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The ‘next king’ is raring to square off against chess’s best

By Neha.Surana@timesgroup.com | Oct 13, 2023

R Praggnanandhaa has shown remarkable perseverance and tenacity to become one of the hottest names in Indian chess. The TOI #Unstoppable21 jury has picked the Chennai Grandmaster as one of the Unstoppable 21 Indians under 21 years

As India was celebrating the moon-landing in August end, a tongue twister from Chennai was becoming a household name across the country for very different reasons.

R Praggnanandhaa, a wiry 18-year-old with a glint in his eyes, stretched the all-conquering Magnus Carlsen to a tie-breaker in the chess World Cup in Baku. And suddenly, a non-televised sport started getting equal traction as Chandrayaan on every media platform across the country.

Prag, as we started calling him, isn’t the first Indian to make a mark on the world stage. Viswanathan Anand routinely made India proud for over two decades, becoming the world champion five times. He brought a chess revolution in the country with India now boasting 83 Grandmasters and regarded as being a powerhouse in the sport. In fact, it is Prag’s peer and schoolmate D Gukesh who has recently become India’s No.1 GM, going past Anand in live rankings.

Still, it was Prag’s dream run in Baku that caught the attention of the country and made millions follow chess websites, most with little or no knowledge of the cerebral sport. During the World Cup, Prag was on a giant-killing run. He stunned World No.2 Hikaru Nakamura and World No.3 Fabiano Caruana before taking Carlsen to the limit. His stellar performances made him the talk of town and he was dubbed the ‘Next King’.

Prag’s coach, GM RB Ramesh said even his ward didn’t expect to reach the final. “We did not expect him to beat the World Nos 2 and 3 in back-to-back matches. So, when that happened, his self-confidence grew immensely,” Ramesh told TOI.

While the world is taking note of Prag now, it has been a long, arduous journey that has brought the teenager to the cusp of superstardom. His parents Rameshbabu and mom Nagalakshmi – who became an internet sensation during the World Cup – have given rock-solid support and his sister Vaishali is a top player with whom Prag has exchanged notes since he was a kid.

But above all, it’s the youngster’s dedication and perseverance that have gone a long way towards making him the player he is today. “Prag is extremely passionate about the game. He loves it much more than most of the kids I have come across. After a gruelling event, most kids prefer to take a break from chess because it often becomes too much. But for Prag, after he plays a tournament, he goes back to the room, he’ll open the laptop and see what’s happening in other tournaments… He never tires of playing chess,” says Ramesh.

Prag’s ability to keep himself away from distractions at such a young age is also quite remarkable. In a massive departure from the trend nowadays, the youngster does not indulge in any social media activity and neither is he stuck to his mobile phone. “Most kids his age, even chess players, get addicted to video games or they are watching a web series when they are not playing. But he’s able to keep himself away from all these, his mind space is only about chess,” Ramesh said.

A student of the Velammal School, which has produced 17 GMs, Prag has been training under Ramesh since he was eight. The coach has seen from close quarters how the boy has matured, working on the rough edges, like his opening preparation, for instance. “Since he became a GM six years ago, he has been working on all those and is shaping up into a complete player,” said Ramesh.

The next challenge for Prag is the FIDE Candidates meet, the winner of which will take on Ding Liren, the current world chess champion. Incidentally, Prag is the third youngest player after the legendary Bobby Fischer and Carlsen to qualify for the tournament. Gukesh, too, in all probability, will qualify for the Candidates, making it a huge occasion for Indian chess.

Commending Prag’s efforts, Anand, who is the only other Indian to have played Candidates and won it, said: “Prag has been sensational… He has played so many excellent games recently, including before the World Cup, in Hungary and the Global Chess League. I believe that we are seeing a new star with a very bright future.”

Prag took part in the Asian Games for India and, over the next few months, will be busy preparing for the Candidates in April. Coach Ramesh knows the arc lights will be on the teenager and he is looking to put together a team to help the wizard prepare well for the event. “We have to put together a team to help Prag. We will be working on his schedule, the tournaments he should play in in the build-up and when to take a break to keep his mind uncluttered. A lot of hard work needs to be done but Prag will be up for it,” the coach said.

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