Rameshbabu pictured his 10-year-old son bursting through the front door, running up to him, embracing him, and then sitting down to narrate the story about how he became the world’s youngest ever chess International Master (IM).
But when R Praggnanandhaa did get home, he ran to his father, offered him a hurried hug and then plonked himself on his favourite spot on the couch to watch cartoons on television. “Just like any other 10-year-old,” sighs Rameshbabu.=
In chess circles nonetheless, the fact that it took Praggnanandhaa just 10 years and nine months to achieve the IM title has been reverberating fervently. At the Bhubaneswar-held KIIT International Open this week, the pre-teen achieved the third and final norm (he received the first two earlier in the year at events in Cannes and Moscow), coupled with his ELO rating of over 2400 to grant him the IM title.
In turn, the Chennai-lad broke the 27-year-old record of Judit Polgar, widely considered the greatest woman player of all time, who was just 11 when she became IM. “That’s a very big sign that Praggnanandhaa is going to do great things ahead. And that will be expected from him,” says Grandmaster Abhijit Kunte. “He’s a very intelligent boy and his game is very mature for his age. He’s surely going to break the record of becoming the youngest ever Grandmaster as well.”
Yet ‘Praggu’ isn’t too bothered about the titles at the moment. His father says “He is too young to know the value of becoming an IM. He just likes to play and win, and he likes to watch TV like other kids his age.”
When asked what his favourite cartoons are, Praggnanandhaa rattles off in his squeaky pre-adolescent voice: “Chota Bheem, Mighty Raju, Tom and Jerry…” But within that excited verbal exchange he drops a tone of impatience, implying a single message. You’re cutting into his TV time.
The restlessness further draws similarities with Nihal Sarin, another chess prodigy. At a hotel in Pune where the 2014 Junior World Championships was underway, the then 10-year-old Sarin was often pacing up and down the aisles, making no effort to hide his annoyance at how much time his opponent, who was no less than two feet taller, was taking to make his move.
That event was held just a few weeks after Sarin won the U-10 World Youth Championship. The win had done its part to lay a claim that the average age of Indian champions was steadily decreasing.
A year later, Praggnanandhaa would win that same U-10 title, just two years after he won the U-8 accolade.
Unlike Sarin, however, Praggnanandhaa displays a degree of calmness when approaching the game, and with it, an unprecedented willingness to learn. His coach for the past two years, GM RB Ramesh recalls being caught off guard when the two first met when Praggnanandhaa was barely eight.
At the beginning of each class, Ramesh would customarily ask his students what they wanted to learn that day. “The kids in that age group would scratch their heads and think. Some would just say they didn’t want to learn anything. But Praggnanandhaa, whom I had never met before raised his hand and said that he wanted to learn everything I could teach,” recalls Ramesh. “I’ve never heard an eight-year-old say something like that about chess.”
As the training proceeded, Ramesh realised Praggnanandhaa had grasping power more than anybody else his age who he had coached. “Normally I’d teach them one move, and ask them to practice it. But Praggnanandhaa said he wanted to know the next move and the next move after that before he would start practice,” he adds.
Over the years, Ramesh has found an ideal student in the prodigy. “He has a fantastic memory which lets him remember his old matches. He knows the mistakes he’s made without being told. The way he analyses his games is way beyond his years,” Ramesh asserts.
Rameshbabu nonetheless, complains that Praggnanandhaa’s maturity is reserved for chess. “He’s a good student, but he can be quite a handful otherwise,” says the manager of a Chennai bank. The youngster’s obsession of watching TV is something his parents have not been able to wean him off from. “Sometimes he refuses to come to the table to eat because his programs are on. So I have to sit next to him and feed him,” Rameshbabu says.
Interestingly enough, the fascination for television was a habit that once belonged to his older sister Vaishali. “She used to watch TV quite a lot. So we sent her to play chess at an academy nearby,” says Rameshbabu, who said that neither he nor his wife have ever played the game. Vaishali eventually went on to win the U-14 and U-12 World Youth Championships.
It was while watching the four-year-old Vaishali practice at home that Praggnanandhaa, who was then two-year-old, picked up the game.
Rameshbabu himself isn’t one for television shows. But there is a certain program that he hopes to get to watch someday. Diagnosed with polio at an early age, his left leg is paralysed, which disables him from travelling to see Praggnanandhaa compete.
“I’ve never seen him play outside home,” he says. But given his son’s achievements, he’s looking forward to the day when Praggnanandhaa will be playing a televised game. “Then I’ll become a TV buff,” he quips.