Chess prodigies: Who next?

Let us talk of those young knights of Indian chess who have the potential to ascend the throne one day.

Koneru Humpy started off as a child prodigy. She has won many laurels, but is yet to win the women’s World Championship.   -  Vijaya Bhaskar

When Magnus Carlsen was asked — about a year ago — who would be the world chess champion in 2050, the reigning king of the mind sport said, “By that time India will have had many already.”

For those following Indian chess, and its prodigies, that comment from the Norwegian genius wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Of course, being excitingly prodigious is one thing and fulfilling the promise is quite another. The world of sports is full of tales about unrealised potential.

You could see some examples in Indian chess, as well. Like the case of Koneru Humpy. A couple of decades ago, she had emerged as the brightest Indian prospect since Viswanathan Anand. She had won all the world age-group tournaments, often competing against girls much older, and she had even looked like winning India’s senior men’s title once.

Humpy winning the women’s world championship had seemed a question of when, not if. She came close on a few occasions, but she hasn’t, yet.

She is 31 now and might still do it one day, but her strongest rival, Hou Yifan of China, has moved so far ahead of Humpy and all other women.

Parimarjan Negi, who was once the world’s second youngest grandmaster, achieved less. He even left professional chess to pursue academics.

So having done with the look at the past, let us talk of those young knights of Indian chess who have the potential to ascend the throne one day. One name that would readily come to mind is R. Praggnanandhaa.

He is just 13, but is already a veteran on the international circuit. Significantly, he has started getting invitations for playing in some of the world’s most prestigious tournaments. Even more significantly, he has made good use of the opportunities that have come his way. Like he did against Wesly So — ranked World No. 2 then — at the Leon Masters in Spain last July.

In the semifinal, he put up a splendid performance, though he lost the match 1.5-2.5. He had won the first game and had his American rival in trouble on quite a few occasions.

Praggnanandha rates it as one of the finest performances of his young career. “I was very happy with the way I played So,” he had told this writer in Chennai a couple of months ago. “I like playing against the world’s top players. They are so different from others. They make very few mistakes. I like that challenge.”

He faced an even bigger challenge in Kolkata after that. At the Tata Steel Chess India Blitz in November, he got an excellent chance to match wits with some of the biggest names in world chess, like Viswanathan Anand, Hikaru Nakamura, Sergey Karjakin, Levon Aronian, Wesley So and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. He may have finished at the bottom in such a strong field, but he justified his invitation by the quality of his chess.

Praggnanandhaa is indeed doing the right thing by playing almost exclusively in tournaments for the grown-ups and not the age-group events, in which he could have walked away with several World titles. There are several other things that go for him — such as an excellent coach in R. B. Ramesh, a generous sponsor in Ramco and an ideal sparring partner at home in his sister R. Vaishali, a winner of two world age-group titles herself.

Nihal Sarin’s sister Neha has little interest in chess. Neither does he have a regular sponsor. What he has is talent in abundance.

The 14-year-old from Kerala is one of the most natural talents Indian chess has ever seen. He may appear a bit restless and you may often find him moving away from his seat during a tournament; he would be looking at the board from a distance, when he is not following the action on other boards in the hall.

Unlike Praggnanandhaa — who is also his very good friend — Nihal comes from a state that has no great tradition to speak of in chess. One recalls meeting him for the first time in Chennai during the World championship match between Anand and Carslen.

The tiny boy had just won the national under-9 championship. While every Indian player, of varying age-groups, had backed Anand, Nihal had picked Carlsen as the winner. After winning that Nationals, he won the World Under-13 blitz title. He went on to claim a few more medals at World age-group tournaments. Of late though, like Praggnanandhaa, he plays mostly with seniors.

He has had some stunning results, too. At the World blitz championship in Saint Petersburg, he took the 11th place, after starting out as the 139th. And he finished higher than all other Indians, including Anand.

GM Nihal Sarin is only 14, but has oodles of talent. However, the absence of a sponsor is preventing him from taking part in overseas tournaments and gaining valuable experience.   -  K. K. Mustafah

 

He had also done well at the Tata Steel tournament in Kolkata — it was a smart move by the organisers to field both him and Praggnanandhaa — drawing with much stronger rivals like Anand and Mamedyarov.

Nihal, though, is handicapped by the lack of sponsors. “The support we received from Tata ended last year,” said his father Abdul Sarin, a Thrissur-based doctor. “It is very difficult for us to make him play abroad without sponsors.”

A talent like Nihal shouldn’t suffer because of lack of funds.

Apart from Nihal and Praggnanandhaa, there is another new kid on the block — D. Gukesh, the 12-year-old who recently became the world’s second youngest grandmaster, erasing the record of Pragnanandhaa.