The next move

What next for chess prodigy Praggnanandhaa

PTI6_26_2018_000191b The young master: Praggnanandhaa lifted by his friends on his return to school as a grandmaster | PTI

HE IS 12 YEARS and 10 months old, has big wide eyes which take in every detail, hair that falls on to his forehead, and a wiry frame. In other words, he looks like any other ordinary boy. Yet, Praggnanandhaa R. is not just any boy. He is the second youngest chess grandmaster in history.

On June 26, as he came out of the Chennai International Airport, he received a rousing reception. His father Rameshbabu was waiting for him. So was his coach grandmaster Ramesh R.B., and his first coach Thiyagu. Friends, members of the local chess fraternity, teachers and the media made a beeline for him. He was garlanded and draped in a traditional Kanchipuram shawl. He took it all in with a shy smile.

He has a good all-round game. He is comfortable in a wide range of positions.” - Viswanathan Anand, former world champion

Two days ago, he had won the ninth and concluding round of the Gredine Open in Italy, beating Dutch grandmaster Roeland Pruijssers in 40 moves to tie on scores with the eventual champion Ivan Saric of Croatia. After his eighth round win, Praggnanandhaa had to face an opponent with an Elo rating of 2,485 in the final round to make his third and final grandmaster norm—a high level of performance in a chess tournament that meets the world chess federation’s criteria. Pruijssers was rated 2,514, which meant that Praggnanandhaa would have completed the norm even if he had lost the last match. Praggnanandhaa has an Elo rating of 2,529 points.

“The moment everybody had been waiting for almost one year has come,” Rameshbabu told THE WEEK. Ramesh, the coach, said: “Both of us—Praggu and I—are relieved.”

Had he achieved the third norm by March, he would have become the youngest chess grandmaster ever. The record is currently held by Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin (he represented Ukraine till 2009). He qualified for the title aged 12 years and 7 months with a rating of 2,527, in August 2002. Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion, achieved the title aged 13 years, 4 months and 27 days with a rating of 2,567, in April 2004. Praggnanandhaa did break the Indian record, previously held by Parimarjan Negi, (13 years, 4 months and 22 days). He is also the world’s youngest ‘international master’, having qualified for the title aged ten.

Former world champion and India’s first grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, Praggnanandhaa’s inspiration, was 18 when he qualified for the title. Both of them competed in the 2017 Isle of Man Open. “Becoming a grandmaster at the age of 12 is a remarkable achievement and the fact that he is the second youngest in history speaks for itself,” Anand told THE WEEK. “I believe that by getting to 2,500, he has proven that he is not only capable of getting good results but also of doing it consistently. That augurs very well for the future.”

Praggnanandhaa achieved his first grandmaster norm in November 2017 during the World Junior Championship in Italy. Ramesh said that people expected him to achieve the remaining two norms fast, though the normal “gestation period” is two to three years. “There was pressure, but we tried to protect him,” said Ramesh. “Our approach was to focus on the games and not think too much about the norms.”

Praggnanandhaa’s rise in the chess world may have been meteoric. But his family’s journey has been tough. The lower middle-class family, from Padi in north Chennai, faced “tremendous financial difficulties”, according to Praggnanandhaa’s father. Rameshbabu, who works with the State Bank of India suffers from polio. So, when his wife, Nagalakshmi, travelled with the children (Praggnanandhaa’s sister, Vaishali, is also a chess player), his relatives took care of him.

Praggnanandhaa won his first medal, a silver, at the national championships in Pune aged seven. It was around the same time his father approached Ramesh to take both his children into his chess academy—Chess Gurukul. Vaishali, elder to Praggnanandhaa by four years, appeared to be the brighter spark. It was with her that little Praggu started playing. The siblings study at the Velammal school in Anna Nagar, which keenly supports sportspersons, especially chess players. According to Ramesh, Praggnanandhaa’s calibre stood out from the very beginning. “He grasps things very quickly, you don’t need to work it through with him,” he said. “He also has that self belief. He is extremely confident about his abilities. He pays attention to small details and, most importantly, is interested in learning.”

Anand praised the young grandmaster for his technical prowess. “He has a good all-round game,” said Anand. “He will now have to grow in all areas, but the important thing is that he is comfortable in a wide range of positions and that means he will not be a one-dimensional player.” Grandmaster Abhijeet Gupta, who has played against and interacted with Praggnanandhaa many times, said that even as a ten-year old, he had the ability to play long games lasting six to seven hours. The child prodigy’s strengths are his middle and end games. “His openings are not up to the mark,” said Ramesh. “It was a concerted decision as of now to focus on the middle and end games. We will focus on the opening. We have a few ideas we will be working on.”

According to Anand, how he embraces the next stage of his chess career will define Praggnanandhaa. “Yes, it will be more difficult for him because of his fame,” said Anand. “People will be more prepared for him. On the other hand, as a grandmaster, he will get invitations to play in interesting places. It can be a fun experience, too.” Ramesh said the next stage will include being more choosy about tournaments and playing high-ranked players. “Even if it goes against us, the experience will be good,” he said. The ultimate aim is for Praggnanandhaa to be world champion in 12 to 15 years.