A super special talent

A super special talent

From being another face in the crowd that welcomed chess legend Viswanathan Anand in 2012 to receiving a rapturous welcome last month, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa has come a long way in a short span of time. AFP

It isn't often that a chess game is compared with the ‘Game of the Century’ played between a 13-year-old Bobby Fischer and Donald Byrne in 1956 but when it is, the chess world stands still, awaiting, anticipating, the arrival of a new star -- maybe another genius, perhaps another world champion.

It was in 2016 that the then 11-year-old Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa defeated Grandmaster Axel Bachmann in 18 moves at the Isle of Man in a scintillating game, drawing comparisons with Fischer. As such, it was no surprise that last month the Indian, at 12 years and 10 months, became the second youngest player in the history of the game to earn the Grandmaster title, missing the youngest mark set by last year’s World Championship Challenger Sergey Karjakin by just about 3 months.

Pronouncing Praggnanandha in the correct way may need a few attempts but just one glance at his games is all it needs to understand his playing strength and to drive home the fact that we are indeed looking at a super special talent.

A current Elo rating of 2529, a clutch of age-category world titles (Under-8 and Under-10) and the tag of the youngest ever International Master (IM) in the world are the other indications that this prodigy has all the potential to be the face of chess. Incidentally, this year, he also became the youngest ever player to cross the Elo 2500 mark, after winning the Vlissingen Open tournament in the Netherlands last year.

Born in a middle-class family in Chennai to Ramesh Babu and Nagalakshmi, Praggnanandha entered the world of chess by chance. His parents introduced the game to their elder daughter Vaishali as a diversionary tactic, as she was hooked to television.

Praggu, as he is affectionately called, followed suit and it didn't take long for Caissa (the Goddess of Chess) to firmly entangle them in the intricacies of the 64 squares.
Vaishali too has won a couple of age category World titles and has two Woman Grandmaster norms but Praggu surpassed his sister in game and rating strength very quickly.

A talent that was raw and promising gained the much-needed sheen when GM RB Ramesh got him under his tutelage four years ago, guiding him gently off the board and firmly on it. The hard work paid off as Praggu achieved a big goal, though not as quickly as he would have wanted to.

"I am happy to be the second youngest GM but more than that I was relieved after trying for two years to get the title and break Karjakin’s record," said Praggu, who received a grand reception when he returned to his hometown after completing his GM formalities. It was a stuff of dreams as six years ago, Praggu was among the crowd that welcomed home Chennai's chess legend Viswanathan Anand, his idol, on winning his fifth world title.

Praggu, who was not even born when Anand won his first World title in 2000, distinctly remembers, “I went to welcome him at the Chennai airport when he won the World Championship title for the fifth time in 2012 and never ever dreamt that I too would receive a warm welcome some day. I was also lucky to get an opportunity to interact with him when he hosted me after winning the GM title”.

Pentala Harikrishna, Parimarjan Negi -- who at one time was also the second youngest GM in the World -- and now Praggnanandhaa are the three players who have raised hopes that they may perhaps emulate Anand. The legend himself has no doubts about Praggu's ability.

"Obviously there is no need to speculate about Praggu's talent, the very fact that he has become a GM at 12 plus shows the depth of his talent," Anand said. "What is important now is to see how well he copes with pressure. Also for the record, he was under pressure to get the GM title early but as soon as that pressure was removed he completed the title immediately. His chess is healthy and mature, belying his age. I think he is definitely one of our biggest hopes."

A student of the Velammal School, Praggu confessed that his visits to school are rare as he spends most of his time practicing or playing chess. “I don’t miss school since I hardly go there,” he said nonchalantly while giving credit to GM Ramesh for his rise.

“I have learned a lot from Ramesh Sir. He has taught me to be disciplined in my approach, not just in chess. He generally gives me lot of advice and I always listen to him."

Ramesh praised Praggu's maturity at such a young age. "Praggu's style of play is more ‘universal’ in the sense that he is a good player, overall. His biggest plus factor is the fact that he enjoys life, doesn’t complicate things, doesn’t suffer from any inferiority complex. Negative things don’t rattle him. Very early in life he has realised that chess is his calling," said Ramesh, while praising his maturity at such a young age.

"He has this effortless ability to handle pressure, even in difficult situations. Usually, it takes a while for a player to get to this maturity level. Just before the GM norm, he had one of his worst tournaments in the Netherlands where he finished with a miserable 3/10, seven defeats in a tournament, a debacle which he has never faced before.

"But the way he bounced back with a GM norm in the very next tournament talks a lot of his mental strength and ability to shrug off adverse results. He is extremely hard working and has tremendous self- belief. For the next one year he probably does not need to be choosy about the events he participates in but after the 2625 hurdle he has to participate in more closed events. I think his age and talent is enough to attract good invitations to top class events," added Ramesh.

After winning the GM title Praggu endeared himself more to the chess fraternity when he stood his ground in the Leon Masters earlier this month to defeat Wesley So, ranked 8th in the World with an Elo 2780, in the first game before losing the match 2.5-1.5.

“My mother accompanies us for all events but this time I travelled alone and was very happy afterwards as Wesley invited me for a meal with his family," he said.

Indian food is his favourite and during their stints abroad, his mother cooks rice, rasam and sambar for him. He also loves to watch Tamil and English movies and plays badminton, cricket and table tennis in his spare-time. Sponsored by Ramco group, Praggu's goal right now is to first improve his rating and then “of course, to be the world champion.”

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