Soon after R Praggnanandhaa completed his third norm — beating Italian Grandmaster Luca Moroni in the eighth round of the Gredine Open at Ortisei in Italy — and became the second youngest Grandmaster at the age of 12 years, 10 months and 14 days, a TV presenter asked him the inevitable question: “Do you regret not becoming the youngest ever?” Praggnanandhaa, or simply Praggu, smiled and replied: “No regrets.”
After becoming the youngest International Master at 10 years and nine months in May 2016, he was hyped to surpass Serjei Karjakin’s youngest to the Grandmaster (12 years and three months) feat. At one stage, he seemed destined to the mark, only for a few setbacks in major tournaments.
Also read | The boy looking to become the king
Cutting his teeth with the more established names in the circuit, it took him more than a year to accomplish his first GM norm last October — to become a Grandmaster, you have to manage a favourable result against at least three GMs and 2,500 Elo points. It took him another six months to achieve his second, by winning the Herkalion Fischer Memorial GM norm tournament this April.
He missed out on the landmark by only three months but still, his achievement needs to be seen in perspective: World champion Magnus Carlsen was 13 years and four months when he became a GM, five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand achieved it at the age of 18. The youngest Indian GM previously was Parimarjan Negi at 13 years, four months and 22 days.
“Praggu was always relaxed. We never put him under any sort of pressure and hardly ever discussed the record. On our part, we ensured that we provided him the best environment to achieve it, we gave him both the emotional and tactical support,” his coach R B Ramesh, who became a GM in his 20s, said.
“He realises that it’s just the start of a wonderful journey. The novelty of the achievement would fade he would be judged by the big tournaments he wins. His ambition is to be bracketed alongside the Anands and Carlsens, to become a word champion one day,” Ramesh said.
Anand, too, was smitten by the wunderkind. “At his age, I had played chess mostly with my mother. He’s beating guys twice his age, he’s super composed, is mature for his age, and if he keeps improving at the pace he is, he could do bigger things in life,” he said.
During one of his visits to Chennai, Anand dropped in at Praggu’s home and spoke at length with him. “Praggu wanted to play one game against Anand. But Anand told him, he has to earn it, and has to be in the competitive circuit,” said his father A Rameshbabu, a cooperative bank employee.
Now that he’s officially among the elite, he could finally realise the dream of meeting his idol. “Welcome to the club, see you soon in Chennai,” tweeted Anand.
Ramesh recalls Rameshbabu at the entrance of his academy four years ago. The coach, though, was a little hesitant to take his son, felt he was too young. “He might have been nine, but looked five. And had to travel some 20-odd kilometres. But Praggu shot back: ‘Sir, I’ve come to learn chess, not cricket’. We had a good laugh and I told him he’s in,” he said. Needless to say, he became the coach’s favourite in little time.
Milestones apart, the achievement caps off a remarkable journey of the adolescent from Padi, a downtown suburb in Chennai, to international acclaim. There were times when his parents wondered, with their limited means, whether they could financially support his swelling ambitions. “But help used to come from the least expected avenues, and he never had to suffer from lack of funds,” said Rameshbabu.
There were times, he says, when they doubted if the load was crushing his childhood. But then, Praggu would always come up with that smile.