New Delhi, India – In India, a nation of over a billion people who are mostly cricket-mad, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa was drawn to chess at the age of three.
He watched his sister Vaishali Rameshbabu – enrolled in a chess academy by their father resentful of his TV addiction – practice in his bedroom. That’s when Praggnanandhaa says he fell in love with chess.
At first he played alone before he started training with his 21-year-old sister who became his first role model in the game.
Praggnanandhaa’s rise to success took a steep path. At age seven, he earned the title of FIDE Master, the third highest title a chess player can achieve after the titles of Grandmaster and International Master.
Just three years later, he won the International Masters title, becoming the youngest player to accomplish the feat.
Other successes soon followed.
Two years later, in 2018, Praggnanandhaa became the fifth youngest Grandmaster in the world and the youngest Indian to win the title. His daily practice routine for hours had finally paid off.
In February this year, the 16-year-old added another feather to his record when he beat the world’s best chess player, Magnus Carlsen, at the Airthings Masters, an online fast-paced chess competition.
If you need a reason to smile this Monday night, all you need to watch is the smile on the face of Smt Nagalakshmi, mum of GM R Praggnanandhaa & WGM R Vaishali 🙏🙏 pic.twitter.com/y28qwb4eaX
—Arati (@Arati1411) February 21, 2022
It was past 1 a.m. in India. Praggnanandhaa, wearing a pink t-shirt, constantly toyed with his hair, seemingly exhausted.
Carlsen, in a more comfortable setting as the tournament was being held on Central European time, seemed in better spirits.
The game was Praggnanandhaa’s fourth of the night. In the previous three matches, Praggnanandhaa had won one, lost another, while the third ended in a draw.
For the first 31 moves in 33 minutes, Praggnanandhaa gave tough competition to five-time Norwegian world champion Carlsen until the latter made what commentators called a “blunder”.
From there, it took just seven strokes for Praggnanandhaa to register a stunning victory over Carlsen, becoming the third Indian – and the youngest – to do so since the Norwegian became world champion in 2013.
For a moment the teenager, who stunned Carlsen in the eighth round of the tournament, couldn’t believe he had beaten the best in the world.
Shortly after his historic victory, Praggnanandhaa nonchalantly remarked, “It’s time to go to bed because I don’t think I’ll have dinner at 2:30 in the morning.”
The moment he woke up in the morning, Praggnanandhaa was making headlines.
What a wonderful feeling that must be for Pragg. All at 16, and having beaten the experienced & decorated Magnus Carlsen, and that too by playing black, it’s magic!
Best wishes for a long and successful chess career. You have made India proud! pic.twitter.com/hTQiwznJvX
— Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) February 21, 2022
“I definitely imagined beating the world number one player one day but I didn’t expect that day to come so soon,” he told Al Jazeera by phone from Chennai just days after completing the feat.
Born in 2005 to Rameshbabu, a bank manager and homemaker Nagalakshmi in Padi, a locality on the outskirts of the southern city of Chennai, Praggnanandhaa spent most of his youth playing chess and riding a bicycle.
Rameshbabu said he realized his son was a talented chess player when Praggnanandhaa was eight years old.
“I didn’t expect him to go this far,” Rameshbabu said of his son’s achievements.
After learning from his sister, Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand became Praggnanandhaa’s idol.
In 2012, Anand won his fifth World Chess Championship. Upon returning to his hometown of Chennai, Anand was greeted as a hero by a large gathering at the airport, including a six-year-old Praggnanandhaa.
When the teenager recorded his victory over Carlsen, Anand tweeted: “Always proud of our talents! Very good day for Praggnanandhaa.
“It was clear he was very talented,” Praggnanandhaa’s coach RB Ramesh told Al Jazeera.
“Most talented children die within a few years. When they start winning at a very young age, they get complacent and think it’s happening to them and it’s going to keep happening on its own because I have talent. They don’t work hard.
Praggnanandhaa practices between six and eight hours a day and barely has time to go to school or concentrate on her homework.
But his father insisted that did not mean the teenage prodigy, currently in Grade 11, was not good at academics.
“As long as he’s fine, I think he should focus on chess,” Rameshbabu told Al Jazeera. “We did not expect this victory. We are really happy for him. We cannot express it with words.
Bharat Singh, secretary of the All India Chess Federation, told Al Jazeera that in 2005 there were only 10 grandmasters in India, but today there are 73.
“We are probably the only chess federation in the world to organize 23 national competitions [tournaments] in a year,” he said. Apart from this, Singh said that they organize several international tournaments and nearly 300 ranking tournaments attended by around 100,000 Indian chess players.
“We have 50% junior talent in the world. We focus on junior chess,” Singh said.
Pragg the model
Despite his meteoric rise to stardom, the teenager remained humble and set his sights on a bigger goal.
“I started getting this attention when I was seven years old because I started winning tournaments from that age. I don’t think it changed anything about me. It’s [the win against Carlsen] a big thing of course, but I think it’s completely normal. I keep doing what I do,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he aims to be “in the top 10 in the world and one day become a world champion.”
Praggnanandhaa’s coach Ramesh believes defeating the world champion in any format will give him a lot of confidence.
“The game has benefited from its victory because more people are reading about chess and more people are reading about the upcoming young star. For a sport to grow, you need attractive stars who can inspire people,” he said. he told Al Jazeera.
“There would be thousands of young children reading about Pragg or watching him on TV. They will say that I want to become like him.