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Praggnanandhaa: The boy who could be king

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'Praggnanandhaa knew he would become a Grandmaster' Praggnanandhaa (2:05)

Indian Chess prodigy Praggnanandhaa's coach on his incredible journey so far. (2:05)

It's a 14-letter name that may command the full use of your tongue. The generous smattering of syllables could challenge even the most prodigious spelling bee champs. And yet, it's one the chess world's talking about and struggling to get right.

Praggnanandhaa.

A 12-year, 10-month-old boy who's gone as far as no Indian chess player has before. He's the youngest in the country and the second youngest in the world to become a Grandmaster. At an age when boys would trade an arm and a limb for endless hours of gaming, R Praggnanandhaa has perfected the art of stillness and focus in a sport that's anything but a teen favourite. The horizontal stripe of temple ash on his forehead is as ubiquitous as the rooks and bishops he spends his waking hours with. And when he's drained from long matches, he -- well, you could have guessed this -- plays some more chess.

Pushing a large trolley stacked with bags, Praggnanandhaa walked out through the parted glass doors of the Chennai airport early this week, a shy, frail figure in a sky-blue shirt and was soon swallowed by crowds, thick, fragrant jasmine garlands, cameras and blinding lights. Fame and the hot afternoon sun hit him like a truck. Standing against the backdrop of an oversized banner with his picture and name splashed across it, he spoke into the swarm of microphones thrust to his face in a soft, unaffected tone. A crown was placed on his head, schoolmates hoisted him on their shoulders and he was then escorted to school for further celebrations. It was followed by another bunch of felicitations and being invited home by five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand.

This is life like few 12-something year-olds can claim to have known.

Along with elder sister Vaishali, a Woman International Master and one norm away from a Woman Grandmaster title, Praggnanandhaa spent most of Thursday afternoon going over recent games at Anand's residence. Anand also gave the young GM some life lessons. "I asked him to try and make more friends when he's travelling so in the long run it's good for your soul and gives you a chance to unwind," Anand told ESPN. "I also tried to convince him to experiment with more food. Funnily enough, when we were going over games, we saw that he'd played a game at the last tournament [Gredine Open] which looked identical to an endgame I had about seven years back. So we compared notes to see how it would be with new twists. It was nice to learn something."

In fact, when Praggnanandhaa walked into the playing hall for his eighth round match against Italy's Moroni Luca Jr, he had no clue that there was a possibility of a GM norm, coach RB Ramesh laughs. "I didn't tell him either," Ramesh says. "I never talk about norms to players during tournaments because it just puts them under needless pressure. He got to know about it from another player just before the eighth round but promised himself that he wouldn't think about it. We weren't chasing it but now that it's happened it's a relief."

In May 2016, Praggnanandhaa became the world's youngest IM at just 10 years and nine months. So the pressure to do an encore for a GM title rapidly rose around him and questions of a norm followed him to every tournament. Anand, who in 1988 became the first Indian Grandmaster at the age of 18, talks from experience. "I think it did mess with his head when the record was near," he says. "I have no doubts that when the prospect of becoming the youngest ever was dangling before him, it even affected his play and get it [the GM norm] fast and it's not so much of a coincidence that once that was taken away he seemed to have relaxed a bit. I remember I was trying to be the first Indian GM and once I managed to do that after many narrow misses, I had this overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. I didn't know what to do with myself for the next six months. But I think it will be different for Praggnanandhaa."

'Praggnanandhaa' was a name suggested to his parents -- devotees of Kalki, believed to be the final incarnation of Lord Vishnu according to Hindu mythology -- by priests of the temple they frequent around 40km away from their house. "We don't know what it means," father R Rameshbabu smiles. "But it does evoke a lot of curiosity."

Anand vouches for the international appeal. "He's one of the Indians who fascinate people across the world simply because of his name," he says. "They all spend so much time trying to pronounce it and also I think people are genuinely curious about him." Other international players often ask Anand, when he travels for tournaments, about Praggnanandhaa. "In Leon, where he'll play his next tournament, they're in fact quite excited," Anand says.

****

We're stuck in a narrow alley with an ill-tempered cabbie two streets away from his house in Padi, a west Chennai suburb, when we first meet Praggnanandhaa six months ago.

This was Christmas eve last year when he had two more norms to complete and less than three months to better Sergey Karjakin's world's youngest GM feat (12 years, 7 months). Riding pillion with his father on a modified black scooter fitted with side-wheel attachments, he turns back often to check if our vehicle is following the lead and leaps off at the gate of their two-storeyed muskmelon-coloured house. Praggnanandhaa is to leave for Sweden the following day for the Rilton Cup, where he's seeded 22nd, after which he'd head to North Carolina for a closed round-robin event. In preparation for the long haul, the bedroom floor is packed with bags, some sturdy and zipped up, the others mostly colourful cloth ones with names of local garment or upholstery stores printed in bright, bold letters and wads of newspaper stuffed at the mouth.

"Food items," Praggnanandhaa's mother Nagalakshmi points to the cloth bags and says almost apologetically. She accompanies Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali to whichever corner of the world tournaments take them and is now something of a pro at cooking stealthy meals in hotel rooms. "Food is too expensive, abroad," she says touching her temple and, with a look of accomplishment, opens up a bulging bag to reveal a rice cooker. "I cook for them inside the hotel room: curd rice, sambar rice, rasam rice, whatever can be managed. Ithuverekum nange hotelil maatikele (Luckily, we haven't been caught by hotels so far)."

Over heavenly cups of brewed coffee, Nagalakshmi tells us that she manages to string a few English words together and speak to other players.

Slouching nearby on a brown sofa in the living room of his house, Praggnanandhaa cups his palms over his mouth and stifles a yawn. Guests aside, he's up early for news that few 12-year-old's would care about: some election results. Bright red panels cram the flickering television screen that his eyes are fixed on. A shrill, animated reporter peeks through the rows and columns of numbers and symbols, attempting quick maths in chaste Tamil. Praggnanandhaa throws back his shoulders and doesn't quite acknowledge the oddity of his viewing choice.

"Just like that...it's interesting," he smiles.

"I remember I was trying to be the first Indian GM and once I managed to do that after many narrow misses, I had this overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. I didn't know what to do with myself for the next six months. But I think it will be different for Praggnanandhaa." Viswanathan Anand

It's pretty much how he took up chess.

Rameshbabu, who has polio, helps himself to a plastic chair with a slight hobble and says he'd never imagined chess would permeate their lives and dictate their clocks, calendars and festivities in the way it does today. "We know nothing about chess," says the Tamil Nadu State Cooperation bank manager. "We introduced Vaishali to chess as a distraction, to cut down on her TV viewing habits as a child. But both the kids ended up loving the game and decided to pursue it. For us, it doesn't matter whether they are Grandmasters or International Masters. We are just happy that they enjoy what they do."

With three out of four members in the family away for most part of the year, Rameshbabu has to deal with domestic chores and spend festivals alone. He reckons he's made peace with the challenges: "I have to wash my own clothes. We rarely celebrate any festivals together. We already missed Deepavali, now Pongal too. But we have to make those sacrifices. There's no other way out." He pauses, throws a quick glance at the siblings, and says, "After a few years they will have to begin travelling alone... they have to learn."

Ask Praggnanandhaa for a ballpark figure about the number of countries he has travelled to for tournaments and he stares into the space with wide eyes, jaw unhinged and a look of absolute ignorance. He gives up rather quickly and sways his head from side to side. We soon learn why. "I've never counted," he says. "It's always been airport-hotel-tournament venue and back. Hardly ever went sightseeing in any of the places we've visited. Only once we went on a safari in South Africa. Otherwise, all I bring back are fridge magnets."

His response is, unsettlingly, somewhat similar when the subject of friends is broached. He has none in Velammal School or in the neighbourhood. He goes to school only between January and March, when special classes are held for chess players. Do his classmates know that he's one of Indian chess' most prodigious talents? "I don't know," he smiles sheepishly. "I don't think so." What about friends in the chess circle? His eyes light up at the mention of a teenaged player from Kerala, Nihal Sarin, who's older to him by a year and holds a higher ELO rating of 2551. Praggnanandhaa is currently at 2529. When they're not analyzing each other's games, they're either playing ball in hotel rooms or venturing into corridors for a game of badminton.

At the Chess Gurukul Academy, located in a quiet corner of Chennai's bustling, commercial T Nagar area, Praggnanandhaa is known to make a dash for the terrace during lunch breaks for a game of table tennis. We get him to play against coach Ramesh and, probably conscious of being watched, he sprays the ball wide often and is at the receiving end of some mild admonition. They end up talking about chess, revisiting recent games and the moves that could have been better thought through. Table tennis just keeps their arms in motion, their minds haven't moved far from the board.

"He's exceptionally talented, very hardworking and ambitious," says coach Ramesh. "It's a rare combination. Usually if a child is talented, he thinks that he can get things done without sweating too much. I realized pretty soon that Pragg is not like that."

It's not just chess that Ramesh helps his students with. "We discuss everything during lessons," he says. "I tell them to follow a routine, and stick to it even if they lose a game. Sometimes when players lose a game they may try to do things differently and it may actually make things worse. We try to tell children to find what routine works for them so they experiment and arrive at that. Like going to bed and waking up at the same time, having meals at the same time, and training at the same time. In every little thing they have to find the rhythm that will work for them."

Praggnanandhaa has found his.

He loves working on his game well into midnight and allows himself a slightly late start in the morning. Of course, not having to go to school helps a great deal in keeping up with routine.

Ramesh, who has around 100 kids at the Chess Gurukul Academy and close to 300 more overseas who log in online, says he loves training young children because it offers the scope of maximum impact. "In the formative years if kids get the basics right, they can play without pressure," he says. "So our general philosophy at the academy is not to play for results. If we tell kids that winning is important and losing is a bad thing, they will play not to lose instead of playing for a win. Pragg has got that right. He's not affected when he loses a game because he knows he's in this for the long run."

Even when he sauntered about in the lobby of a Chennai hotel which was the venue for Anand's 2013 World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen, as a seven-year-old, Praggnanandhaa had dreams of contesting for chess' biggest title. They've only grown fervent. "I want to be a world champion...the highest rated player," he says with a half-smile.

He might eventually get there.

But regardless whether he does or doesn't, let's do our bit. Show him some love and get half his name right.