Rival applauds, pundits speechless as Praggnanandhaa finishes runners-up

After R Praggnanandhaa realised that all his routes for a comeback were blocked in the finals of Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Chessable Masters tournament against Ling Diren, the World No 2, he flashed a wistful smile.

The 16-year-old, after losing on the first day to the wits of an experienced virtuoso, had waged a rousing but futile battle. He fought back to level the game after trailing overnight and forced the duel into a tiebreaks—two blitz games and then an armageddon if the game was still level. But a couple of slip-ups—most noticeably that led to Liren escaping with a draw in the first game of the tiebreaker—cost him the match.

But after the game, Liren, who was drained, applauded the youngster while commentator Grandmaster David Howell said: “I’m almost speechless. I’m running out of superlatives, running out of praise for Pragg because he is just so good right now.”

He is only 16. But in chess, more than any other sport, 16 is not too tender an age. There have been as many as 40, including the eleventh- grader from a Chennai suburb, who became Grandmasters before they turned 15.

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Praggnanandhaa is no stranger to the circuit either — there was a manic frenzy in the chess-scape when he beat Magnus Carlsen a few months ago, the youngest to do so since the Norwegian became world champion. Then, he beat him four days ago in the Chessables, before he scalped World No 10 Anish Giri and ran Liren close.

Still, Praggnanandhaa, is looked upon as a ‘kid’. Before the semifinal, his opponent Giri had tweeted: “18:00 CET. Isn’t that the kid’s bedtime in Chennai?”

His still-adolescent looks could have deceived his opponent. The Chennai boy looks younger. He spots but a faint outline of a mustache, though his voice has acquired the shrillness of a teenager. But adolescent mischief lingers in his tone.

“For us, he would always remain a kid,” says father Ramesh Babu, who drops and picks him from school. “He is still sometimes naughty, his mother still packs lunch for him, and sometimes he slips out of his house on his bicycle,” he says.

Of course, he spares less time for cartoon shows (though news and Tamil comedy shows keep him glued to the television). Mother Nagalakshmi still accompanies him whenever he travels abroad (the frequency has come down due to the pandemic and chess’s online boom), with her rice cooker.

Then Praggnanandhaa puts out tweets like these that make him feel even younger. “I have to be at school around 8.45 am, and now it is 2 am! I’ll try not to sleep during my internal exam.”

But child-likeness should not be misconstrued as frivolity. “He knows that he should keep on working hard to improve and reach the level he wants to reach. He is more driven and determined,” Ramesh says. Despite the pressure of board exams, Praggnanandhaa manages to put in six to eight hours of chess-work every day. He watches a lot of tapes of various players in various positions, per his coach RB Ramesh’s advice.

Quiet confidence

There is also a preternatural level-headedness about him. From a young age, he has not poured much emotion; he smiles warmly when he wins, when he loses he just stares quizzically at the board. “He was not jumping about in joy when he beat Carlsen for the first time. He just casually told us that he had beaten Carlsen and went to sleep immediately,” his father recounted. Beneath the soft-featured, unflustered face, there is smouldering maturity that has, no doubt, facilitated him in dealing with the pressure of expectations that first brushed him in his quest for the fastest GM feat. He fell short by a few weeks, but it did not matter for him.

Even Praggnanandhaa, too, hid his joy. “It’s a big thing of course, but I think it’s quite normal. I continue to do what I do,” he had said then. The words flowed naturally, with no tint of false modesty.

Maturity is burgeoning on the board too. He produced arguably his best in defeating the seasoned Giri. The first game was stale and ended in a draw; in the second, the Indian ambushed the Dutchman by setting a lethal trap in the end-game, the first game Giri had lost in the entire tournament. He went all out in the next game and was on the brink of a victory, but Pragg kept his nerves to force a draw. Giri ratcheted up the aggression, even as Praggnanandhaa stoically held on, though in the end Giri breached through his defence. In the tie-breaker, the Indian pushed his opponent to a corner, who eventually opted to resign.

The expressions that danced on Giri’s face captured the ever-blossoming potential of Praggnanandhaa. His emotions ranged from puzzlement and awe to shock and dejection. After the game, he tweeted: “The tweets that didn’t age well are the best. They get double the likes.”

Reputation does not daunt Praggnanandhaa. “He concentrated on the pieces on the board. As they say in cricket, play to the merit of the ball and not who is bowling. Praggnanandhaa too plays as per the moves on the board,” says Ramesh, his coach.

Since the turn of the year, he has raised his game by a gear —in chess the gear-shifts are sometimes lengthy processes. Beating Carlsen twice could be the icing on the cake — among others, he has vanquished Giri and Wei Yi, besides marking his career-high ELO points (2642) — though he is at an age when he is just learning to bake a cake, forget about icing. He, though, is building a compelling case to be not considered a kid. Except perhaps for his doting parents.

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