In quick succession, R. Praggnanandhaa has taken hold of his opponent’s rook and pawn. The black king has been cornered. The white queen is on a rampage.
Then, unexpectedly, Praggnanandhaa extends his hand, offering truce. His rival, Valentin Buckels from Germany, grabs it. The match has ended in a draw, except that the Indian has emerged the winner. After the 11-match marathon at the World Youth Chess Championship, held in Mumbai earlier this month, 14-year-old Praggnanandhaa is the Under-18 world champion.
He rearranges the chessboard and walks out of the auditorium. Heads turn, admirers whisper their congratulations. Outside, many others come to shake hands, pose for selfies. He obliges but looks like he has barely registered his feat. A reporter straps a collar mic on him. “You can smile now," he tells him as he takes his position in the frame. Praggnanandhaa, for the first time, cracks his mouth open shyly, into a more universally accepted expression of happiness.
Praggnanandhaa’s reserve is in sharp contrast to his parents. His mother, Nagalakshmi, a homemaker who accompanies her son to chess tournaments around the world, can’t stop beaming. His father, Rameshbabu, who couldn’t take time off from his job at a cooperative bank in Tamil Nadu to attend the championship, says over the phone that he too can’t explain his son’s calm attitude after matches. “It’s a peculiar one," he admits.
But it is this temperament that has helped him register consistent victories over the past decade. A native of Padi in suburban Chennai, Praggnanandhaa started playing tournaments at the age of 5. At 7, he won the Under-8 category title in the World Youth Chess Championship. At 10, he became the youngest international master (IM) in history. At 12, he became the second youngest grandmaster (GM) ever, a year earlier than the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen.
He has had his share of defeats. He would be the first to tell you he has a long way to go before he can come anywhereclose to the reigning chess greats. But setbacks don’t seem to faze him, just as victories don’t make him complacent. “More than anything else, he just loves playing," his father told ESPN last year. “Results to him don’t matter that much."
Praggnanandhaa isn’t a talker. His replies are precise and unpretentious. It only takes him minutes to wrap up interactions with a couple of mediapersons waiting to interview him. Soon, he’s ready for me. Would he rather take a break, maybe hang out with his mum? I ask. “No," he says. “Let’s finish this up first."
We walk to a coffee shop in the hotel premises, taking seats across the table.
How did he prepare for the tournament? I ask him.
“It was nothing special. I worked on my opening, middlegame, endgame. I was working quite hard. Somehow it worked out."
It seemed like he could have pushed for victory. Why offer a draw?
“I could have tried if Sargsyan (the top-seeded Armenian who trailed Praggnanandhaa by half a point in the overall standings before the final round) had won. But after he made a draw, I thought, let’s make a draw."
Any nervous moments?
“All games are tough. In Under-18, everyone comes prepared. It’s very hard."
So what worked for him?
He shrugs. “I don’t know what they did. I was preparing normally."
Praggnanandhaa’s journey in chess started at age 3, after his sister Vaishali was enrolled in a chess class to wean her off television. Vaishali became an international master at 15. Praggnanandhaa, who grew up battling his sibling on the board, started beating her at her own game in a few years. Soon, R.B. Ramesh, whose Chennai-based Chess Gurukul has honed some of India’s most promising young talents, offered to coach him.
“There was a point where I was hesitant on whether I should (have him continue playing) because of financial requirements," says Rameshbabu. But then a local industrialist offered to sponsor Praggnanandhaa. His school, too, offered him free education and relaxed attendance norms so he could concentrate on the game.
Back home, Praggnanandhaa takes a bus or an auto rickshaw to his coach’s academy, an hour away. There, he spends 4-6 hours working on his game. Afterwards, he unwinds over a game of table tennis with his coach’s son. Recently, he has also taken up swimming to stay fit. It may not seem like it, but chess can be physically demanding.
Praggnanandhaa’s is the kind of dedication that has been acknowledged by players such as Viswanathan Anand, the top-ranked Indian in chess for nearly two decades. “What impresses me about Praggnanandhaa is that he’s not just a strong player but mixes imaginative middlegame play with patient endgame skills," he told ESPN.
Has there ever been a point when he has felt he has had a bit too much chess, that he needs to get away for a bit? I ask.
“No," Praggnanandhaa says simply.
“No. Maybe when I am 30. But not now."
His next area of focus was a world juniors’ championship, which started in Delhi on 14 October. He was joint leader after two rounds, but there is still a long way to go—the tournament concludes on 26 October. What does he think of his chances?
“Everyone from here will be there. So more will come."
And does he think he will make it there?
“I will try for sure," he says, pokerface on point. “I will try to get a medal."