Humble to the core, teen sensation R Praggnanandhaa was far from realising the enormity of his achievement in the FIDE World Cup but reckoned his incredible run could force people to “start noticing” Indian chess.
It needed the sheer brilliance of Magnus Carlsen to stop the 18-year-old Praggnanandhaa’s march as he finished second best after losing in the final on Thursday.
“I feel very good to be in the finals, today I didn’t win, but it’s normal in chess,” Praggnanandhaa told PTI from Baku hours after he finished runner-up.
“No, not yet, but I guess it will at some point,” he said with a smile when asked if he understood the magnitude of his feat.
Praggnanandhaa put up a valiant effort in the final and held world No. 1 and five-time world champion Carlsen to a draw in the two classical games before going down in the tie-break.
As he shook hands with the Norwegian GM, Praggnanandhaa was surrounded by a group of children asking for his autograph.
“I think it’s good for the game and very happy to see so many people following it. And yeah, it’d be nice to see many kids coming to the game and I feel like that’s, that’s where it’s heading to, and I’m very happy with that,” Praggnanandhaa replied humbly when asked if he’s enjoying the spotlight.
“It (reaching the final) will get more people to play chess and I think in general people will start to notice Indian chess. I think that many people are recognising the sport and I think more people are coming to the game, it’s good.”
His stupendous run at the World Cup involved defeating world No.2 Hikaru Nakamura and world No.3 Fabiano Caruana.
His list of achievements does not end there, as he also became the third youngest player after Bobby Fischer and Carlsen to qualify for the Candidates tournament.
The achievement becomes even more remarkable considering the teen has been on his toes for the last two months, playing tournament after tournament.
“I have been playing continuous tournaments so I didn’t have much time to train for this event. I had a week to look at my opponents’ games and try to get an idea. And then when I came to the event, I didn’t really expect to go into the finals, but yeah, very happy.”
His mantra for the World Cup was simple: “Just believe in myself and play.”
One would think that after scaling such huge feats, Praggnanandhaa has earned a vacation, but the youngster doesn’t have much time as he starts preparing for another tourney beginning Monday.
“I’m exhausted and I just hope to take some rest now. I have another tournament coming up on Monday.”
Chess is a mental game which requires cognitive skills like critical thinking, pattern recognition, and strategic planning. So how does Praggnanandhaa keep his mind fresh amid such a packed schedule? “I think the hunger is a very important thing when you feel like working you have to start off, otherwise it can lead to burnout.”
The Chennai native revealed that after undergoing the rigours of a tournament such as this, where he has to play back-to-back matches, he prefers to stay away from the chess board.
“I just try to play some sport. Badminton and table tennis.” Reflecting on his battle with Carlsen, Praggnanandhaa, who has beaten the Norwegian GM a few times, said, “I was calm, I didn’t feel anything. I think as such, just wanted to give my best.
“I could have played a bit better than the tie-breaks, but it is what it is. The first game was important, I could have played a bit better there in the middle game, but when I missed that chance, I capitalised on and finished strong.”
He got a chance to lock horns with Carlsen at the Global Chess League recently.
“Discussing chess with him is a very good experience because he is the best player by far and to get a chance to interact with them and to learn about other things. And so on. It’s a huge opportunity.”
Asked if there was anything specific he picked up from the multiple-time world champion, Praggnanandhaa said, “Nothing in particular, but just about his understanding of the game and many other things.”
R Nagalakshmi was always present by her son’s side. She didn’t say anything, but her radiant smile conveyed how happy and proud she was of her son. She has been Praggnanandhaa’s biggest supporter in Baku, cheering him on, cooking for him, making sure that he has everything he needs.
“I think family support is very important to succeed in any field. My family has been very supportive. Also to my sister, so very, very grateful.
“It’s important (to have mom here), It’s a very long event. She was also cooking me some food so that was also very important for me.”
Praggnanandhaa became a GM at the age of 12. He was going strong before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which brought the world to a standstill. But the Chennai teenager made the most of it, homing his skills in online tournaments.
“Yeah, that gave me a lot of experience of this play against all these players. And I think I would say that was quite an important period because I got to play a lot of strong players. And I think those experiences are really important.”
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