When the 6-o’clock siren bellows from the sprawling factories that loom over Padi, the west Chennai suburb begins its slow descent into dusk. The sodium vapour lamps flicker to life, spreading their dim lustre on the streets. Vendors begin wrapping the unsold pile of fruits and vegetables into their rumbling wooden carts. The bustle in the nearby Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) shops (thekas) gets louder, gradually drowning out the din of the soaps playing on television sets across households and workers from the factories plod their way back home along the narrow alleyways.
Like most industrial townships, Padi measures its time through the blare of sirens. It was a designated industrial area that sprouted in the 1970s, with automobile giants TVS and biscuit tycoon Britannia setting up massive plants. Gradually, the factory workers began settling around Padi, and by the late ’90s, it had become a busy working-class residential hub, centred by a towering 10-storey get-it-all supermarket.
It was in the early Eighties, after his daughter Vaishali was born, that K Rameshbabu, a bank employee, shifted to TVS Nagar in Padi from their family house in Chintadripet, the (fake) automobile spare parts hub of the city. It was just a three-room apartment before the family added more rooms and a floor, which they have rented out. “I’m the sole earning member of the family, so it took a lot of years to modify the house,” says Rameshbabu, stuttering and distracted, his eyes flitting mechanically over the fresh coat of emulsion in the drawing room and the portico.
His cellphone intrudes upon his thoughts, the ringtone is a famous Tamil devotional song. He answers the call excitedly, and, from the other end, crackles a shrill, adolescent voice: “Appa vanthite, aana luggage varale. Koncham nerathku apram ozhuka pesalam (Papa, I’ve reached, but the luggage hasn’t. I will call you in a while, we will talk freely).” It is Praggnanandhaa, who’s just reached the Czech capital Prague, the 31st country he has visited in a little less than three years. The call of assurance allays Rameshbabu’s anxiety. He measures his life through these phone calls — through the travels and achievements of his son, the 12-year-old, second youngest Grandmaster in the history of chess.
An agitated Nagalakshmi, Praggnanandhaa’s mother, is screaming at him to fetch some grocery from the rundown pakathu theruvu kadai (nearby street shop). Praggnanandhaa doesn’t hear, or pretends not to. He’s sitting in front of a PC with a notebook, pencil and slabs of chocolate, brooding over a radical opening their coach RB Ramesh had asked him to study.
His sister Vaishali, an International Master herself and closing in on the Grandmaster norm, peers at the screen, drags a chair and a quick game unfolds. Praggnanandhaa starts with the disadvantaged black pieces. Vaishali makes a brisk move, which bemuses her brother. He pauses before neutering her ploy with what he later refers to an “unconventional move”. Vaishali plunges into meditative silence. What once were playful matches between siblings are now gruelling affairs, with both intent on not conceding any ground to the other. “Coach (RB Ramesh) has told us to play every match at home like it is a real match, as if we are playing in a tournament. So, we become opponents,” says Praggnanandhaa. Vaishali counters, “When he’s winning, he’ll say it’s a real match, but when he’s losing, he says it’s only a fun match.”
Whatever be the case, when the two chess-mad siblings with a a combined ELO rating of 4,800 — only the three Polgar sisters from Hungary can lay claim to a better aggregate — compete, it’s bound to get intense. “There’s nothing like having a sibling who plays chess for you never get out of the environment. You’re always playing without realising that you’re actually playing,” says Ramesh.
Like the legendary Magnus Carlsen, Praggnanandhaa got his love for chess from his sister. Vaishali, 16 going on 17, grumbles it’s been a while since she beat her brother. He, though, sticks up for her. “Akka eppovume akka tha (an elder sister is always an elder sister). She’s still the first person I discuss my game with, whether I should have done this or that, where I have made a mistake and how I can improve. Probably, no one understands my game better than her,” he says.
She is at once his in-house coach and sparring partner. But, she says, he’s a few miles ahead of her — Praggnanandhaa has a peak ranking of 2,529 ELO points; Vaishali’s corresponding rating is 2,377. “Both of us work hard and do a lot of homework, but he’s exceptional in reading situations and thinking on his feet. He can be a little hasty at times, whereas I think a hundred times before committing to a move, but he improvises brilliantly. He wriggles himself out of situations with unimaginable moves,” she says.
Though she says she never tries to play catch-up with her brother, her games are influenced by him. “Earlier, I used to be nervous before games but I’ve realised I am playing much faster these days and tend to experiment more. Maybe, it’s because you’re playing the second youngest GM in the world on a regular basis,” she says, giggling. As they speak, Vaishali wriggles out of a tricky position and pushes him on to the backfoot. He whoops away in his red bicycle to the pakathu theruvu kadai.
The first time Praggnanandhaa travelled without his mother was to Leon, his first tournament after he became a GM. His coach RB Ramesh was travelling with him, but his mother was tense. She asked her daughter to stream the game. The footage shows a small dark theatre, where three games are being played on spot-lit tables. Praggnanandhaa is glowering, making a tunnel for his eyes with his hands. He crosses and uncrosses his feet. He leans forward, surveying the board, nervously running his fingers through his hair, the vibhuti on the forehead shining. The man sitting opposite him is the American Grandmaster of Japanese descent, Wesley So, the highest ranked player he has ever played. It is a rapid game — chess’s equivalent of a 50-over match — a format Praggnanandhaa had deliberately shelved to focus on the conventional game for the GM bid. The game see-saws before So’s experience prevails, but not before Praggnanandhaa has made the experienced American sweat. Despite the smile on his face, Praggnanandhaa says he was hurting inside. “I missed a great chance,” he says.
Even though he is just a teenager for his family, for the rest of the world he’s a GM, a prospective world champion, hurtling to be the first person to breach the incredible 3,000 ELO mark. The chess world will soon start perceiving him as a competitor — the prodigy will turn professional, gauged solely on his points, ranking and form. His strategies and games will be studied and analysed threadbare. Wesley So himself gave a prelude: “Pragga is really very good and in the future I think I need to focus more when playing him because he looks so young and harmless you tend to let your mind wander and that is a mistake,” he told the website Chessbase.com.
It’s an inevitable step in Praggnanandhaa’s evolutionary leap, but in just three years, he has gotten over the fear of playing those better-ranked and more experienced than him. But when asked whether his rivals have begun to fear him, he shoots back, “Ath avunkite tha kekenam (That you should ask them).” Perhaps, the firmness in his still-squeaky voice and the assuredness of his reply indicate that he has come of age, figuratively if not literally.
When he landed at the Chennai airport after completing his GM norms at the Gredine Open in the laidback Italian city of Ortisei, a group of media, relatives and school teachers awaited him with rose bouquets and large garlands. He writhed under their weight, admitting that he felt claustrophobic. “I never thought garlands could be so heavy,” he says, chuckling. It’s in a sense metaphorical too — the expectations on him will only pile up.
Another awkward moment awaited him a couple of days later in school — the principal wrapped him in a silk veshti and squeezed a turban on his head, before the students lifted and tossed him. “I’ve hardly been to the school last year and I have few friends there,” he says. Most of his friends are either in the neighbourhood, with whom he plays cricket in the streets, or at Ramesh’s academy, the Chess Gurukul. On the circuit, his best friend is IM Nihal Sarin, a year older to him and a norm away from becoming a GM. But when he returned home after a depressingly manic day, his cheekbones hurting from smiling incessantly for pictures, a pleasant invitation awaited him. None other than Vishwanathan Anand had invited him to his house in RA Puram, a 25-km ride from Padi, the next day. If the day passed like a blur, the night crawled. “He would get up and ask me what time it was, and, the next day, he was either in front of the computer or the mirror, preparing questions to ask Anand, and, at the same time, wanting to look his best,” says Vaishali.
When he actually met him, he forgot half the questions he wanted to ask the five-time world champion. It was not their first formal meeting, but it was the first time they sat at either end of a chess board, talking and playing chess. “We spoke about a couple of endings and a few strategies. I was a little awed initially, but then I regained my composure,” he says. But more than the board lessons, Anand shared some life lessons — to take disappointment in his stride and to not take the game too seriously. For, at the summit of the sport, so fierce is the level of competition and so overwhelming the psychological pressure that even masterminds become susceptible to error. And once a player breaches the 2,500-mark, progress can be sluggish.
Anand himself had struggled for motivation after he became a GM. Magnus Carlsen and the eccentric genius Bobby Fischer, who famously retired soon after he became a world champion, too, spoke of the same roadblock. Carlsen kills the tedium with skiing and surfing while Anand embraced hiking. Some, like Parimarjan Negi, the youngest GM before him, quit the game altogether. Praggnanandhaa has improvised hand-badminton games with Nihal in hotel rooms and listens to devotional songs. But Anand has advised him to experiment with different cuisines and make new friends on the circuit.
The cuisine bit has intrigued him, for he’s notoriously conservative about his choice of food. His mother carries an induction-coil stove, rice and masalas to tours and cooks everything from sambar rice to thair sadaam (curd rice) for him. “Most competitions happen in Europe and hotel food is expensive. And since he’s still a child we don’t want him to go searching for cheap food in unknown places,” says Rameshbabu.
Meanwhile, Praggnanandhaa is searching for Czech cuisine online. He has taken the master’s advice literally.
“One move,” stresses Praggnanandhaa, when asked how many moves he sees ahead, “I only think of one move at a time, that’s the next move I have to make.” He might not have heard of the totemic Cuban Grandmaster Jose Raul Capablanca, whose life ran parallel to the Cuban political revolutionary Fidel Castro. But he was echoing his famous observation: “Only one (move), but it’s always the right one.”
Experts would say it’s easier said than done. For the number of possible positions on the chessboard is 1,040, and there are numerous ideas and paths that simultaneously clarify and complicate a player’s mind. Moreover, since the consequences of chess moves can only be studied in hindsight, each move is potentially crucial to the final result and must bear scrutiny before execution. His father calls it high IQ level, his sister puts it down to intuition and his coach says it is regimented training and sheer hard work — since becoming the GM, he trains seven hours a day. Praggnanandhaa feels it comes to him naturally. Perhaps, it is a blend of all these heady ingredients that make a champion.
Before he enrolled his children at an academy nearby to cut down on their telly time, and before they got enamoured of the game, Rameshbabu or his wife, hardly knew what a game of chess was, or even how many squares the board had. Worse still, back in their farming village in south Arcot, a rustic version of it, Sathurangam, is looked down upon. But over the years, he has taken pains to learn the basics of it. “At least, you should know what your children are doing. I still can’t understand a lot of moves, but maybe, in the next two years, I can try my hand at it,” he says in jest.
His children have turned him into an insomniac. “Sometimes, he calls me at night or I stream his games. When they play, I can’t sleep even if I try,” he says. The further they travel in the chess-scape, the longer his nights get.
Just then, the 10’o clock siren goes off in Padi. Half the neighbourhood is already deep in slumber, the lights blink out from other houses like glow-worms drifting to the woods. The lights are still on in the ground floor of Rameshbabu’s house, where a father awaits the sirens that mark the hours of his life.