The King's Gambit: Markers chess players lay down on the road to glory

From Bobby Fischer to Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen, stunning feats have been markers towards their eventual triumphs. Indian chess prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa’s win over Carlsen this week may be one such marker



Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa (second from left) makes the ceremonialopening move during the World Chess Championship match between world champion Magnus Carlsen (right) and Ian Nepomniachtchi, in Dubai last year. — FIDE
Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa (second from left) makes the ceremonialopening move during the World Chess Championship match between world champion Magnus Carlsen (right) and Ian Nepomniachtchi, in Dubai last year. — FIDE

By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Sat 26 Feb 2022, 12:22 AM

Last updated: Sat 26 Feb 2022, 12:27 AM

At the World Chess Championship final in Dubai last year, guests made token opening moves for the players, Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi, during the photo opportunity before the start of each game. One of them was a teen chess prodigy from India, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. Little did anyone imagine then that less than three months later, the 16-year-old lad from Chennai would take a game off the five-time world champion, Carlsen, at a rapid chess tournament featuring 16 elite players.

A MILESTONE FOR THE YOUNGSTER

Carlsen finished second, behind Nepomniachtchi, in the preliminary stage of the Airthings Masters online tournament, while Praggnanandhaa, also known as Pragg, did not qualify for the knockout stage, finishing 11th. But it was still a huge milestone for the youngster to upstage the world champion he idolised through his formative years. Pragg was eight years old when Carlsen first became the world champion, defeating India’s five-time world champion, Viswanathan Anand, in Chennai in 2013. Now, he has become the youngest player to beat Carlsen in his long reign as world champion.

It wasn’t a fluke either.

India’s five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand. — FIDE
India’s five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand. — FIDE

Pragg has an attacking style of play, like his mentor and country cousin, Viswanathan Anand, who has been grooming him at the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy in Chennai. He had the upper hand in his very first encounter with Carlsen last year at the New in Chess Classic tournament. Twice he spurned the world champion’s repetitive moves for a draw to keep pressing for a win. But Carlsen finally held out for a draw in 80 moves with his characteristic rock-solid defensive play. “He certainly did not show me too much respect when we were playing. So, he clearly believes that he can compete at this level,” Carlsen prophesied after that game.

Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. — FIDE
Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. — FIDE

In the Airthings Masters game this week, Pragg was even more aggressive, conceding two pawns to gain attacking positions. The game followed a well-trodden path after Queen’s Gambit Declined until the 14th move. Vidit Gujrathi, India’s second-highest ranked player after Anand, had won a game from that position with a rook move last year. But Pragg moved his queen instead, taking the game into uncharted territory and also showing that he had studied the Gujrathi line. He then got into a winning position in the middle game but missed the opportunity.

But the teenager kept his composure to build a fresh attack and Carlsen cracked with a false move. The world champion tried to wriggle out but Pragg did not falter this time in executing the coup de grace.

FUTURE WORLD CHAMPION?

Even though three losses at the start of the tournament meant that Pragg could not qualify for the knockout stage, he took two more big scalps after defeating Carlsen — those of Russian grandmasters Vladislav Artemiev and Andrey Esipenko, who finished at three and four in the standings at the preliminary stage behind Nepo and Carlsen. Esipenko, 19, is another rising star, ranked 26 in the world.

Russian grandmaster Andrey Esipenko. — FIDE
Russian grandmaster Andrey Esipenko. — FIDE

Pragg is still a long way behind, but his feats at a tender age have prompted Anand to tip him as a future world champion. He was the youngest ever international master as a 10-year-old, and the second youngest ever to become a grandmaster four years back, although three others have attained that status at an even younger age since then.

Apart from having brains wired for it, chess prodigies are characterised by an early exposure to mastering the game. In Pragg’s case, it came when his elder sister, Vaishali, enrolled in a chess class. The six-year-old girl was hooked on cartoon films and her parents thought chess would wean her away from the screen. It worked twofold because the girl was soon playing chess at home with her toddler brother. Vaishali is an international master (IM) and woman grandmaster (WGM) now, and both the siblings were among the first five players chosen by Anand’s chess academy for fellowship programmes.

Like Pragg, Anand got an early start at home. “I started at the age of six. My elder brother and sister were dabbling a bit, and then I went to my mother and pestered her to teach me as well,” he recalled in an interview. His mother was a big fan of the game, and once Anand started beating his siblings, he joined a professional class and started playing competitively. He became India’s first GM at the age of 18, and the first player from outside the former Soviet Union to be crowned World Champion, after American GM Bobby Fischer.

Youngest-ever US chess champion Bobby Fischer. — AP file
Youngest-ever US chess champion Bobby Fischer. — AP file

YOUNGEST-EVER US CHESS CHAMP

Fischer became the youngest-ever US chess champion at the age of 14, but his prodigious talent was evident in the previous championship when he won the ‘brilliancy prize’ for beating IM Donald Byrne. Chess author Hans Kmoch called it “the game of the century” — “a stunning masterpiece of combination play performed by a boy of 13 against a formidable opponent, matching the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies.” Much later, in what was dubbed “the match of the century”, Fischer beat Boris Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the world championship, at the height of the US-USSR cold war, breaching the Soviet dominance over the game and alleged manipulation of chess tournaments.

Like Anand, Fischer started playing chess at the age of six with his sister Joan and mother Regina after buying a chessboard in a candy store. Joan and Regina got tired of Fischer’s obsession with the game, but he continued on his own, getting hold of a book of old chess games to go deeper.

He also dropped out of school at the age of 16 as his chess mastery grew, thanks to the efforts of his mother to expand his opportunities to play and find mentors.

Fischer had many ups and downs with mental health issues and vanished from the scene after becoming the world champion, refusing to defend his title.

Russia's Boris Spassky (right). — AFP file
Russia's Boris Spassky (right). — AFP file

FISCHER’S RUSSIAN OPPONENT

His famous Russian opponent Boris Spassky was also a young prodigy in his time, beating world champion Mikhail Botvinnik when he was 10 years old. The story goes that Spassky learned chess on a train when he was five years old, during the family’s evacuation from Leningrad following the German siege of World War II. Botvinnik was instrumental in developing a coaching system to help Soviet players after the war, and his pupils included three world champions of later years — Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik.

World champion Mikhail Botvinnik. — AFP file
World champion Mikhail Botvinnik. — AFP file

THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME

Kasparov, considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time, got his early start when he was admitted to Botvinnik’s chess school at the age of 10. It’s said that he became serious about chess when he solved a difficult chess problem set by his parents when he was just seven. Kasparov became the youngest undisputed world chess champion at the age of 22 when he beat Karpov in a classic, historical encounter.

In 1999, Kasparov touched a peak of 1851 in the Elo rating system used in chess to measure the relative strengths of players. This remained the highest peak until Magnus Carlsen surpassed it in 2014 with a peak rating of 1882. The Norwegian GM still trails Kasparov in terms of time spent as the highest rated player in the world, but remains on course to become the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in chess.

RISE OF CARLSEN

Carlsen’s father was an amateur chess player and taught his five-year-old son the game. The boy’s keen desire to beat his elder sister proved to be the first motivator for him to study the game seriously. The child prodigy made rapid progress after that, having already shown an aptitude for tackling jigsaw puzzles and Lego challenges at an even earlier age. At the age of 18, Magnus Carlsen became the youngest player until then to cross an Elo rating of 2800. There are only 14 players in the rarefied layer of players with Elo ratings above 2800. Last year, the Iranian-born French chess GM, Alireza Firouzja, became the youngest to reach the 2800 rating. The 18-year-old is currently the second ranked player in the world, next only to Carlsen, and the most likely next challenger to the throne. Firouzja too had a sibling connection to his early introduction to the game — his elder brother Mohammedreza is also a chess player.

Iranian-born French chess GM, Alireza Firouzja (right) and Magnus Carlsen. — FIDE
Iranian-born French chess GM, Alireza Firouzja (right) and Magnus Carlsen. — FIDE

MORE PRODIGIES ARE EMERGING

Chess prodigies are emerging faster than earlier, as opportunities to play competitively online arouse interest around the world. Indian-American Abhimanyu Mishra became the youngest ever GM last year.

Nihal Sarin of Thrissur, Kerala. — FIDE
Nihal Sarin of Thrissur, Kerala. — FIDE

Earlier, he had been picked for a Young Stars programme by the Kasparov Chess Foundation after becoming the highest-rated under-nine player in the world. Among top-rated young Indian players is 17-year-old Nihal Sarin of Thrissur, Kerala, who became a GM at the age of 14, and was part of the Anand chess academy’s pick of first five players to get a fellowship, along with Pragg and his sister Vaishali. The others in that group are 16-year-old Raunak Sadhwani from Nagpur, who became a GM when he was 13, and 15-year-old Dommaraju Gukesh of Chennai who became the third youngest-ever GM at the age of 12 years and seven months — doing it three months earlier than Pragg had done. But the highest rated junior player from India currently is 18-year-old Erigaisi Arjun from Telangana, who is next only to Firouzja and Esipenko, in the world junior rankings.

Erigaisi Arjun from Telangana. — FIDE
Erigaisi Arjun from Telangana. — FIDE

THE GIANT-KILLER

Who among these players will fulfil their potential to be world beaters will depend on a multitude of factors in the years ahead. But the win over Carlsen marks Pragg out as a giant-killer. He has been erratic with big swings in performance so far, but his fearlessness and appetite to take on the top players could make the difference once he becomes more consistent.

When he made the first ceremonial move for Nepo in Game 9 of the World Chess Championship final in Dubai, it was an adventurous English opening with the bishop’s pawn instead of the central pawns, indicating the young Indian star’s feeling that the challenger should try and wrest the initiative back from Carlsen by trying something new. Nepo let the move stand and continued with that opening to create interesting possibilities in the game, although he later made the worst blunder of his career — an elementary oversight — to lose it.

Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. — FIDE
Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. — FIDE

In hindsight, we did get a glimpse of the playmaker’s mind in Pragg, which promises many interesting battles ahead.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com


More news from Sports