The knight who would be king!

While prodigies have frequently emerged in Indian chess, not many have offered as much promise or have achieved as much at Praggnanandhaa’s age.

Praggnanandhaa is making rapid strides in the world of chess.   -  R. Ragu

December isn’t a bad time to be in Chennai. The weather is rather pleasant, making you wonder if there is truth in the popular saying that the city has only three seasons — hot, hotter and ttest.

This Tuesday morning is not even warm, as you try to locate Chess Gurukul on Vaidyaraman Street at T. Nagar. “It’s there, near the BJP office,” a helpful man points at a building a few yards away.

Chess Gurukul is on the first floor. It is like any other unpretentious two-bedroom apartment, except that most of the rooms are filled with chessboards and not cots.

Sitting in front of one of those boards is R. Praggnanandhaa, the 13-year-old, whose stunning moves have taken the chess world by storm. While prodigies have frequently emerged in Indian chess, not many have offered as much promise or have achieved as much at his age.

Last June, at 12 years, 10 months and 19 days, he became the world’s second youngest Grandmaster — the highest title you could aspire for in chess.

Grandmaster R. B. Ramesh, a much-in-demand coach nowadays, says, “The good thing about Praggnanandhaa is that he is willing to work hard even though he knows that he has exceptional skills."   -  R. Ragu

 

It is from this academy that he has evolved as a world-beater. “I like working here; it is much more fun than working alone at home,” he says. “And I have gained a lot from training with R. B. Ramesh.”

Ramesh, who used to be one of India’s strongest players, is now a much-in-demand coach. Ten years ago, he had taken a tough decision to leave his well-paying job at the Indian Oil Corporation so that he could take to coaching full time.

Players like Praggnanandhaa and Aravindh Chithambaram have benefited by that decision. Ramesh’s contribution in shaping their careers has been immense. His academy is now recognised as one of India’s finest chess nurseries.

“Praggnanandhaa, no doubt, is a very special talent, though I would say Aravindh is also special when it comes to natural ability,” says Ramesh. “The good thing about Praggnanandhaa is that he is willing to work hard even though he knows that he has exceptional skills.”

Praggnanandhaa’s first coach wasn’t Ramesh, though. He had learnt the early chess lessons from M. A. Velayutham.

Praggnanandhaa’s father Rameshbabu took him to Ramesh some four years ago. “It was at a function in Chennai that I first met Praggnanandhaa,” recalls the coach. “He was one of the award winners and after the ceremony Rameshbabu said he wanted me to train both his children.”

The other child, R. Vaishali, was already creating ripples in chess circles. A winner of the World Under-14 and Under-12 championships, Vaishali is the ideal sparring partner for her kid brother at home.

“I used to beat him always, for three or four years,” she says. “I would beat him just like that; there would not even be a draw. Then, one day, he defeated me. I was upset that I had lost to my younger brother. He was just seven then. But before long, I realised that he was no normal player.”

Not just Vaishali, the rest of the world also began to take note of the little kid who would come to chess tournaments wearing a liberal dose of vibhuti (holy ash) on his forehead. In 2013, he won the World Under-8 championship and the Under-10 title two years later.

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In 2016, he became an International Master; at the age of 10 years, 10 months and 19 days, he was the world’s youngest ever to get the title. He was unlucky not to become the youngest Grandmaster too, as he fell short of Russian Sergey Karjakin’s 16-year-old record by three months.

He got the title when he scored his third norm — you get a norm when you score a specific number of points in a Grandmaster tournament — from the Gredine Open held in the Italian town of Urtijei. He had made his first norm, too, in Italy.

It was with a truly remarkable performance that he did it: he finished fourth in the World junior championship in Tarvisio last year. The World juniors is a prestigious tournament with an age limit of 20. The past winners include Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Boris Spassky, all of whom went on to win the ultimate World title.

Praggnanandhaa, of course, has often fared well against much older opponents. That is one of the beauties of chess — age and gender are really no bar; you are free to compete with anyone.

But, a little boy giving a scare or two to the world’s second-best player is not usual. Praggnanandhaa did that against Wesley So in the semifinal of the Leon Masters in Spain in July. He defeated the American in the first game before losing the match 1.5-2.5.

“That was a superb performance by him,” says Ramesh. “He had winning chances in three out of the four matches.”

Praggnanandhaa is a big draw at the Velammal Matric Higher Secondary School, in Chennai.   -  R. Ragu

 

Praggnanandhaa, too, is happy with his effort in Leon. “It felt great playing against So in Leon,” he says. “And it was my first tournament after I completed my Grandmaster title. I wanted to enjoy my experience and play freely. I was able to do that. I had a bad position in the first game, but luckily I was able to win it after he blundered. In the next game, I missed a win as early as in the seventh move.”

Leon, however, remains his second favourite event. The one he ranks higher is the Tata Steel Chess India Blitz in Kolkata in November. He had finished last in that 10-player tournament.

You may wonder why he would place that event above many of the tournaments he has won or finished near the top, but it shows how mature he is. Some of the biggest stars in international chess, including Viswanathan Anand, Hikaru Nakamura, Karjakin, Levon Aronian, So and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, played in the City of Joy. Praggnanandhaa was the lowest-ranked, with a whopping 527 Elo points separating him and the top-seeded Nakamura.

He finished with 5.5 points. “It was a good result for me, but it could have been better as I had two or three winning positions,” he said. “I am happy with the way I played against Karjakin, Anand, So and Nakamura. Yes, I could have scored more points, but I enjoyed competing with so many strong players in Kolkata.”

In his quest to become a strong player himself — such elite players are called super Grandmasters, though there is nothing official about it — he has to continue playing quality tournaments, most of them abroad, such as the Sunway Sitges in Spain.

To play in it, he has to catch the flight to Barcelona the very next day. Since he doesn’t have too much time, we decide to pay a visit to his school the same afternoon.

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The Velammal Matriculation School, at Mogappair, is about half-an-hour’s drive from the academy. Praggnanandhaa is a student of Class VII, but he hasn’t been to school even for a day this year, yet. “But I have to attend classes from January onwards,” he says, with no obvious enthusiasm.

He may not be a regular at school, but he is a familiar face. A banner featuring him, his sister (she is also a student there) and another chess player — G. B. Varshavardhan — is displayed prominently in the school premises.

Praggnanandhaa, understandably, doesn’t have any friends at school, but he is soon mobbed by kids. Chess seems to be quite popular at Velammal.

“About 70 per cent of our students play chess,” says M. V. M. Velmohan, the School Correspondent who heads the administration. “We are all proud of what Praggnanandhaa has done. We have been promoting chess in our school for more than a decade now.”

For achievers like Praggnanandhaa, schooling is free. “We also give them flight tickets when they travel abroad to play for India,” says Velmohan.

“We have a chess trainer at school. We have had several international players at the school over the years, like B. Adhiban, S. P. Sethuraman, Aravindh, N. Srinath, D. Gukesh and Rakshitta Ravi.”

Players like them are indeed fortunate. There aren’t many schools in the country which encourage their students as much to pursue their passion as well as education.

Praggnanandhaa is also fortunate that his parents do not put any pressure on him. “They don’t know chess and that is a boon,” says Ramesh. “I have seen many parents burdening their children with unreasonable expectations.”

We meet Praggnanandhaa’s mother at their home in Kumaran Nagar, just a few minutes away from the school. The homemaker is no stranger to those who follow Indian chess: she is the constant companion of Praggnandhaa and Vaishali in tournaments. “He can be pretty naughty when he doesn’t play chess,” she says, flashing that disarming smile of hers.

Praggnanandhaa with his medals and trophies. And he wants to add the World title to his collection.   -  R. Ragu

 

Praggnanandhaa’s father is not home yet. Rameshbabu is at work: he is the manager of the Korattur branch of the Tamil Nadu State Co-Operative Bank.

He isn’t done yet for the day, when we meet him in his bank cabin. He is obviously happy with his son’s achievements, but he reveals that he had seriously thought about taking both his children out of chess because of the huge expenses involved.

“I have had to withdraw money heavily from my savings, and then I found that there was simply no way for me to fund the careers of my children,” he says. “But luckily, we found a sponsor. The All India Chess Federation (AICF) vice-president D. V. Sundar put in a word to P. R. Venkatrama Raja.”

Raja, the chairman of Ramco Cement and also the AICF president, sponsors not just Praggnanandhaa but Vaishali as well. “Without the support from him, my son wouldn’t have been able to play in so many tournaments,” says Rameshbabu. “Since the children are too young, my wife also has to accompany them, so she is also given flight tickets.” It is indeed a very generous sponsorship, and Praggnanandha deserves it.

So where does he go from here?

“I want to be the World champion,” he says.

It is not exactly like another kid of his age saying that he wants to be a doctor when he grows up. He knows it is going to take years of toil and single-mindedness.

He gives you the feeling that he is prepared for that.