R. Praggnanandhaa didn’t expect to make the final of the Chessable Masters before he signed up for the tournament. “I had an accountancy paper on the 19th and I had a six-day gap, that’s why I decided to play this tournament. But I didn’t expect to play until the 25th because it’s a really strong event,” the 16-year-old Grand Master admits.
Here he is now, in battle with the World no. 2 Ding Liren in the final, where he is trailing at the end of the opening game .
Pragg, as he is fondly known, is also in the midst of his 11 standard board exams. After he sealed his place in the final at 2 am on Wednesday, he had to tackle his commerce exam at 9 am, which was followed by the first game against Liren.
Reports about Praggnanandhaa’s exam circulated on social media, which prompted his semifinal opponent Anish Giri to tweet at the young Indian asking, ‘how did exam go?’
“Did well… Hopefully will pass,” came the reply.
On what expectations he has set for himself from the exams, he says, “I will be happy if I pass [the exams] and get 60%.” Praggnanandhaa has his Economics paper on Friday for which he admits, sheepishly, hasn’t begun preparing. He laughs and ponders for a moment about what will be his focus for today before adding, “I will prepare mainly for the final. Exam..? ok.. (grins) .”
But before that, on Thursday afternoon, Praggnanandhaa is being initiated into the Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) family by chairman Shrikant Madhav Vaidya. Praggnanandhaa is here on time in his now-familiar black blazer and trouser attire before the delayed start of the event.
From the dignitaries to the photographers, everyone wants a piece of the 16-year-old. Praggnanandhaa is at one time being dragged over by his arm to pose for a picture like you would be hauled around by your mother at a family wedding to meet your extended family members, who you will probably never remember again. He complies with all the requests without a fuss. “It’s been a tiring week but enjoyable also. It’s very good for my chess,” he says.
Praggnanandhaa is pleased to have the backing of a corporate, which has been supporting sports across disciplines including several chess players. “I am very honoured to join the Indian Oil family. They have been supporting chess for a long time,” he says.
Praggnanandhaa, presently the fifth youngest Grand Master (GM), also paid tribute to his school -- Velammal, which has encouraged him to pursue success in the sport while also helping him manage his academics. “For these boards, I started studying 10 days before the exams. All the teachers were trying to teach me in quick time and that’s how it’s possible. They are supporting me to focus on chess and I must thank my correspondent ma’am and my teachers. Without their help, it’s not possible,” he says.
Over the course of the two-year-long pandemic, chess remained functional through online events, but Praggnanandhaa says he prefers over-the-board matches. He says, “There is a difference… with emotions and everything. I like over-the-board (games) more and you can feel the thing… The focus is fully on chess. Sometimes, online, there will be some distractions... like exams (laughs) . When you are going to a tournament, you forget everything and you prepare only for it.”
Praggnanandhaa says he doesn't feel any pressure ahead of the second match and is quietly assured in his own game. Liren had beaten World no. 1 Magnus Carlsen in the semifinals. But so did Praggnanandhaa in the preliminary round of the tournament, making it the second time he has beaten Carlsen in the last three months.
“Today, I have to win in four games to take it to a tie-break. I have beaten some strong players here so definitely I can beat him. I beat him in one game, with black, so definitely it’s possible to do it again,” he says.
His matches begin at 9.30 pm and usually end around 2 am in the morning, while it takes it beyond 2 am for tie-breaks. And as Praggnanandhaa aims to beat Liren in the second game and force a tie-break, another long night awaits the prodigious youngster.
If he makes history, there is still a big matter of getting over the line in his Economics and Computer application papers next. "I just need to manage them somehow."
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