Meet child prodigy R Praggnanandhaa, India's youngest grandmaster and the new poster boy for chess in the country

The little boy swooped his rook from d5 to g5. He sat in his chair with confidence. He knew that the game was in the bag. The opponent, an Italian Grandmaster, stretched out his hand in defeat. The little boy accepted the resignation in his usual calm demeanor.

For 12-year-old Praggnanandhaa winning or losing a game of chess has never really affected his mood after the match. At least externally, he has never showed any huge emotions. But this one was huge! Very huge! The boy from Chennai had scored his final GM norm. This meant that he had just become the second youngest grandmaster in the history of chess. The youngest one was Russian Sergey Karjakin who achieved it at the age of 12 years 7 months in 2002.

Praggnanandhaa was extremely close to beating the record, but in the end he achieved it when he was 12 years, 10 months and 13 days. Apart from Karjakin and Praggnanandhaa, no one in the history of chess has ever achieved the coveted GM title before the age of 13 years.

This video shows the entire final game live from Italy of Praggnanandha winning against GM Moroni Luca Jr.

I first saw Praggnanandhaa when he was just nine years old at the World Junior Championships held in Pune 2014 (He was born on 10th August 2005). It took me some time to get used to his long name — Praggn-anan-dhaa — I would break it down. The prodigy had already made a name for himself in the chess world by winning the under-7 nationals a couple of years ago with a score of 11.0/11. The boy was simply ruthless. He would play just about any national age-group event and win it. However, at an event like the World Juniors, it was difficult to take this nine-year-old boy seriously. He had a rating of 1946 and was seeded 129th at the event. Playing against lads twice his age, he gained 158 Elo points.

Praggnanandhaa had surely made everyone notice him with his performance. But more than the performance, the thing that made me feel this boy would turn into a world beater in a few years, was observing the way he sat and played his moves. Have a look at this picture:

Praggnanandhaa playing against Finnish player Erik Ronka at the World Juniors 2014 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Praggnanandhaa playing against Finnish player Erik Ronka at the World Juniors 2014 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Praggnanandhaa would sit with his legs folded, sometimes he would be nearly standing on the chair. He would be looking here and there and suddenly make a move. Some would take this as a sign of a boy who was distracted. But for me, Praggnanandhaa was someone who was oozing with confidence. No matter how old his opponents were, or how strong they were, he was least bothered. All that he cared for was making his moves. Nothing could scare him.

R Vaishali, Praggnanandhaa’s sister, also a chess player, was the one who was initiated into the game by her parents Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi. Seeing Vaishali play chess, Praggnanandhaa was also attracted to the game. But Rameshbabu was apprehensive. He did not want his son to play chess because they came from a humble background and chess was an expensive game. With  Vaishali already playing chess, it was putting quite a bit of pressure on them financially. However, Praggnanandhaa did not relent and convinced his parents to enroll him in the same class where his sister used to go.

In the initial days, it was Vaishali who took most of the limelight. She won the under-12 and under-14 World Championships and the National Challengers in 2015. But the way Praggnanandhaa picked up speed towards 2016 was simply mind-boggling. He was just 10 years old when he scored back-to-back IM norms at the Cannes tournament in France and Aeroflot Open in Moscow.

I was also present at the Aeroflot Open 2016 and there is one memory that stuck with me very vividly. He had just achieved his IM norm, but instead of celebrating or taking it easy, he was playing blitz chess with his friends. For Praggnanandhaa, his world revolved around chess and celebrations meant a game of blitz. There was no other world outside the 64 squares for the boy.

After his blitz session ended I asked him for an interview. As always he was very reluctant, but his mother and sister convinced him to go and speak.

Oh my God! I have blundered! Pragg enjoyed chess as his sister Vaishali and mother Nagalakshmi look on | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Oh my God! I have blundered! Pragg enjoyed chess as his sister Vaishali and mother Nagalakshmi look on | Photo: Amruta Mokal

From the above interview, one thing was very clear, Praggnanandhaa was a shy boy who hated to do interviews. As confident as he was on the chess board, he was the complete opposite in front of the camera. But little did the boy know that he would have to face the camera thousands of times in the next few months. In June 2016, Praggnanandhaa rocked the chess world by becoming the youngest IM in the world at the age of 10 years and 10 months. From being a boy whose name everyone would ignore because of the length, Praggnanandhaa became a name that everyone wanted to learn how to spell. If there was someone whom people would know in the Indian chess world after Viswanathan Anand, it would be R Praggnanandhaa.

However, for the little boy, the world had turned upside down. Instead of letting him focus on playing chess and enjoying his life, people began to put quite a bit of pressure on him. Praggnanandhaa had one year and nine months to eclipse Karjakin's record and just about everyone was interested to know whether he would be able to achieve it. From being a boy who could hardly speak English, he was thrust in front of the camera at just about every tournament that he went to, and had to answer the question about breaking Karjakin’s record.

Nevertheless, Praggnanandhaa had an amazing support system which insulated him from all this hullabaloo. His father's only wish was to see Praggnanandhaa become better with every tournament.  Nagalakshmi would travel to each and every tournament with her children and ensure there was never any pressure on them. She saw to it that everything was in order, right from food to clothes to every other arrangement, so that her children could focus on playing chess.

Apart from his family, Praggnanandhaa had an invaluable asset — his coach GM RB Ramesh.

Ramesh, considered to be one of the finest trainers in Indian chess, had been the coach of the national team on several occasions. He runs a very successful Chess Gurukul academy in Chennai.

Ramesh turned out to be a saviour for Praggnanandhaa's family and provided them with knowledge about how the chess world worked. He moulded the boy’s talent right from the beginning and stayed with him on his path of becoming a grandmaster. The focus was always on playing good chess, never on results.

With a good team around him, the financial situation also began to ease as sponsors came forward to support him. While ONGC provided a scholarship, Ramco Cements supported him with a sponsorship. However, there was something that was going wrong.

Praggnanandhaa was coming close to making a GM norm but was missing it. Was it the pressure of breaking Karjakin’s record or perhaps his playing strength had not yet reached the level of becoming a grandmaster. Despite the failures, the boy ploughed on and also learned the art of handling journalists and interviewers.

Just have a look at this interview that I did with him towards the end of 2017. Compare it with the one at the Aeroflot Open 2016 and you would realize how much the boy had improved.

When the 10th of March arrived, it was a sad day for the Indian chess fans. Praggnanandhaa failed to eclipse Karjakin’s record. But I think deep within the boy must have heaved a sigh of relief. Now he could focus on what was important — playing good chess.

Within three and a half months after that, he achieved his remaining two norms and became the second youngest GM in the history of the game at the age of 12 years, 10 months and 13 days.

In his short career of playing chess, Praggnanandhaa has seen both the heights of stardom and the bottoms of loneliness. Through all these fluctuations he has come out strong. It’s for these very reasons I believe that he has the ability to become one of the finest players that the chess world has ever seen. Even the best. Chess-wise, I think the boy has fantastic intuition. When there are a lot of options in front of him on the chess board, more often than not he chooses the right continuation.

The poster boy of Indian chess – R. Praggnanandhaa | Photo: Amruta Mokal

The poster boy of Indian chess – R. Praggnanandhaa | Photo: Amruta Mokal

I would like to end this article with a small anecdote. I am sitting in the restaurant with my family, celebrating my father's birthday. My dad has all his loved ones around him. He is chatting, eating, enjoying and all of a sudden asks me, "What happened to Praggnanandhaa's game?"

My dad is not a chess player. He just loves all sports. But why did he think of Praggnanandhaa when he was surrounded by his family and was enjoying his birthday?

It was at that point I understood what Praggnanandhaa had done. Just like Sachin Tendulkar or Anand, the boy was beginning to strike a chord with the Indian population and not just the chess population.

In the true sense of the word, he is now the poster boy of Indian chess.

Sagar Shah is an International Master in chess and the CEO of ChessBase India


Updated Date: Jun 26, 2018 15:59 PM

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