Squaring off against chess Grandmaster R. Praggnanandhaa, at a 10-board simultaneous exhibition he gave last fortnight at The Hindu office, my expectations of my own game were extremely modest. I’d be happy, I reckoned, if I wasn’t ignominiously checkmated in under 10 moves; and if perchance I survived that far, it might be nice to not be the first of the 10 players to lose. Nothing more ambitious than that.
The irrational mind, however, was conjuring up improbable scenarios.
As a student of chess history, I was acutely aware that even the best of players are known to have a bad day at the office while playing ‘simul’. For instance, on a visit to Moscow in 1951, British International Master Robert Wade gave a simultaneous display against 30 Russian schoolboys. Mystifyingly, he lost on 20 boards, and drew on 10, to set up one of the worst simul records for a player of standing.
Will ‘Praggu’, the fourth-youngest Grandmaster, too, prove similarly — and gobsmackingly — fallible? The faintest stirrings of unreasonable hope surged through me.
Presently, Praggnanandhaa, bedecked in a Team India blazer, sauntered into the playing hall, his parents in tow. His wasn’t exactly a dramatic entrance; even the distinguishing formality of his attire could not mask the fact that this was a slip of a lad, who appeared to be endearingly shy about interacting with us strangers.
My mind momentarily raced back to the 1980s, when as a member of the Mikhail Tal Chess Club, at the erstwhile Soviet Cultural Centre, I had been witness up-close to another chess prodigy in the making. That ‘lightning kid’ had gone on to electrify the world of chess, eventually winning five World Championship titles. The world knows him as ‘Vishy’ Anand.
Anand recalls in jest that on occasion, when he gives a simul exhibition against amateurs, an opponent may sneakily remove one of Anand’s pieces while the champion was busy on another board. But Grandmasters, he says, have immaculate pattern recognition skills, and can sense when the ‘harmony of the board’ is disturbed.
I made a mental note not to try betting against Praggu’s pattern recognition skills.
Soon, the games got under way. The 10 of us were seated along two rows, facing each other; Praggnanandhaa was to play white on all the boards, and would go from table to table. Abiding by the protocol for simul displays, each opponent was to make his or her move only when Praggu approached that board.
I was on Board No. 1, and with a firm handshake, Praggnanandhaa opened with his king’s pawn. I responded with a variant of the Ruy Lopez, named after a 16th-century Spanish priest who had analysed it extensively. Realising that it would be folly for me to stick to established lines, given Praggu’s superior knowledge of the theory of openings, I steered the game towards a less-common strand, giving up a pawn in exchange for an open position.
The wily wizard, however, simplified the game with an exchange of queens within the 10th move, but I was nevertheless gratified by the realisation that I had crossed the first of my milestones. From the 15th move or so, we entered into a slightly complicated positional game: I had opened up the queen-side pawns and secured an open file for my rook. On a couple of moves, Praggu paused just a tad longer than normal, but at every stage, he found a way to exchange pieces to simplify the game further.
Meanwhile, by the 30-minute mark, some six or seven opponents had capitulated. I was hanging on tenaciously. After 35 minutes, only one other player was competing with me for Praggu’s attention. By then, the Grandmaster was leveraging the pawn advantage I had given him early on, and after securing a free run on the C file, seemed sure to promote his pawn. Faced with the inevitable, I resigned, happy I had survived so long. On the next move, Praggu won the other game as well.
The final tally for Praggnanandhaa: 10 wins on 10 boards. Just a normal day at the office for a chess wizard.
The author is an Associate Editor at BusinessLine, and an amateur pawn-pusher
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