump in a lot of kids because they were practicing so much.”
Mehta still plays in some online tournaments, and at the 2022 National Online Quick Scholastic Championships, he placed ninth in the division for kindergarten through Grade 6.
Although he loves chess, Mehta does not aspire to be a chess grandmaster like his idol, Viswanathan Anand, the first chess grandmaster from India. Instead, he hopes to be an entrepreneur and run his own business. After a summer break, encouraged by his parents, Mehta plans on playing more chess.
His passion and commitment to chess inspire his younger brother and other students in his school. His brother, Viaan, has started competing in and winning a few chess tournaments. At Hopkins, Mehta is the assistant coach of Chess Wizards, an after-school program, and one of his favorite activities there is making chess puzzles for others to solve.
Aside from chess, Mehta plays baseball and the violin, and he enjoys playing Monopoly and cards with his family, especially since he is no longer able to play chess with his father.
“I try to avoid that humiliation,” his father joked. “After the first few months, I realized that he had surpassed me.”