India Today

Smells Like Teen Spirit

At only 16, R. Praggnanan­dhaa is taking the world of chess by storm

- —Shail Desai

TEEN THE PRODIGY few displayed emotionsaf­ter World beating Magnus No. 1 Carlsen

The world witnessed a rare and somewhat unexpected sight on February 21. Playing at the Airthings Masters, an online rapid chess tournament, Magnus Carlsen sat with his head in his hand. The other half of the screen showed Indian Grandmaste­r (GM), R. Praggnanan­dhaa, look expectant. It was a little past 2 am in Chennai when, from the comfort of his home, 16-year-old Praggnanan­dhaa beat the World No. 1 Norwegian for the first time in his short career. There were few emotions on display at this turning point in his career. He woke up his father, Rameshbabu, to give him the news. After a round of interviews and a text to his coach, GM R.B. Ramesh, he called it a night. “I had analysed my mistakes from previous tournament­s and had made some changes. Against Carlsen, I wanted to give my best and didn’t think about the result,” Praggnanan­dhaa says. In May 2016, a few months before Carlsen picked up his third World Chess Championsh­ip crown, Praggnanan­dhaa had created history of his own. Aged only 10, he had made his third Internatio­nal Master norm to become the youngest Internatio­nal Master (IM) in the world. He has since delivered on his promise. In April itself, he won the Reykjavik Open and finished third at Spain’s La Roda Open. Chess happened to Praggnanan­dhaa quite by chance. His elder sister, Vaishali, a Woman Grandmaste­r today, was first introduced to chess by their father, Rameshbabu, to break her habit of watching TV. Initially, Praggnanan­dhaa observed her, but soon, he was sitting across the board from her. “We played a lot of blitz and bullet chess, mostly for fun. Not much has changed today—sometimes I win and sometimes she wins,” he says. Once the siblings showed an inclinatio­n towards the game, Rameshbabu enrolled them at Chess Gurukul, the academy run by R.B. Ramesh in Chennai. They soon started winning local competitio­ns and the family started prioritisi­ng chess over everything else. The grades at school mattered little. Family life was put on hold. Soon, mum Nagalakshm­i started travelling with her two kids, providing them with home comforts on foreign shores. “My mother accompanie­s me to tournament­s, while my father makes the arrangemen­ts like tickets and visas. Their sacrifices have been immense, and they have helped us achieve our goals.” A year after he earned his GM norm in 2018, he won the under-18 youth title in Mumbai. This, he says, was his most cherished win. “When I received the medal, the Indian flag was at the top and the national anthem started playing. It was a goosebumps moment,” he says. A lot has changed for him in recent years. The exposure of travelling the world and competing against big names has transforme­d the shy boy into an astute teenager. Even his idol, Viswanatha­n Anand, is now an integral part of his support system: “Anand sir has given me a lot of advice. We’re constantly in touch.”

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