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R. Praggnanandhaa — The boy whom defeat can’t touch

 

Indian chess prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa laughs as he is lifted by his school friends, upon his arrival at his school after becoming the world's second youngest chess grandmaster ever, in Chennai on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Praggnanandhaa achieved this feat with some aggressive play at an event organised in northern Italy which that ended on June 24.

R. Praggnanandhaa isn’t perturbed when he loses. He smiles and finds a way to bounce back. This resilience has played a part in the 12-year-old becoming the second-youngest Grandmaster in chess history. What else can he accomplish

As one of India’s leading chess coaches, R.B. Ramesh is used to listening to complaints from parents about their children training under him. Still, the Chennai-based Grandmaster (GM) was surprised to hear what a worried mother had to say of her little son.

“He doesn’t seem to be bothered even after losing a game badly,” Nagalakshmi had told Ramesh. “He comes out of the venue smiling after a defeat.”

This quality, though, came in particularly handy for R. Praggnanandhaa recently.

Last month at the Schaakweek Apeldoorn tournament in the Netherlands, where he was hoping to complete his GM title and make history, he lost six of nine games. He finished second from the bottom, having started out as the fourth seed. It was, according to Ramesh, the worst performance of his career.

Praggnanandhaa wasn’t perturbed, however. He prepared instead for his next tournament, the Gredine Open, which was to kick off in the small Italian town of Ortisei just a day later.

He lost no time in shrugging off his poor showing and finished second — this time from the top.

And he made history, too. He became the world’s second-youngest GM ever, at the age of 12 years, 10 months and 13 days. (For the uninitiated, the GM title is the highest in chess; lesser mortals are perfectly content to be International Masters or FIDE Masters).

To complete his title, Praggnanandhaa scored his final GM norm in Ortisei — the title needs three norms, which are obtained with a specific number of points at GM events. He had already touched 2500 ELO points, the other requirement.

He had scored his maiden norm last year at the World Junior Championship, which, too, was hosted by Italy. Had he won it, he would have got the GM title directly and broken the record set by Sergey Karjakin (12 years, 7 months) in 2002.

The World juniors is easily the most important of all the age-group tournaments, and its previous winners include Russians Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Boris Spassky as well as India’s own Viswanathan Anand, all of whom have gone on to win the World title.

In Italy, Praggnanandhaa scored eight points, only half-a-point less than the champion, Aryan Tari of Norway. He finished fourth in a tournament that is meant for players below the age of 20; he was only 11 at the time.

He made his second GM norm from the Fischer Memorial tournament at Heraklion, Greece, in April. He did that in style too, winning the event with seven points from nine rounds.

The exposure in Europe has certainly helped Praggnanandhaa, not just in gaining the norms but also in sharpening his skills against stronger opponents, day in, day out.

He could consider himself lucky to find a sponsor in P.R. Venkatrama Raja, the Ramco Systems chairman who is also the president of the All India Chess Federation.

Competitive chess is an expensive affair. You need more than a chessboard and a computer. You have to play a large number of tournaments, both domestic and international, and work with top-quality coaches.

Praggnanandhaa is fortunate in this regard, too. After learning the intricacies of the game from M.A. Velayudham, he began to train under Ramesh, who was one of India’s sharpest tactical players before he quit his public-sector job and became a full-time coach.

“I met him for the first time four years ago at a function in Chennai, organised by journalists, and I was a guest,” recalls Ramesh. “Praggnanandhaa was one of the winners. After the ceremony, his father Rameshbabu told me that he would like me to train both his children.”

Praggnanandhaa’s elder sister, R. Vaishali, who has to her credit a couple of World youth titles, had already made her mark. “Vaishali was, of course, the stronger player then, but not for long; and that, I think, upset her for a while,” says Ramesh. “She has played a role in Praggnanandhaa’s career. It is great if you have another quality player at home as you grow up.”

R. Praggnanandhaa, who got the Young Grandmaster norm in the Gredine Chess Tournament at Ortiesi, Italy, seen with his parents Ramesh Babu and N. Nagalakshmi, and sister R. Vaishali, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, on June 26, 2018.

R. Praggnanandhaa, who got the Young Grandmaster norm in the Gredine Chess Tournament at Ortiesi, Italy, seen with his parents Ramesh Babu and N. Nagalakshmi, and sister R. Vaishali, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, on June 26, 2018.   | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

So, Praggnanandhaa doesn’t have to look too far for a sparring partner. The siblings often play in the same tournaments, especially at age-group championships, in which they compete in different categories.

You meet the duo along with their mother at chess venues. And as Nagalakshmi told Ramesh, you don’t find Praggnanandhaa fretting after a bad game.

“That is not very usual, especially for someone as young as him,” says T.J. Suresh Kumar, who was the coach of the Indian teams for a couple of Asian youth championships Praggnanandhaa took part in. “Normally children do not want to go back and analyse the games they lost, but Praggnanandhaa happily does that.”

Ramesh points out another trait that sets Praggnanandhaa apart from others. “He knows that he is good and that he can succeed without working hard, but he is still glad to toil,” says the coach. “And he is ambitious.”

What, then, are his ambitions in chess? When The Hindu poses that question to him, Praggnanandhaa says: “My ultimate aim is to become the World Champion. But right now my aim is to improve my rating.”

His rating at the moment stands at 2535. You need to be around 2650 to break into the world’s top 100 (he is ranked 562nd now).

“He is certainly capable of breaching the 2700 mark,” says Ramesh. “I believe he could be among the top 10 one day. Once he does that, anything is possible.”

He got an opportunity to test his skills against a top player earlier this month. At the Leon Masters in Spain, he put up a great fight against World No. 7 Wesley So. In a match of four games, he scored 1.5 against the American’s 2.5; he won one, lost two and drew one.

After the match, his opponent called him a genius. Leading chess photographer David Llada was more eloquent. He tweeted: “A tiger from Madras roars in the Spanish town of Leon. Haven’t I seen this movie before?”

It will be fascinating to watch the tiger cub’s moves across the 64 squares in the sequel over the next few years.

thanks : the Hindu 28

Dedicated by: Kavignar Thanigai.

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