R Praggnanandhaa is not yet a teenager but he is already a Grandmaster in Chess.
At 12 years and 10 months, the shy, unassuming boy from Chennai is now the second youngest GM of all time and the youngest Indian to earn that title. There is only one man in the history of the game to have done it quicker than him – Sergey Karjakin did it back in 2002 when he was 12 years and seven months old. For some context, Magnus Carlsen became a GM when he was 13 years and 4 months old. Viswanathan Anand, India’s first Grandmaster, was 18 when he earned his third GM norm.
“My sister [R Vaishali] used to watch TV a lot, she was addicted to Pogo channel. So my parents wanted her to have some diversions and made her take up art and chess, and I started playing chess along with her as well,” Praggnanandhaa had said when Scroll met him last year on his return from the junior World Championships, where he earned his first GM norm.
Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali are both products of Chess Gurukul, an academy run by Grandmaster RB Ramesh and his wife Aartie - a WGM herself. Around three years ago, Rameshbabu, the kids’ father, met Ramesh at an event where the latter was supposed to felicitate Praggnanandhaa. Ramesh was asked if he could train the brother-sister duo. “It is my honour,” was his response.
“Their talent was never in question even before they joined me at Chess Gurukul,” Ramesh told Scroll. “At that time, Vaishali was doing very well, and I initially thought she was the more talented one. But it soon became evident that both of them are not just prodigiously talented, but extremely hard-working. Extremely. I am sometimes afraid that their work ethic can scare the other kids at the academy. And to go with that, they are down to earth, and are very normal kids, other than their exceptional talent.”
As you’d expect a 12-year-old to be, Praggnanandhaa is interview-shy. “I’m still getting used to this,” he said when asked how it feels to talk to the media. Like most kids, he spends his time away from chess by watching movies and TV shows, listening to music – no favourites, just Tamil songs would do when he is away on tours. Unlike most kids, he loves math because he is fascinated by logic and calculations.
The one-word answer to ‘how do you spend your time at home’ comes without any hesitation: chess. He is busy reading about different opening maneuvers with a software on the laptop, and he reads about the game a lot.
The only time he spoke unprompted for a few seconds was when asked who his inspiration was. “Anand sir daan kandippa (definitely Anand sir). It’s so good to watch him play. I have met him quite a few times. We were at a tournament together, the Isle of Man chess event where both of us were playing. It was inspiring. I tried my best to watch him play as much as possible and learned a lot,” he said.
A typical day for him consists of waking up at around 8 am, playing chess till lunch at the academy, enjoying a break in between with some cricket or badminton or, more recently, table tennis with the other kids, if he’s at the academy, and then back to chess for the rest of the day. These are on days where he is training at the academy, and exempt from regular school work. On school days, he trains from around 3:30 pm in the afternoon.
Watching a table tennis session at Chess Gurukul is when it really hits home that he is just a kid. Bustling with raw enthusiasm, laughing out loud at his own comical inability to win a point on the table against peers, Praggnandhaa is typically a bundle of energy when he is away from the 64 squares.
Does he get fazed by pressure? Does he get weighed down by expectations? “Adhellam onnum illa, (nothing like that),” was the short answer from him.
“Handling him was never a problem, handling myself was a problem during that time,” Ramesh said, when asked about the growing expectations around his ward that he would beat Karjakin’s record. “When he set the world record for the youngest IM, we weren’t too focussed on getting him to become the youngest GM. We were waiting for it to happen eventually.
“But the closer it got, with a few months left, there was pressure. On me. He was not getting too bogged down by it, he was aware that there were expectations but that’s about it. Unfortunately, he came very, very close and missed out, by half a point or a point in tournaments. When he had two-three bad tournaments, I was feeling bad that maybe I am not being able to exploit his full potential. I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong, but the great thing was that his father was supportive of me. You often see parents demanding unexpected results when a kid starts to do well, but Pragg’s father gave me my space. He believed in me, and there was a mutual trust.”
Having missed the record by a few months doesn’t take anything away from the magnitude of Praggnanandhaa’s achievement but in the bigger picture, this is just one step in his progress as a chess player, albeit a critical one.
“This is a critical stepping stone,” Ramesh said. “It gives him visibility, more people knowing about him should lead to more sponsorship. More importantly, big tournament organisers in Europe will be after him, he’ll be sought after. He will be in great demand from top tournaments, and that is now a crucial phase for him. The next challenge is to capitalise on this and keep progressing further.”
And part of that challenge, according to Ramesh, is to not lose his motivation at this point, thinking he has achieved what he set out to, and settling for that.
“I don’t think he is the kind of guy who will stop here. He doesn’t give too much importance to this. I was speaking to him on Skype last night, waiting for the pairing announcement to come that decided whether he earned his norm or not. He was eating his dinner - curd rice - and chatting like he always does and when it became official too, he was not too flustered. He was perfectly normal. He doesn’t let success get to his head.”
With the pressure of becoming a Grandmaster now behind him, bigger things await Praggnanandhaa, a name that is likely to become household knowledge in the coming days and years.
“My father gave me that name, I never asked him why and all,” he had said with a smile. “When I am on tour, people call me Pragg, because it’s easier.”
And Pragg has arrived, in style.
Read more: The story of Chess Gurukul, a nursery for India’s brightest talent.