The Indian teenager who defeated a world champion

Online Desk

24 Feb 2022 22:38 PM

"I just want to hit the bed," R Praggnanandhaa said early on Monday after defeating Magnus Carlsen, the highest-ranking chess player in the world, at the Airthings Masters, an online rapid tournament.

The frail-looking 16-year-old boy from India's southern city of Chennai is no stranger to success. At 10, Praggnanandhaa became the youngest International Master in the history of the game. Two years later, in 2018, he had become the world's then second-youngest chess grandmaster, reports BBC.

Now the prodigious teenager had achieved his "biggest dream" by becoming only the third Indian to trump the 32-year-old Norwegian grandmaster.

Praggnanandhaa, or Pragg as he's popularly known, belongs to a generation of young Indians who embody the country's growing influence in chess, a sport that has its origins in a two-player Indian board game from the sixth century. It's no mean feat in a country of 1.3 billion people feverishly obsessed with cricket.

India has nearly 70 grandmasters now, up from 20 in 2007. Twelve of them are women. Among them is Koneru Humpy, 34, the World Rapid Chess champion. She won the title in December 2019 after a two-year maternity break.

Three of Praggnanandhaa's peers are among the most promising players of his generation - Nihal Sarin, 18, a speed chess master and the 2019 Asian blitz champion; Arjun Erigaisi, 18, whom five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand calls one of India's "best hopes"; and Dommaraju Gukesh, 15, who became the second youngest grandmaster in the history of the game in 2019.

Praggnanandhaa has already attracted worldwide attention. "At an age when boys would trade an arm and a limb for endless hours of gaming, he has perfected the art of stillness and focus in a sport that's anything but a teen favourite," Susan Ninan, who covers chess for ESPNcricinfo, noted in a presciently titled 2018 article, The boy who could be king.

His forehead smeared with sacred ash, Praggnanandhaa appears to be a nerdy, shy teenager. But looks can be deceptive.

"Pragg is one of the most ambitious chess players of his generation. He knew that chess was going to be his life when he was eight years old. He's always thinking of chess," says his coach RB Ramesh. Ramesh has been coaching him since he was seven years old.

The son of a bank manager father and homemaker mother, Praggnanandhaa is also a "very friendly and jovial young man", Ramesh said. He loves playing table tennis and cricket with friends in Chennai, and watches Tamil language comedies on TV. When Susan visited him at his home in 2018, she found him glued to TV news, listening to a reporter crunch figures about an ongoing election. "[Watching] just like that... it's interesting," he told her.

Before the pandemic, Praggnanandhaa spent 15 days a month on the road, travelling around the world for tournaments. It helps that he doesn't have to attend school every day, and goes for classes before exams. He and his sister, Vaishali, who's a member of the Indian women's team, are first-generation chess players. Their mother travels with Praggnanandhaa around the world with a rice cooker, making her son's favourite Tamil dishes during tournaments. "We are trying to get him acquainted with other cuisines," Ramesh said.

Like many others of his generation Praggnanandhaa took up chess inspired by Viswanathan Anand, who revolutionised the sport in the country.

Today, India has seven players ranked among the top 100 in the world. Anand, 52, is still ranked highest (16) among the seven. When he won his first world championship title in 2000, traffic came to a standstill and a Victorian-style horse drawn carriage took him home from the airport in Chennai.

Some 50,000 chess players are officially registered in India. But at least a million people are playing local tournaments all over the country, reckons Bharat Singh Chauhan, the secretary of All India Chess Federation. Among them are Uber and auto-rickshaw drivers, and construction workers who sign up for free entry tournaments and take a shot at getting a World Chess Federation rating.

The federation, mainly run by former players, runs 20 national championships, beginning from Under-7, every year with a prize money of 20m rupees (£197,000; $264,000). This year, India is hosting 12 international tournaments.

During the pandemic when board games could not be held, more than 10,000 players participated in countrywide online championships. This week, the first on-board national championship in two years gets underway in the northern city of Kanpur with 200 players - including 25 grandmasters - in the fray and a prize money of 3m rupees.

Chess can possibly never be a popular spectator sport and may even come across as boring to people who don't follow it. But this year, India plans to launch a chess league - on the lines of the massively popular Indian Premier League - with six to eight franchises owned by business houses. Demand is growing at such a fast clip that there aren't enough trainers.

"There are so many players now that we are running out of trainers. All former chess players have training jobs," Chauhan said.

Ramesh, Praggnanandhaa's coach, is an example. A former Commonwealth chess champion, he retired from playing and gave up his job with a state-run oil company to open a coaching school in Chennai in 2008. Today, more than 1,000 students - between 7 and 18 years old - from all over the world take lessons there. A third of the students are given free lessons because they cannot afford it.

"Indian kids are very driven, diligent and hardworking. The main reason the game is progressing in India is we have more qualified trainers as grand masters and good players are becoming teachers themselves," Ramesh said.

Yet, India also has a long way to go before providing equal opportunities to all deserving talent, believes Pravin Thipsay, a grandmaster. He talks about a top grandmaster who still doesn't have an employer and a sponsor. State-run oil companies and railways, he says, have hired ranked chess players but the prize money in tournaments is usually still below their modest salaries.

India clearly needs more deep-pocketed sponsors to fulfil its chess potential. "We need more support for everyone," Thipsay says. For its enormous talent pool, India has just seven players in the global top 100: Russia, a chess powerhouse, has 23.

But for now, Praggnanandhaa is hogging the chess spotlight - again. "He believes he is at the beginning of his journey and he has a lot more to achieve," Ramesh said. "You will hear more about him in the future".

Samakal English

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