He started by observing his sister’s game. Today, 14-year-old R Praggnanandhaa from Chennai has emerged as the world’s best chess player in the Under-18 category
For a staunchly middle-class and diligent couple in Padi, a suburb in Chennai, Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi had a challenge that perhaps every parent faces—how to drag their child’s attention away from the television. One idea that appealed to Rameshbabu, a chess fan, was to enroll Vaishali, his 7-year-old daughter, for chess classes. Vaishali loved it. She began to spend more and more time at home poring over the chess board at home. Her little brother Praggnanandhaa—everyone called him Prag—was not even four, but he was curious about what his sister was so immersed in. Vaishali began to teach him the moves.
That was ten years ago; now, both brother and sister are Grandmasters, shattering records and winning world titles between them.
The 14-year-old Prag is now widely recognized as one of the brightest emerging prodigies in the world of chess, but that he was made for the game was evident almost immediately after he began playing it. At 5, he was playing tournaments. Two years later, he was the Under-8 world champion. Then he became the Under-10 champion. At 10, he was the youngest International Master (IM) in history. At 12—in June last year—he became the second youngest person ever and the youngest Indian to achieve the GM norm (his record was broken in January by D Gukesh, also a Chennai boy).
At one point early on in their children’s careers, Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi had struggled to meet the expenses—coaching, traveling, staying in hotels—for their two prodigies. But as their talent became apparent, help began to come their way. A local industrialist offered sponsorship. Praggnanandhaa’s school waived its fees, and relaxed their attendance norms so he could concentrate on his game.
There has been no stopping Praggnanandhaa, who competed in the open under-18 category in the World Youth Chess Championship held in India for the first time ever, and went on to clinch the gold medal.
The reserved boy with the shy smile and wide eyes, transforms into a ruthless opponent across the chess board, with complex moves and strategic aggression flowing through his brain.
A win was not surprising, said his coach RB Ramesh, himself a Grandmaster, whose ‘Chess Gurukul’ in Chennai’s T Nagar—an academy that produces prolific champions—is where Praggnanandhaa and his sister train. Yet, it was no mean feat for Praggnanandhaa, who took on some of the world’s best contemporaries en route to victory. Through it all, he said, “I enjoyed myself, I played for fun.”
“When he confirmed his entry in this tournament we knew he had a very good chance to win, unless there was any accident,” Ramesh said. The coach was more curious to see how dominating Praggnanandhaa could be; and in this the young GM revealed his ruthless streak.
“He clearly did that (being dominating) against all his contemporaries,” Ramesh said.
Praggnanandhaa does not talk much if he is not talking chess. But his exuberance and playfulness comes to the fore when he walks over to be with his mother Nagalakshmi, who accompanies him to the many tournaments he plays the world over. His father Rameshbabu, who was struck by polio in his childhood, is a branch manager at the Tamil Nadu State Corporation Bank, and follows his children’s games online.
Prag’s prodigous talent for chess has not changed his family’s lifestyle much. Nagalakshmi still sneaks in cookers at various hotels around the world to make homely meals for her children. In Chennai, if Rameshbabu is not available to give them a ride on his scooty, the children travel by bus or shared auto-rickshaws to get to their chess academy, an hour away from their suburban home.
Fearless and imaginative, Praggnanandhaa has just got started.