Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa: The boy who could be chess king

Chess, which returns to the UAE this month with the resumption of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Open after a two-year hiatus on account of Covid-19, may anoint Indian Grandmaster Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa as the new star

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**EDS: FILE IMAGE** Chennai: In this Saturday, July 30, 2022 file photo grandmaster Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa plays in the 44th Chess Olympiad at Mamallapuram near Chennai. Praggnanandhaa stunned five-time World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen at the FTX Crypto Cup and finished runners-up in the tournament in Miami, US. (PTI Photo)  (PTI08_22_2022_000043B)
**EDS: FILE IMAGE** Chennai: In this Saturday, July 30, 2022 file photo grandmaster Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa plays in the 44th Chess Olympiad at Mamallapuram near Chennai. Praggnanandhaa stunned five-time World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen at the FTX Crypto Cup and finished runners-up in the tournament in Miami, US. (PTI Photo) (PTI08_22_2022_000043B)

By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Thu 25 Aug 2022, 10:48 PM

Last updated: Fri 26 Aug 2022, 7:08 AM

In the annals of sports history, including in chess, arguably the most cerebral of sports, upsets — an unexpected result — are always an exciting possibility. Fans love an underdog, and when an unfancied or lower ranked player or team takes down a top ranked superstar or champion team, a frisson of excitement courses through the sport’s ecosystem. Is this the arrival of a new star? Is the old order changing? The world is always looking for the next Mohamed Ali, the next Usain Bolt, the next Roger Federer.

Typically, though, the upset is a one-off event, with the top dog losing because he was having an off-day or was off-color. In 2013, when the great Federer, by then already a seven-time Wimbledon winner, lost in the second round to a man named Sergiy Stakhovsky, who was ranked 116th in the world, few expected the Ukrainian to carve a niche in tennis’ Hall of Fame. After a modest career, Stakhovsky eventually went on to become a vintner in Europe before signing up with the Ukrainian military this year to fight the Russians.

Chess, which returns to the Arabian Gulf this month with the resumption of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Open after a two-year hiatus on account of Covid-19, has seen its share of upsets. From the relatively unknown Alexander Huzman defeating the great Garry Kasparov in the Euro Cup in 2003, to Oliver Touzane, a player with an Elo (ELO is a rating system to calculate the relative skill levels of chess players. It is named after its creator Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American physics professor) rating of 2300, taking down five-time world champion Vishwanathan Anand in 2001, the history of the game is littered with ambushes.

Even chess masters, with an Elo rating below 2300, who are mere mortals before grandmasters (Elo rating 2500 and above) are known to occasionally trip up super grandmasters (2700 and above), of which there have been only around 50 in the game’s history.

By that token, Indian chess grandmaster Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa’s spectacular win — actually multiple victories -— over Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen at FTX Crypto Cup in Miami last week was not entirely unexpected. Pragg or Praggu, as he is known in the chess community, had defeated Carlsen twice this year, albeit in rapid games. Although he has never defeated the legend in a classical game (to be fair they have played only once, with Carlsen winning), rapid and blitz games are thought to provide greater opportunities for upsets. Think Test cricket versus T20, the latter giving even weaker teams better chances on a good day.

Still, the fact that Pragg (Elo 2661) defeated Carlsen (Elo 2864) in three successive games — a rapid and two blitzes -— jolted the chess world, with record keepers scurrying to check when the world champion last lost three consecutive games in four hours. Carlsen, you see is considered not only the greatest of all time (GOAT) in classical chess, but also in rapid and blitz. Although he eventually won the trophy by virtue of a higher point count, Pragg came a creditable second in a strong field that included world #4 Alireza Firouzja (Elo 2778), world #6 Levon Aronian (2775), world #9 Anish Giri (2760), all of whom Pragg, who is ranked a distant 89th, defeated en route to his final game against Carlsen. That’s roughly akin to a world’s 89th ranked tennis player defeating Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in a tournament, perhaps in one-set games.

Let’s examine if that presages a future champion.

Carlsen and his acolytes had their excuses for the loss. The world champion himself explained in a post-match interview that he was feeling less than 100 per cent and had slept badly the night before the match. And once he was sure he had won the trophy after they tied a 2-2 in the four 20-minute rapid games (they drew the first two and then each won one) because of his points lead from other matches, he appeared to relax a bit, and Pragg won the two tie-breaker blitz games for an overall victory.

Pragg, too, seemed to suggest Carlsen was having fun after ensuring he had the title, and made light of his own win. On the flip side, Carlsen, too, said Pragg had lost steam towards the end of the tournament (having played 24 rapids in six days before meeting Carlsen) and had played below par in the final game. Perhaps they were both being polite to each other because they will meet a lot more often now that Pragg has reached the upper echelons of the sport.

Pragg’s win must be seen in context of his overall performance over the past two years in which he has defeated almost all Top Ten players in various tournaments. This cannot be a fluke. As he himself said in one interview on the sidelines of the Miami tournament, his world ranking of 89 is underweight. From the time he defeated, as a stripling of 14 in 2018, Filipino-American Wesley So (Pragg’s first win against a Top 10 player), his chess star has been on the ascendent. He then went on to scalp former world champion (2005), Bulgarian Veselin Topolov, at the Gibraltar Masters in 2020.

In 2021, his list of big “kills” included world # 15 Teimur Radjabov, world #16 Sergey Karjakin, and world #18 Jan-Krzysztof Duda, all three scalps coming at the New in Chess Classic tournament. Qualifying for the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour in April 2021, he finished in 10th place with a score of 7/15 (+4-5=6), including wins against Radjabov, Duda, Karjakin, and Johan-Sebastian Christiansen as well as a draw against World Champion Magnus Carlsen.

The giant-killing spree accelerated in 2022. He took down Carlsen and Aronian at the Airthings Masters in February besides accounting for Vladislav Artemiev (world #33) and Andrey Esipenko (#45). In the Charity Cup in March, he took down China’s Ding Liren (now ranked world # 2 behind Carlsen) and Jorden Van Foreest (#61). In the Oslo Esports Club, he took down Shakriyar Mamedyarov, the current world #10, and Vietnam’s Le Quang Liem, the world #21, although he lost twice to Carlsen. He came back to beat Carlsen again at the Chessable Masters, while also taking a game off Ding Liren, who eventually won the event.

No, not a fluke.

To be sure, he has also lost games to many of these players, and in most events, he finishes in the middle of the table. At Airthings, 12th out of 16; at Charity Cup, 10th out of 16, at the Oslo Esports Cup, fourth in a field of eight. But as we saw again in Miami, where he finished runner up to Carlsen, he belongs in this elite company. Just the sheer number of Top 25 players he has brought down in the last two years attests to this. But since many of his wins have been in rapid and blitz tournaments that don’t earn Elo points (but has greater prize money), his wins don’t reflect in his current ranking.

Sure, his peers in the growing Indian line up have also notched up a few wins — Dommaraju Gukesh, his friend and contemporary from the time they were tweens, beat Caruana at the 22nd Chess Olympiad in Chennai earlier this month on his way to eight consecutive wins; Vidit Gujarati, 27, another brilliant Indian star, has defeated Alireza Firouzja (world #4), Levon Aronian (world #6), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (world #11), and Jan-Krzysztof Duda (world #18). Pentala Harikrishna, the second ranked Indian after Vishy Anand, has downed Firouzja, Duda, and on a solitary occasion, even Carlsen. Arjun Erigaisi, who won the Abu Dhabi Masters this week, has victories over Mamedyarov, Radjabov, Aronian, and Sam Shankland among the Top 25.

But Pragg, despite his 89th rank, now has the momentum and the media in thrall with his current streak. Can he sustain it and get even better?

You know a star has arrived when chess analysts take care to pronounce your full name carefully and correctly, and commentators respectfully want to know the meaning of the vibhuti mark on your forehead (it’s just a habit my mother inculcated in me, he says disarmingly). Everyone wants to know the family history, its current circumstances and dynamics, and the influences on the teenager. The Pragg race is on.

Rameshbabu is his father’s name. Grounded but upbeat despite a polio affliction, dad works as a branch manager at TNSC Bank in Chennai, a city that is now home to most chess grandmasters in India, thanks in part to the legacy of the great Anand. His mother Nagalakshmi is a homemaker. When Pragg was three, his parents introduced him and his sister Vaishali (four years older than him and herself now a woman grandmaster) to chess to wean them away from watching junk on television. They triggered an intuitive inner genius in them.

By the time he was 11, Pragg had become the youngest ever International Master, beating by over a year the record previously held by Russian Sergey Karjakin, currently the world #16. By 14, he had become the world’s second youngest Grandmaster at that time, narrowly failing to beat Karjakin’s record by 17 days (the current record is held by New Jersey’s Indian-American Abhimanyu Mishra, who became a GM last year at the age of 12 years, 4 months, and 25 days). Coached by RB Ramesh, himself a grandmaster, and mentored by the great Vishy Anand, Pragg racked up rapid wins with a style of play the former world champion, who is still among the game’s elite super GMs with a ranking at #12, says is sharp, fearless, and mature beyond his years.

Of course, it is by no means certain that Praggnanandhaa is now the anointed one. The chess world is teeming with ever-younger grandmasters, even super grandmasters, the crème de la crème of the game. Carlsen, who is just 31, himself has plenty of life and juice left in him. His purported heir among the younger lot is the Iranian Alireza Firouzja, who came third in Miami in this tournament behind the world champion and Pragg. Then there are other young aspirants, China’s Ding Liren, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, and Filipino-American So (all three in the 28-32 age group and all three did not play in Miami) among them.

But it is the teenage whippersnappers, particularly the Indian cohort — what Anand calls the golden group — that is emerging as the most dangerous challengers.

Earlier this month, at the 22nd Chess Olympiad in Chennai, this group of teenagers confounded pundits by winning the bronze ahead of the India A team, beating a fancied and top-seeded USA en route. Among the stars was Gukesh, who won an individual gold scoring 9/11, including eight wins on the trot, scalping GMs such as Latvian Alexei Shirov (once ranked #2 in the world, currently #41) and American-Italian Fabiano Caruana (world #5) before a draw with Mamedyarov (world # 10) brought his hot streak to a halt.

Nevertheless, Pragg has one outstanding quality. He is, as Anand put it in an interview, fearless. So much of chess results are based on the dread of an opponent’s ranking, rating, and reputation. But Pragg is nerveless, playing not the person but the board. He prepares well, knows exactly what kind of position he wants to achieve, and he is not fazed if things don’t go to plan, according to coach Ramesh. All that showed in the clash against Carlsen, who has the reputation of being able to grind down opponents, particularly in game two of the rapids when Pragg saved a game that seemed lost. It left Carlsen the world champion frustrated enough to sit staring at the board, long after Pragg had left his seat. In another particularly tenacious display for a kid known for mercurial brilliancy, Pragg played out 113 moves against Duda in a game that was considered all but lost.

The other endearing quality about Pragg is that he is calm in victory and stoic in defeat, allowing neither to move the ground from under his feet. “I think it could have gone better the last few days, but I think overall 2nd is good,” he said matter-of-factly moments after beating Carlsen in Miami, while others might have exulted over defeating a world champion. Anand says such a calm approach will stand him in good stead, even as he expressed admiration for his mentee’s career plus score against Carsen. For the record, Anand himself has a career 33 loss, 20 win and 80 draws against Carlsen. Also, for the record, Pragg has two wins, a draw, and no losses against Gukesh.

But standing between them and the world title and top ranking are more than a dozen super grandmasters, not to speak of Carlsen himself.

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