IN THE crowded verandah of Ramesh Babu’s one-storey apartment in Padi, on the outskirts of Chennai, is a purple-rimmed bicycle, its wheels smeared with fresh mud and earth. It belongs to Babu’s 11-year-old son Praggnanandhaa, one of the several gifts he received when he became the world’s youngest International Master in October.
Glancing at the cycle, Babu summons his son and tells him softly not to dirty the house. “Intha cycle-aale romba thalavali (This cycle is a big headache),” he says.
Praggnanandhaa obediently nods, but then jumps onto the bicycle and is away in a blur, past the half-open gate on to the crammed bylane. With a wistful smile, Babu says: “He’s restless. It’s his age, let him be.”
Perhaps, Babu knows that his son — Pragga, as they call him — can seldom let himself “be”. For, being the youngest IM comes with an imposing baggage: the pursuit of becoming the youngest ever Grandmaster, a norm he can achieve as soon as March next year. “He doesn’t seem to feel any pressure. But sometimes, we feel (the pressure). It’s his age,” says Babu.
Fifteen minutes later, Pragga returns, the bicycle’s wheels muddied further. But this time, he carefully parks it in the garden, his face hardly showing any strain of someone who is about to embark on his Grandmaster quest from December 8 in London (Classic Open). “He is always like that, he has zero tension,” says Babu.
Deep inside, though, Pragga has worked out his calculations. He is exactly 11 years, three months and four days old today. To break the record of Russian Sergey Karjakin, who became a Grandmaster at the age of 12 years and seven months, he still has nearly 16 months left. Ask Pragga, and he replies confidently: “I think I can do it before I turn 12.”
To put this dream in perspective, world champion Magnus Carlsen became a Grandmaster seven months past his 13th birthday. India’s first Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand completed the norm when he was 18. The youngest Indian to have achieved it is Parimarjan Negi, at 13 years and four months.
Babu says it’s the uncomplicated exuberance of his age, but his son has done his maths. “Before August, I’ll be playing in at least 5-6 tournaments. Now I have a FIDE rating of 2,455 (Elo points). So if I play well in the next three tournaments, I can complete 2,500 points before March,” says Pragga.
To acquire the Grandmaster status, he will have to get three norms of 2,600+ performances from individual tournaments. Pragga could complete 2,500 points, if he comes up with impressive results in Tradewise Gibraltar and Tata Steel Wijk B in January.
However, he regrets losing out on easy points that would have helped him attain the norm much earlier. “In the Isle of Man tournament (in October), I got only 5.5 out of 9. It was a satisfactory result, but one or two points could have helped me. I slipped up in a couple of crucial junctures in the final round,” he says, revealing a fierce streak of ambition.
Pragga’s tactically nuanced game has already received rave reviews from the international chess fraternity. His 18-move game against Paraguayan Grandmaster Axel Bachmann in Isle of Man has already been likened to Bobby Fischer’s ‘Game of the Century’ against Donald Byrne in 1956.
His mother Nagalakshmi, who accompanies him to every tournament, narrates how meticulously he prepares for games. “He will spend a lot of time studying his (possible) opponents on YouTube and other (chess) websites and ask his sister (R Vaishali) to simulate them. Then, he will discuss his tactics with coach R B Ramesh,” she says.
Vaishali, herself an International Master, vouches for her brother’s drive to win even routine games between them. “He hates to lose even one game at home, and keeps a count of our win-loss record,” she says.
Probably, that’s also when the bicycle gets a brief respite.