Sometimes, when his son is away, often in a distant time zone, sitting monkishly in a grim room full of miniature Erasmuses, scrawling moves on score sheets, A Rameshbabu snaps in the emptiness of his one-storey apartment at Padi, a downtown Chennai suburb. He often wonders if son Praggnanandhaa’s jet-setting to record books has shattered his son’s plain boyish joys. If chess has deprived his 12-year old of being a 12-year old. He stares emptily at the showcase, cluttered with twinkling trophies, and feels a hollowness thrust down his heart.
He speed-dials his wife Nagalakshmi, who accompanies the son to all tournaments. The father, afflicted by polio at a young age, is unable to travel long. The heavy pounding of his heart is louder than the crackling ring of her mobile phone. But when he talks to his son, his tone consciously hides his agony. “I shouldn’t let on that I’m tensed, for that will put more pressure on him. At his age, he will think I’m worried about his result and not things like his health and sleep, which I’m actually concerned about more than the results,” he says.
So father and son discuss food, weather and sleep. Food, R Praggnanandhaa is finicky about. His body is taking days to adjust to sleep because he gets jet-lagged. “Despite travelling frequently in the last three-four years, he’s not adjusted to jet lag. He complained that he’s losing his concentration. Sometimes, he turns up at the venue and sleeps off on the board after making a move. Once, he fell over the board and his opponent was patiently waiting for him to wake up,” he recalls, laughing.
The last two months, he has been frenetically globe-shuttling, in pursuit of becoming the youngest Grandmaster. At the start of December, he was in Adelaide for the Lidums Australian Young Masters tournament. A few days into the Christmas break, he was playing at the Rilton Cup in Stockholm. A week into the new year, he was in North Carolina for the Charlotte Chess Club tournament, where he narrowly missed out on the second GM norm (he secured only 5/9, whereas a 6.5/9 finish would have sufficed). In his defence, the schedule was gruelling, with two rounds a day. A week later, he was at the Gibraltar Chess festival, where again the norm proved elusive (he finished 63rd with 5.5). He then took the first flight out to Moscow for the Aeroflot Chess Championship, where the results were adverse, thus drastically reducing his chances. So in less than 90 days, he’s been to four continents, five cities and has played nearly 50 rounds.
Five days after the Aeroflot ends, he will be in Reykjavik, for the Bobby Fischer Memorial tournament, which will be, at least technically, his last shot at surpassing Serjey Karjakin’s record, the deadline of which is March 10.
For all practical purposes, the feat is beyond his grasp, for achieving two norms in six days is near impossible, unless he beats not less than four GMs in the first five rounds of the tournament. The dream, thus, is nearly over. But, in the first place, it was a dream thrust on him, or as his father puts it, just a “happy milestone”.
For his father, it’s immaterial whether he accomplishes the norm or not. It’s his seemingly everyday parental pangs that bother him, and not the game or moves, results or opponents. He doesn’t watch his games not because he can’t endure the tension, but because he gets bored. A few times, he strived to stream them online, but his patience wore out. “Vaishali (his daughter) streams them, but I got bored and couldn’t sit through half of it.”
Nagalakshmi, though, is inherently nervous. Her veneer of nonchalance breaks like dry straw, her hands wring, and the veins in her forehead pulse with an insurmountable tension. But during breaks, when Praggnanandhaa runs up to her like any boy of his age and tugs at the tip of her saree chortling, the nerves dissipate, like a rehearsed defensive mechanism. When he ambles back to the hall, she is amused by his composure, unearthly for his age. Like her husband, she too wonders whether the game has eaten into his boyishness. “He doesn’t celebrate victories, nor mourns defeats,” she says. Sometimes she hopes he would.
So she was shocked when he casually told her that he has beaten the top seed, Jorden van Foreest, in the World Junior Championship, in Italy last December. Two days later, she was equally shocked, when he, with the same composure, told her that he blundered during a draw and squandered a great opportunity. “I didn’t know what to say,” she says, wondering whether he was burning inside.
Even as recently as last week, R Praggnanandhaa hardly touched upon the approaching deadline in his conversations with Rameshbabu. It’s as if the whole world is keeping a tab on him, but the attention, thankfully not as haranguing as it would have been in more popular sports, hardly hinges him.
While in sport, composure is perhaps the most glorified of characteristics, it sits awkwardly on a stick-thin 12-year-old. So while his coach RB Ramesh raves about his poise and balance, his parents are left bemused. His mother says that at such times he plays as if there were an older chess player inside him who awakens for his games.
They just crave for him to return home, belt out his favourite songs, crank up the volume of his favourite Tom and Jerry shows and take his blazing red bicycle for breezy neighbourhood detours. These days, Rameshbabu is easy on him for sitting glued to cartoons on telly or returning late after his bicycle meanderings.
It’s a peculiar quandary — a world away from pushy parents, who want their children to live their unfulfilled dreams and push them obsessively towards achieving it — but a quandary nonetheless. And the deeper Praggnanandhaa has immersed into this game of infinite possibilities, the more their parental concerns mount. But they are guided by one conviction: Not to show any of their inner turmoils to him. And let him peel the skin of a chess prodigy and soak in the intangible lightness of his age.
The modest Rameshbabu household is a jumbled pile of chess-sets, chess clocks and score-books. The eternally blinking computer seems slightly out of place. Praggnanandhaa insists he doesn’t play much chess online, and then sheepishly turns his gaze towards his sister Vaishali, a 2,300-Elo-rated player, who, to borrow from boxing, is his sparring partner (chess, after all, is cerebral boxing).
The chess sessions with his sister begin casually, a sequence of lazy moves, before it gradually morphs into an intense battle of wits. Where initially, Vaishali, five years older to him, used to intentionally lose at times, these days they play in all sternness, and whenever they wish to. “Sometimes before leaving for school, they assemble the board and start playing. He might be taking a shower, or she might be ironing her clothes, but they’ll come in between, make a move and then resume what they’re doing,” says Nagalakshmi, in a slightly grudging tone. She fears, they might forget the tiffin or texts. The school bus will be screeching its horns. Then, she knows she’s dealing with two chess prodigies, with a combined tally of nearly 5,000 Elo points.
Vaishali, though, has the bragging rights over her brother. “I’ve beaten him 625 times,” she screams. Cue the retort from Praggu, “But I have won the last 25 games.” They scamper for the notebook where they have meticulously jotted down results. But frivolity apart, before big tournaments, the siblings sit down seriously. Praggu admits: “This is the best practice I can get anywhere.” Vaishali banters: “When you become a world champion, make me your second.” Praggu keeps giggling, resembling a 12-year-old than someone who’s hurtling to become the planet’s fastest GM.
But he’s fostered in such a way that he’s not weighed down by expectations, externally or internally. The date, March 10, is carefully avoided, both at home and academy. Whenever the topic inadvertently veers into their conversation, they consciously drift. His coach RB Ramesh’s biggest fear is media. “I generally tell journalists not to play it up. He might be a chess prodigy, but he’s still quite young. Thankfully, he is too composed to bother about results,” he says.
The parents are worried about their neighbours and relatives nudging him with questions, even if those are intended pleasantries, more so after he returned from the juniors, where he squandered a couple of great opportunities in the last few round after beating the top seed Van Foreest, an established GM with 2629 points, and seven years elder to him. But against relatively lighter opponents in Semen Lomasov and GM Svane Rasmus, he settled for draws despite being in positions to force victories.
It hurt his prospects—had he won the tournament or emerged joint-first, he would have bettered Karjakin (GM at 12 yrs, 7 months), the defeated 2016 world title challenger—but it didn’t dent his morale. A slightly miffed Ramesh, miffed at the public mourning of his slip-ups, likens his fourth-placed finish to Namibia losing to Australia in a World Cup cricket final. “Praggu was like Namibia. He was playing against better seeded and vastly experienced players. For him to come fourth itself is a victory of sorts, like winning the World Cup itself,” he says.
Not that Ramesh considers sport is essentially didactic, but he drills into his students a sense of level-headedness. “I always advise them not to be driven by milestones. I’m not saying that a chess player shouldn’t be concerned about his rankings, he should have that motivation to improve his rankings and win medals, but a player should fundamentally be driven by his passion for the game. Praggu has that passion burning in him. I don’t think he’s worrying too much about the norms. This is not his end or the limit. He has the potential for achieving bigger things,” he asserts. Like winning the World Championship, successor one day to his idols Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen. To bolster his point, Anand became GM at 18. Bobby Fischer was 15 and Carlsen 13.
His father, though, has a concern, an existential crisis for most parents. “He has exams in March.”
After his most famous win, over Paraguayan GM Axel Bachman in the Isle of Man tournament, a game that soon got compared to Bobby Fischer’s game of the century against Donald Byrne in 1956, Praggnanandhaa innocently asked his parents who Bobby Fischer was. They turned blank. He googled the name and dug up details of the Bryne game as well as that of the eccentric American genius. He was (and is) too young to grasp the complexities of the man, but enshrined him alongside other idols, contemporary greats like Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand.
His sister Vaishali fished out more details of Fischer – notably his all-consuming passion that saw him learn Russian to read chess literature. “Praggu has immense drive, which is difficult to spot at this age. Generally, after a few rounds many kids tire and stop. But there’s no stopping Praggu. He keeps on playing, as if he’s unhappy, if he couldn’t beat every player inside the hall,” Ramesh says.
As much as his willingness to pound for hours on end, nuancing a specific move or trying to wriggle out of a difficult situation, Ramesh was struck by his vision. It’s even more so in chess, since the consequences of chess moves can only be studied in hindsight, each move is potentially crucial to the final result. And each move must bear scrutiny before execution. Ramesh compares it to a batsman’s ability to judge the length of delivery. “He has a clear inner vision of potential moves, and sees patterns that his opponents don’t,” he says.
Like adrenalin-high young batsmen, he occasionally misjudges his lengths too, but he always ensures that he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. “Even before I tell him where he has erred, he would have realised his mistakes. He’s very analytical as well as self-critical of his game. He knows that he has very strong middle and end games, but has to work hard on his openings,” he says.
Nodirbek Abdusattorov. Another tongue twister of a chess player. In October last year, the 13-year-old from Tashkent became the second fastest GM, falling short of Karjakin’s mark by seven months and 11 days. Like Praggnanandhaa, he was widely expected to break the record, but was hamstrung financially and by an imprudent choice of tournaments. A few days before he even turned 12, in 2016, he scored the youngest GM norm in chess history, but could compete in only a handful of GM events, and hence lost out on what was a terrific opportunity.
A few months earlier, India’s Srinath Nayaranan completed his GM norms. He was 23, but what makes his case worthy enough to be discussed here was that he was the youngest ever FIDE-rated player from India, which he achieved when he was eight. He won the U-12 world championship, jointly with Wesely So, currently ranked third in the world. At 14, he became an international master, but it took him nearly nine years of toil climbing the next rung.
Srinath blames it primarily on finance. “I’m from an ordinary middle-class family, and hence my parents couldn’t fund my travels abroad. So I had to depend entirely on my sponsors, who stopped funding me during recession. So I hardly travelled out of India for GM tournaments, and it hampered my progress,” says Srinath.
He also talks about the pressure when he approached the mark. “People have been waiting for a lot of years for me to become GM. So whoever I met would ask whether I had become and whether I’ll become and things like that. It naturally put me under a lot of pressure. And when you play under such pressure, you invariably tend to lose the game. I did lose a few,” he recollects.
Before Praggnanandhaa’s career took off, his father, a bank employee, had similar worries when Ramesh informed him that the boy should be sent abroad. There was a time when he even thought twice whether it’s financially viable to send both his kids to the academy quite far from the house. But that’s when they remembered the words of the head priest of the Kalki (a self-styled godman who was popular in Tamil Nadu in the 90s) ashram.
In fact, he was the person who christened their son, “Praggnanandhaa” and had then urged them to support whatever he does, because “he will bring the world under his feet one day”. So even if it meant they had to travel for 20-odd kilometres, cut through the busiest roads of the city in crammed corporation buses or ramshackle shared autos, he ensured that they got good coaching. “It was financially draining, because I had to send his mother too with him. So initially it was difficult,” he says. He sacrificed his little dreams like buying a car and renovating his house, so that his children could play. “I should thank Ramesh for everything, including helping us to get sponsors when Praggu started doing well,” he says.
Rameshbabu’s eyes well up each time his children give prize-money cheques to him. He says it’s the joy on their face and not the digits on the cheque leaf, or the records they tumble, that make him cry. So even on the day his son becomes a GM, with a record or not, he will ring up his wife and ask Praggnanandhaa common paternal queries like whether he got enough sleep or had good food. “For, he’s just a 12-year-old,” the father reminds.
The road ahead
How to become a GM?
For starters, a player must attain an Elo rating of at least 2500 (though he needn’t sustain the level to keep the title). Then one should complete three norms, with at least two favourable results from a total of at least 27 games in tournaments involving at least three other Grandmasters (GM). If one wins titles such as Women’s World Championship, the World Junior Championship, or the World Senior Championship, one gets a GM norm without the 2500 Elo rating.
What Praggnanandhaa has to do?
He completed his first norm in the World Junior Championship in November. He had a glorious opportunity to bag the honour, if he had won the championship, but faltered in the latter stages and subsequently finished fourth, which in itself is a creditable accomplishment. He would have completed another norm if he had managed 6.5/9 in the Charlotte Chess event in the USA. He faltered in the next competition, too, the Gibraltar Chess Festival, where he finished 63rd with 5.5. Now, he needs to beat at least a couple of GMs before the fifth round of the Bobby Fischer Memorial to stand a chance of breaking Sergey Karjakin’s record (12 years and seven months).
How long does it generally take to progress from IM to GM?
The likes of Magnus Carlsen and Bobby Fischer achieved it in less than a year. Viswanathan Anand took three years. At Praggnanandhaa’s age, he wasn’t even an IM. Some like Srinath Narayan, who was a FIDE-rated player at the age of eight, took nine years to progress from IM to GM.
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