The unexpected progress of R. Praggnanandhaa in the recent Chess World Cup final made cricket-loving fans in India sit up and take notice of the teenager’s skills. Despite his starting rank of 31, this 18-year-old from Chennai played exceptionally well, defeating Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, both highly-ranked American players, before facing off against Magnus Carlsen, arguably the best player in the world.
After receiving a hero’s welcome in Chennai, Praggnanandhaa—correctly pronounced as Pragyananda—travelled to New Delhi to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then headed to Kolkata to attend a preparatory camp for the 2023 Asian Games in China later this month.
Despite his busy schedule, Praggnanandhaa spoke in detail with Sportstar, reflecting on his recent achievements.
Q: Pragg, when did you realise your progress in the World Cup had generated so much interest in India?
A: When the World Cup was happening, I didn’t realise it. I didn’t read much during the event. But I looked it up afterwards. Even after the event was over, people were still talking about it. I didn’t expect that. After coming back to India, I could see more people were aware of what was happening in chess. I’m very happy about that. However, it’s a different feeling to be recognised. People recognise me at airports and when I am checking into hotels. That said, I could have continued to enjoy my anonymity as I did before.
Q: So, going forward, how do you plan to handle all the attention, with your fans requesting selfies, photographs, and autographs?
A: I have no idea. It is what, I think, every sportsperson wants. But I am discovering that there are also some side effects (laughs).
Q: Even though Viswanathan Anand won the World title five times, the World Cup twice, became World No. 1, and achieved much more, our sports lovers and media never responded like they did this time to your journey to the World Cup final. Do you remember witnessing anything that was even remotely close to this kind of euphoria?
A: I haven’t experienced anything like that in chess before. The other day at the Chennai airport, the CISF Jawans informed me that there was a gathering of more than 500 people waiting to catch a glimpse of me when I arrived. It was truly amazing. I never expected such a warm welcome. As a chess enthusiast, it made me happy to witness this overwhelming response.
Q: Now if you reflect on the World Cup, what is the first thought that comes to mind?
A: For me, this being my second World Cup, there were so many moments to remember. Very emotional moments. In one game you are happy, and in the next game you are sad. Then again, it’s fine. Honestly, it was a very different tournament for me. I understood what a World Cup is. I could feel that I was losing a lot of energy. I noticed it after the quarterfinal with Arjun (Erigaisi). You don’t realise this until you are there. I could see that I didn’t have my usual energy when I was playing Fabiano (Caruana) in the semifinal.
Q: What about the tense quarterfinal against your good friend Arjun?
A: That was the match where we both did not give up. That was good. He bounced back twice after losing, and I did the same following the opening loss.
Q: What were your thoughts when Arjun bounced back for a second time to draw level?
A: At that point, I was briefly upset, but I recovered quite quickly. I told myself that if I didn’t win this one, Arjun deserved to win. I was thinking that even if I lost after this, it was fine, and I would try my best. Suddenly, I didn’t feel any pressure and was playing freely. Even during the final game, I remained quite calm.
Q: Tell us, how come you arrived at the board 30 seconds late for a three-minute sudden-death game against Arjun?
A: When I look back on it now, I realise what went wrong. The large clock that displayed the countdown to the next game, which I thought had five minutes left, was counting down from 50 seconds! I left to wash my face, and when I returned, an arbiter informed me that the game had already started. But I did not panic and walked to the board and played calmly to win.
Q: If you were to choose at least one game each, played by the other three Indian quarterfinalists—D. Gukesh, Vidit Gujrathi, and Arjun—which ones would those be?
A: Arjun’s victory against Nils Grandelius, while playing with black pieces, was truly impressive. His game against me, which was the first one, was also remarkable. His tactics, especially the one he found with just a few seconds on the clock, were very impressive. I also enjoyed Vidit’s first game against Etienne Bacrot. Gukesh’s victory over Wang Hao, playing with black pieces in the first game, was also amazing, as he won it very quickly.
Q: Looking back at your games, which are the ones whose quality left you satisfied?
A: During the match against (Ferenc) Berkes, the second game was a standout performance for me. I felt that I played well. Another memorable game was against Hikaru (Nakamura). In the first game of the tiebreaker, Nakamura made an early error as he forgot the sequence of moves. At that point, it was not clear that I was in a winning position, although computer evaluation later showed that I was. After a few more moves, I began to realise that I might be winning, which made me tense. I told myself that if I didn’t take this chance, it would be very difficult for me. After making a few good moves, I began to feel more confident and believed that I should be able to win.
Q: What about the second tie-break game where Nakamura was desperate to win, but you got a better position from the start?
A: During that game, I realised that I needed to finish it then and there; otherwise, I would have almost no chance of making a comeback. I knew he was not going to give me any more chances. I managed to secure a good position out of the opening and played decently. There was certainly room for improvement, but given the situation, I was happy with how the game went.
Q: Now, about the match against Fabiano Caruana. Was there a conscious attempt to take the match deeper into shorter time controls since he is not known to have better results in classical time control?
A: If you compare Fabiano’s play in rapid and blitz before and after the outbreak of COVID-19, he has improved a lot. So it was not a plan. I was worse in the first two (classical) games. I did not get a chance. Even in the third game, I was worse. In the fourth, too, there was slight pressure, but I didn’t want to risk too much. With white, it doesn’t make sense to risk too much. In the fifth game, I felt that if I didn’t lose, I would get a chance or two at some point. But it was important to take a chance. After all, in the first three games, the trend was that I was defending. I felt, somewhere, I would get that one chance, and I had to be alert enough to take it, and I took it.
Q: What is your take on the final against Magnus Carlsen?
A: The first game was pretty solid. I was trying a bit, and then I kind of misplayed it. I was not in any danger. And for the second one, he (an unwell Carlsen) wanted to make a draw. I didn’t think it was a bad decision because I was also tired. After this, I thought I had just one day (meant for tie-breaker games), and I could give everything and then rest.
In rapid games, I got my chance in the first one. He has more experience in such situations than I do. I usually take my time, but I played impulsively in some positions. I don’t commit such mistakes. But it happened to me there. There was one moment when I played my knight on the kingside. There were many options. Even if I have only two options or a move that seems forced, I always take at least 10 seconds to check if the move is truly forced. However, at that particular moment, I played it rather quickly. There were other possible options. I suppose it was just one of those decisions.
Q: Tell us, when did you seriously look at the possibility of qualifying for the Candidates Tournament?
A: At first, I didn’t give it much thought, as it seemed like a distant possibility. My main focus was to improve my rating. However, after winning a title in Hungary in July, I began to feel more optimistic about my chances of qualifying for the Candidates. Still, I thought it would help to get a few more FIDE circuit points. I was so down on the points table and didn’t even get a point earlier. So, it didn’t make much sense to think about it. But when I beat Hikaru (Nakamura) in the World Cup, I thought maybe there was a chance that I could make it. After beating Arjun, I knew it was almost done, but I still wanted to ensure it. I didn’t want to wait unnecessarily (for Carlsen’s decision not to play the Candidates in April 2024). After beating Fabiano, I was much more relieved.
Q: How do you plan to prepare for the Candidates Tournament?
A: For the next couple of months, my schedule is fixed. After the rapid and blitz event in Kolkata, I will be playing in the Spanish League, the Asian Games, and the Grand Swiss.
Q: Now that you have reached a career-high 19th in the world rankings, have you revised your opinion about the classical rating?
A: Now, I think it’s very important. Earlier, I didn’t think it was. In general, recently, I have been checking it and realised that only if you are higher rated do you get invitations to top tournaments. My present rating of 2727 is fine, but I want to take it higher and make sure I get some invites.
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