I look at the chessboard — I have an extra pawn and it looks like my prospects are good. My 12-year-old opponent thinks for a moment, and his rook slices down the board. A sacrifice! I take the offered rook but now his queen and knight begin a series of checks. It will end in only one way — checkmate. The king is dead. Long live the king.
For, my opponent is the world’s second youngest Grandmaster (GM) ever: Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, the boy king. “Prag”, as he is dubbed, is part of the new Indian chess wave — he along with players like Nihal Sarin is breaking records and crushing GMs, powering India to the very apex of chess-playing nations. Frederic Friedel, founder of ChessBase, a leading chess software firm, says Prag is actually ahead of Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, when Carlsen was at a similar age.
Seven months ago. Hyderabad, November 2017. “Now he is winning,” says Viswanathan Anand. All through the dinner, the five-time world champion was glancing at his smartphone. He was checking an app that tracks the moves played in chess tournaments all over the world. Anand wasn’t watching one of his elite, world-beating peers. He was following the match of Prag, whose race to become the world’s youngest GM had captivated the chess public.
Prag was in Italy at that time, playing the World Junior, the same event Anand had won in 1987. If Prag had won it, he would have become the world’s youngest GM ever. The record was set in 2002 by Sergey Karjakin, at the age of 12 years and 7 months.
Anand was watching Prag play against a top American player, Awonder Liang. “This is one of those Giuocos you shuffle around,” says Anand. The Giuoco Piano is an opening, also known as the Italian Game, which was popularised over 500 years ago in medieval Italy. It leads to complex, strategic battles, which is what unfolded there.
Prag is the real deal. All he needs to do is dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The basic ingredients are all there — just needs to be the complete package
Anand and I analysed some of my recent games. He was giving moves so fast, 2-3 moves ahead of me all the time. I have to improve
That evening, I was having dinner with Anand at a restaurant in Hyderabad. He reminded me that he had to play four times in the World Junior before winning — and he was already 14 when he played the first time, much older than Prag was now. After a phase of manoeuvring, Prag’s higher-rated opponent sacrificed a pawn — but they headed to an endgame where Prag’s rooks ran rampant.
As Anand studied the position, he said Prag was going to notch up a full point. How would he assess a promising player — by their tactics or their strategy? “What you are looking for is fluidity, how you are able to shift from one (kind of position) to another,” he explains.
Prag went on to win the match, netting his first GM “norm”, although he agonisingly missed out on winning the championship. Norms are a benchmark of performance and their seekers are called “normhunters”. Accumulate three of them, and you are made a GM by the governing body of the sport, Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE).
So, is Prag the real deal, I asked Anand. Yes, he is the real deal, he says emphatically. All he needs to do is dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The basic ingredients are all there, just needs to be the complete package. Since that November, Prag has had hits and misses and finally bagged his last GM norm at the Gredine Open in Italy in June. He is also the world’s youngest GM at the moment (Karjakin is now 18) and closer to that complete package Anand talked about. I walk down a quiet street in T Nagar, Chennai, to Chess Gurukul. This is where Prag’s journey began at the coaching academy run by Grandmaster RB Ramesh, which has helped propel him and many others to the top league. The L-shaped hall is crammed with tables with chessboards.
There are trophies everywhere. Bookcases are stuffed with tomes: Key Concepts of Gambit Play by Razuvaev, Yusupovs Boost Your Chess series, several volumes of the venerable ECO (Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings). Prag and his elder sister Vaishali are playing a mock game for a television channel, but even then the voracious appetite the two have for chess is evident: they are taking the game semi-seriously, playing proper moves. Their parents Rameshbabu, a bank employee, and Nagalakshmi, who travels with the children to tournaments look on proudly. They live in Padi, a suburb of Chennai, some 20 km from the academy.
How did Prag get into chess? It began nine years ago. Vaishali was watching too much television, and her parents enrolled her in a chess academy as a diversion. Vaishali brought the game home. Prag, who was three and a half, watched his sister and pestered her to teach him the rules, which he soon mastered. This is fairly extraordinary most prodigies, including Anand and Carlsen, learnt around the age of six. Prag also shares a trait with the legendary Bobby Fischer in that he was taught by his sister rather than a parent.
I ask about the rather unusual name Praggnanandhaa. Rameshbabu shows his pendant. We are devotees of Kalki Bhagwan, he says. A priest from the Kalki ashram picked the names for both children, including Praggnanandhaa (delight of the intellect), for he had said that one day the boy would have the world under his feet. Prag soon began playing tournaments. His extreme youth meant he was playing much older children. He was never scared, says his father. A glittering run, including winning the World Cadet Championship (U8 Boys), brought him to Rameshs attention. The prodigy joined the academy and has been commuting by bus every day. Prags first game as a GM will be one for the record books it was a smashing victory against World No. 7 Wesley So at the Leon tournament in Spain. After that game, So said, I think my opponent is a genius. Are you busy preparing now? I ask Prag.
I just want to have fun, he says. I ask him about the Gredine Open, which netted him the GM title. Prag had the norm in the bag but still had a round to play against the strong Dutch player Pruijssers Roeland. He just needed a draw. My mother said a draw was OK but I wanted to play, he says with a smile. When Roeland went wrong in the opening, he relentlessly applied pressure and snared him in a checkmating net. I ask him about his best game a win over GM Alex Bachmann two years ago, which shot him into the limelight. Prag had just turned 11 then.
He zips through the moves to show me, but gets stuck he cant remember the exact sequence. While Vaishali is looking up the moves in her phone, he simply goes to the final position which has him about to deliver checkmate to the beleaguered enemy king and works backward like a tape on rewind. What were his emotions during that final attack? I was calculating. Then he resigned, he laconically replies. The game is quite remarkable in that it shows Prags utter fearlessness. The opponent a super-grandmaster (a term for those whose ratings are higher than 2600 on the Elo scale) had gone for an ultra-aggressive approach right from the start, but Prag had replied with equal ferocity. He doesnt remember how many countries he has travelled to. Every journey means airport, venue and back to the airport. He is not much into sightseeing. In some countries you can manage with English. In Russia you have to speak Russian, is his response when I try to ask him about culture shock. I read books, he says.
What’s his favourite? He thinks for a moment.Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making.What are his inclinations as a player? I like to play e4,he says, referring to moving the king-pawn first, which generally leads to sharper positions. Does he prefer a tactical or a strategic approach? Tactics, but sometimes I like to go slow and crush them positionally,he says with a grin.
I like to calculate. How many hours does he put in daily. Four-five hours is enough for me, he says. I remember the famous Pele quote: I train one hour a day, while the rest of the time I think about football. I try to ask Prag about hobbies, but he is getting visibly bored. I suggest a blitz game.
His eyes light up. He brings out the chess clock an ingenious contrivance where two stop clocks are attached; with each move you stop your own clock and start your opponents.
With the advent of digital clocks, increments can also be added, which means with each completed move, some extra time is added. We sit across the board. The pieces are all worn down the king without the cross, the bishop without the mitre testimony to a thousand battles. He sets the clock: 11 seconds for the entire game, with 1 second increment. I look at him, there is no way I can play that fast. He reluctantly agrees and sets it to 1 minute, which to him is probably an eternity. When I demur again, he sets it to the regulation 3 2 3 minutes for the game, with 2 seconds added for each completed move.
This, for someone who plays as fast as him, will feel like forever and a day. I play black and he opens with the king pawn and follows it up with a bishop move. I can see where this is going he wants to set up his bishop and queen and deliver checkmate in about four moves approximately. I know how to counter this, though, and soon the play becomes fast and furious. We castle on opposing sides of the board he hurls his pawns towards my king, I snap up the sacrificed footsoldiers but now there is a blistering attack on my castled king position.
He is playing almost instantaneously while I’m taking more and more time, trying to calculate my way out. Finally, I counterattack in the centre my hope is to consolidate and then make my extra pawn pay. He reacts coolly, allowing my break, but now his queen and knight are descending onto my king a shot. A rook sacrifice blows open the position and I am in a situation perhaps familiar to his opponents imminent and inevitable checkmate.
He points to some improvements I could have made but seems satisfied with my play. I look at the clock thanks to increments, he has more time than he started off with, while Im down to my last few seconds. It can be odd talking to him sometimes he gives the air of a much older person, giving out variations, before slipping back into the mischievous boy. When the interview is over, he runs off to play hide-and-seek in the car park. He had recently visited Anand at his home, We analysed some of my recent games, he says.
How was it? He was giving moves so fast, 2-3 moves ahead of me all the time. He was too fast… I have to improve, he says. Does he analyse with his rivals after a game? The postmortem is one of the hallowed traditions of chess. If I win, I don’t, he says, because the opponent might be in a bad mood.Does he look at his own games? If I lose, I analyse. If its bad I forget it. I can forget anything if I want to. As the true masters know, remembering is easy, but learning to forget is the hardest thing.
As he runs off to play with the other kids, I try my best to fix the moves of the game we just played, but I know it will fade with time. Still I relish the encounter I might have just played a future world champion.
Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer