IN SPORT, prodigies don’t always blossom into world-beaters; Indian chess currently has a handful of teens who could be on the cusp of doing so. This includes Gukesh D., Arjun Erigaisi and, as of now, first among equals R. Praggnanandhaa, who took on the great Magnus Carlsen in the final of the recently concluded FIDE World Cup.
Though he stumbled at the final hurdle, the 18-year-old had an impressive run to reach Carlsen―beating world nos. 2 and 3, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, who are nearly 80 points above him in the FIDE ratings. Also, he achieved the primary aim of playing the tournament―reaching the Candidates tournament. There, if he wins, he will challenge World Champion, China’s Ding Liren, for his title.
“He wants to be world champion,” his coach R.B. Ramesh told THE WEEK. “Magnus became world champion at 22; Pragg is just 18. There are still three to five years for him to aim for the World Championship. For that, we have to work extremely hard. The external environment needs some changes; we need powerful machines to do the analysis. Most top players would already be using these. Also, [we have to] put together a bigger team than the one we have currently. We are already talking to people and hope it will all come together by the end of September.” The Candidates tournament is scheduled for April.
“There have been a lot of positive takeaways for me,” said Praggnanandhaa. “I have never played such a long tournament and it has been a good experience for the Candidates.”
Vishal Sareen, an international master and renowned coach, said Praggnanandhaa surpassed his own expectations in this World Cup. “The boy has a lot of dum (guts); he is fearless,” he said. “He was not overawed by Magnus. Pragg has the ability to summarise things in quick time. He also acclimatised himself to the situation very well. I definitely see a hint of Magnus in him. He is self-sufficient. I saw this in [Dutch grandmaster] Anish Giri, Garry Kasparov and Magnus. Earlier, he was a contemporary, now he is treated as a feared opponent.”
He even said that Praggnanandhaa was more intuitive and aggressive than Viswanathan Anand. “Having said that, he still has a long way to go,” he said.
On expanding the teen’s team, Sareen said that while the move was obvious, it would not be easy. “He would need people whom he can reach out to constantly for different things,” he said. “He will need a couple of Indians―they would be easy to reach out to.”
On the heels of the World Cup, Praggnanandhaa won the inaugural FIDE World Rapid Team Championship as part of a team that also had grandmasters Ian Nepomniachtchi and Wesley So. Before heading to Dusseldorf, Germany, for the event, he had said that he hoped to “have fun” there. He did that and more. Next is the Tata Steel tournament in January.
Praggnanandhaa started 2023 with an Elo rating of 2684; he is now at 2,727 in the live ratings (at the time of going to press), which puts him at number 20 on the world list. Gukesh is the highest Indian on the list at rank 8, recently overtaking the legendary Anand. So, the fact that Praggnanandhaa did better than his higher-ranked compatriots―Vidit Gujrathi was also above him when the World Cup began―made a lot of people sit up and take notice.
Praggnanandhaa first got into chess when he saw his sister Vaishali play. She taught him the rules. “He is always calm; he never expresses himself,” said M.S. Viswanathan, his first coach. “Be it in victory or in defeat, he keeps it to himself, which is actually his strength.”
Viswanathan coached him from ages three to seven, and said he was proud to teach some of the boy’s strategies to his younger students. “I follow his game very closely even though I trained him earlier. His opening games are always fantastic,” said Viswanathan. “His father first called me after seeing an advertisement in a local newspaper and asked if I could come home to coach him.”
Family has always been the main source of support for the World Cup runner-up. “I am happy with the way Pragg played in the final,” said his father, Rameshbabu, a bank employee. “It is not just a matter of winning or losing; he was there and he put up a fight. All credit to his mother.”
The mother in question, Nagalakshmi, had left her Chennai home to accompany her son for the World Cup. A picture of her looking adoringly at Praggnanandhaa had gone viral, prompting the great Kasparov to tweet “Congrats to @rpragchess―and to his mother. As someone whose proud mama accompanied me to every event, it’s a special kind of support!”
Nagalakshmi, however, takes care to never look into her son’s eyes while he is playing. She had always felt that her emotions would affect him. And so, she stands at a distance, marvelling at the rapid strides her child has made.
It was at her Chennai home that Viswanathan first saw the raw talent. Though he did not know the names of the pieces, Praggnanandhaa was thorough with the rules and would never give up. “Once when I got to their house, he was playing simultaneously on two boards,” said Viswanathan. “I was surprised by his talent.”
In the coming years, this talent became evident. What developed in parallel was his adaptability. In 2021, when Praggnanandhaa and Ramesh went abroad to play the Tata Steel tournament in the Netherlands, the coach tested positive for Covid-19 and had to isolate himself. Praggnanandhaa, then 16 and a vegetarian, was all alone in his room. He cooked his own food, went to the playing station by himself, and connected with Ramesh on WhatsApp and Zoom. “I have always wanted him to be independent,” said Ramesh. “It was a turning point in his life because he became kind of independent in those few days.”
And he started to show this independence in his game, too. On long student-coach walks during a recent tournament in Germany, Ramesh asked Praggnanandhaa to finish the first 20 or 30 moves in the first five to 10 minutes. “With slightly more time, it is easier for him to navigate,” said Ramesh. But Praggnanandhaa was clear; he wanted to play a perfect game and did not want to rush. “He is a perfectionist,” said Ramesh. “I feel really happy that he is looking at himself with a very objective outlook. When I suggest some corrections, he is able to see beyond the advice and still believe in his approach. These are good qualities to have at a young age.”
He added that his ward was ready for bigger challenges. “He is not a lazy child; he does not feel entitled to be world champion,” said Ramesh. “He is fully responsible. We will give our everything for his success in the Candidates. We have to make our training more intense. We do not believe in predicting results, but instead try to give our best and accept the outcome.”
There is, expectedly, a lot of hope around the wunderkind. Aruna, Anand’s wife, called up Ramesh before the World Cup final was over to ask what more needed to be done for Praggnanandhaa’s preparations for the Candidates. “We will sit with Pragg and decide on how he wants to approach the Candidates,” said Ramesh. He already has experience of the big events.”
With the special ones, there is always a warning―‘handle with care’. And so, a couple of days with Anand, said Ramesh, would help Praggnanandhaa a lot in terms of handling what comes with the territory.
Ramesh might be wary of which events to choose for his student, but Sareen pushed for more aggression. “He [needs to be] exposed to big events... and win there,” he said. “He is peaking at 18; it is the right time to do so, that 18 to 21 age bracket.” Especially given that there were no obvious weaknesses in his game that needed to be addressed, he added. “Especially in classical chess events, he needs a lot of exposure in the next two to three years,” he said. “There is no use holding him back.”