When the giant screen at the grassy centre courtyard of the venue began to stream R Praggnanandhaa’s game, the scattered crowd turned their collective gaze towards the screen. For the next five-odd minutes their eyes remain fixed on the screen. It did not matter what moves he made, how clear his lines were, or what the scope of his openings were, whether you are a chess geek or knew nothing about the game. They were content just seeing him, his neck craning onto the board so much so that a deep exhaling of breath could blow the pieces.
The feed stopped; their gaze scattered. Inside the hall, a few spectators were stretching their heads to spot him— India B team’s board is the closest to the spectators’ enclosure. From their awkward perch, they could almost see his head, but they could neither cheer nor shout. They can’t resist yelling out, but their passes would be struck out. Perhaps, someone someday would.
His big round eyes twitching over the board, Praggnanandhaa is immune to the frenzy around him, or those outside just praying for his victory. He is in a cerebral tussle with his Italian rival Lorenzo Lodici, fresh from stalling Norway’s progress on Sunday. The Indian had endured a difficult Sunday, trailing for most of the match and winning on his opponent’s sloppy time management. But none of this was to affect him, or force him to the ultra-defensive. As is often the case, he began with a dynamic opening, the semi-slav, a tactical and aggressive opening. The early exchanges gave him the command, and a pawn sacrifice gave an indication that he could venture early for the kill.
But Lodici slowed the game down, and what followed was a cramming of the central lines, both their pieces almost structured like a pyramid. Praggnanandhaa repositioned his knight, tempting him to counterattack. But Lodici just kept fortifying his king, weaving an elaborate labyrinth that his adversary could not breach. The Indian tried to decongest the central channels but Lodici refused to make inroads. He sensed the dangers as Praggnanandhaa had favourable pieces for a sideways launch. He shut shop.
The middle-game laboured on endlessly and without a clear conclusion. The bishop G2 on the 36th turn was perhaps his dice Praggnanandhaa threw at opening up his opponent’s wall. But Lodici refused to shed his dour defence, and after 42 moves, with no clear result in the prospect, they shook hands for a draw. A case could be made that the Indian could have been more aggressive in the middle-game, but again, against his deep defensive lines, it would have been difficult to wreak havoc. Besides, there had been times in the past where his ultra-aggressive approach when strangulated had resulted in defeats. So, he too played along, and a draw against a tough opponent was not a bad result.
The result seemed inconsequential for his supporters—that is most of the crowd that had assembled here. They still waited for him at the entrance, for an autograph, a selfie or that innocence-sparkling smile of his.
For, there is a deeper emotional connection at play that reduces a draw or a win or a loss to an academic non significance. No matter how they mourn his defeat or celebrate his victories, they don’t judge him by his results. For, the predominant emotion is love. It’s unique, for as much as the city loves chess, celebrates the chess heroes, brags and revels in their exploits, they have never loved someone as much as they have Praggnanandhaa.
In him, they see their own son, their younger brother, their friend–he has burst the cultural and social barriers attached with the game, even de-intellectualised the perception of a chess hero. He talks the language that all grandmasters do, but he strikes a deeper chord that differentiates a hero and an idol.
To use a Tamil refrain, he is one of the makkal (common man), or namma payyan (our boy) loveable and relatable, one of the masses, one everyone can aspire to, the everyman’s role model. One you could touch and feel that he is so human. The halo around him is that he has no halo.
Simply, he showed that anyone could be a Grandmaster. The background does not matter—his parents have hardly played chess, even now their understanding of the game is fundamental, his background was privileged but a common middle-class family. It also helps that he is naturally charming—the smile disarms, the eyes still radiate a boyish mischief, the manners are mild and there is something ineffably endearing about him.
The city is watching his talent unfold and fame soar as the country once did Sachin Tendulkar. He brings the caged sport into the galleries; he fuels a melange of emotions, from joy and love to dejection and reverence. Half the people sprawled into the centre courtyard can’t fathom moves or decode chess notation. But they follow him blindly, rejoice in his victories and mourn in his miseries, as though the experience is deeply personal, as though they are experiencing the same emotions as he is.