Newsmaker: How R Praggnanandhaa became the world’s best under-18 chess player


For a decidedly bourgeois and diligent couple from Padi, a suburb of Chennai, Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi faced a challenge that perhaps all parents face: how to distract their child’s attention from television. One idea that won over chess fan Rameshbabu was to enroll his 7-year-old daughter, Vaishali, in chess lessons. Vaishali loved it. She began to spend more and more time at home bending over the chessboard at home. His little brother Praggnanandhaa – everyone called him Prag – was not even four years old, but he was curious what his sister was so immersed in. Vaishali began to teach him the movements.

It was ten years ago; now brother and sister are both great masters, breaking records and winning world titles between them.

14-year-old Prag is now widely recognized as one of the brightest emerging prodigies in the chess world, but it was evident that he was made for the game almost immediately after he started 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 age 12, in June of last year, he became the second-all-time youngest and youngest Indian to reach the GM standard (his record was broken in January by D Gukesh, also a boy from Chennai ).

At some point early in their children’s careers, Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi had struggled to meet the expenses – training, travel, hotel stay – for their two prodigies. But as their talent became apparent, help began to arrive. A local industrialist offered a sponsorship. Praggnanandhaa’s school waived his fees and relaxed his attendance standards so he could focus on his game.

There was no stopping for Praggnanandhaa, who first competed in the under-18 open category at the Youth World Chess Championship held in India, and went on to win the medal of ‘gold.

The reserved boy with the shy smile and wide eyes transforms into a ruthless opponent across the board, with complex movements and strategic aggression circulating through his brain.

A victory was not surprising, said his trainer RB Ramesh, himself a grandmaster, whose “Chess Gurukul” at T Nagar in Chennai – an academy that produces prolific champions – is where Praggnanandhaa and his sister train. Still, it was no small feat for Praggnanandhaa, who faced some of the world’s best contemporaries en route to victory. Through it all he said: “I had fun, I played for fun.”

Illustration: Nirhale of Gajanan

“When he confirmed his entry into this tournament we knew he had a very good chance of winning, unless there was an accident,” said Ramesh. The coach was more curious to see how dominant Praggnanandhaa could be; and in that, the young GM revealed his ruthless streak.

“He clearly did it (being dominant) against all of his contemporaries,” Ramesh said.

Praggnanandhaa doesn’t talk much if he doesn’t talk about chess. But his exuberance and playfulness is evident when he walks up to his mother Nagalakshmi, who accompanies him in the many tournaments he plays around the world. Her father Rameshbabu, who was stricken with polio as a child, is a branch manager at Tamil Nadu State Corporation Bank and follows his children’s games online.

Prag’s prodigious talent for chess hasn’t changed his family’s way of life much.

Nagalakshmi still sneaks into cookers in various hotels around the world to prepare simple meals for her children. In Chennai, if Rameshbabu is not available to take them for a ride on his scooter, children travel by bus or auto-rickshaws to their chess academy, an hour from their suburban home.

Intrepid and imaginative, Praggnanandhaa has just started.

WHEN PADI’S PRAG PLAYS

– Praggnanandhaa, or Prag, is the son of Nagalakshmi, a housewife, and Rameshbabu, branch manager at Tamil Nadu State Corporation Bank. They live in Padi, a suburb of Chennai.

-Before becoming the Under-18 World Champion, Praggnanandhaa won the Under-8 category title and was also declared the youngest international master.

-Prag and his sister, Vaishali, also a grandmaster, train at the Gurukul Chess Academy in Chennai.

-Prag trains about four hours a day and relaxes by playing ping-pong.

-He lets his game do the talking. When he’s not playing, Prag comes across as a shy and shy child.


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