It was a hobby acquired from his sister but R Praggnanandhaa made chess his life's calling pretty early on, picking up the nuances of the game at an age when most kids are classified as toddlers. All of 3 when he took to the sport after his elder sister Vaishali was introduced to it to wean her away from watching too many cartoon shows on TV, the currently 16 Praggnanandhaa is now the next big thing in Indian chess.
Touted as the one for the future when he became an International Master at the tender age of 10 years and nine months in 2016, Praggu, as he is fondly called by his friends and coaches, has made giant strides and on Sunday he notched up the biggest win of his career by upstaging world number one Magnus Carlsen. It was a special feat considering that he is only the third Indian after the great Viswanathan Anand and P Harikrishna to best the Norwegian superstar, who is the reigning world champion.
For Praggnanandhaa, the journey began when life is a bit of a blur for most youngsters. His polio-afflicted bank employee father Rameshbabu and mother Nagalakshmi were worried that Vaishali was spending too much time in front of the TV. The intent behind introducing her to chess was to wean her away from her favourite cartoon shows. Who would have known that it would end up inspiring a wizard of the sport at home as Praggnanandhaa's interest in Vaishali's new hobby became his life's calling. "We had introduced Vaishali to chess so as to cut down on her TV viewing habits as a child. As it happened, the two children liked the game and decided to pursue it," Rameshbabu recalled.
"We are happy the two were able to make it big in the sport. More importantly, we are delighted that they are enjoying themselves by playing the sport," he said. Nagalakshmi is the one who accompanies the two to tournaments and he follows their games from home. "Credit goes to my wife, who accompanies them to tournaments and is very supportive. She takes great care of the two," he said acknowledging the role of their mother in their rise. The 19-year-old Vaishali, who is a Woman GM, said her interest in chess intensified after she won a tournament and soon her little brother too took a liking to the sport. "I used to watch a lot of cartoons when I was six years or so. My parents wanted to wean me away from being glued to the television set and enrolled me in chess and drawing classes," she remembered.
Praggnanandhaa charted his own path and in 2018, the Chennai-lad earned the coveted Grandmaster title, making him the country's youngest to achieve the feat and the world's second youngest at that time. Overall, he is the fifth youngest GM of all time. It was hardly a surprise then that India's chess elite, Anand himself, took him under his wings. Ever since becoming a GM, Praggnanandhaa's rise was steady before the COVID-19 pandemic struck as tournaments took a backseat and put a halt to his progress. His coach R B Ramesh, a GM himself, felt the long break in tournaments probably impacted his confidence slightly but the victory over Carlsen in the ongoing Airthings Masters online event, would do his self-belief a world of good.
That Praggnanandhaa managed to do well in the recent Tata Steel Masters event in Wijk Aan Zee in the Netherlands despite missing his coach (Ramesh), who was down with coronavirus, is also a good indicator of his mental strength. "I am very proud of his achievement. This should do a world of good to his self-belief," Ramesh said after the shy youngster's win over Carlsen. Praggnanandhaa has seen his stock soar in the past few years and is talked up by those in chess circles. Many trophies adorn the cabinet at his home in Padi, a suburb here. The accolades include those in various age-group world championships.
Vaishali, having seen her brother get better with every tournament, talks about his other interests as well, including his love for comedy films and table tennis. "He enjoys comedy in movies. Also, he loves to play table tennis whenever he finds time," Vaishali said when asked how her prodigiously talented brother liked to unwind. "Whenever he is at home, he likes to spend time with us and we watch television together," she added. Also, Praggnanandhaa loves cricket and he always game for a match with his cousins when he finds time, she added. But chess is his calling in life and the journey so far has been a momentous one for Praggnanandhaa.
A lot lies ahead of him and coach Ramesh is happy with the way he is handling the pressure of expectations. That apart, working with a legend like Anand, as part of the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy, would stand him in good stead. A huge fan of Anand, the teenager has often spoken about becoming a world champion and will be aware of what it takes to become one. The ongoing Airthings Masters online tournament in which Praggnanandhaa beat Carlsen sees matches begin at around 10.30pm (IST) and go on till about 2am the next day.
A lot of planning has gone into how the young Indian star copes with the schedule of the event. V Saravanan, an International Master and coach, said the win over Carlsen is a huge turning point for Praggnanandhaa as it will make him more confident about his potential. "The win will change a lot of things in Praggu... the confidence in his potential will be one of them. The win has ensured a lot of visibility which will give him a lot of opportunities," he added.