At 12 years, 10 months and 13 days, R Praggnanandhaa has become the world's second youngest Grandmaster, and the youngest ever Indian to achieve the feat after reaching the final round at the Gredine Open in Italy.
Pragnnandhaa beat GM Moroni Luca Jr in the eighth round and just needed to play an opponent above a rating of 2482 in the final round to make his third norm. A pairing with GM Prujjsers Roeland, rated 2514, made it possible. Ukraine's Sergey Karjakin remains the youngest ever GM - he achieved the feat in 2002 at 12 years and 7 months remains.
Viswanathan Anand lauded his feat and picked him out as a bright hope for the future. "What impresses me about Praggnanandhaa is that he's not just a strong player but mixes imaginative middle game play with patient endgame skills and is uncompromising in not settling for easy, quick draws," Anand told ESPN. "He's also shown a level of sophistication in handling tournament games. I think he will go far."
In May 2016, at 10 years and nine months Praggnanandhaa became the youngest International Master in the history of chess. Had he completed all his GM norms and touched an ELO of 2500 before March 10 this year, he would have gone past Karjakin and become the world's youngest GM. But he wasn't chasing it anyway so the hurt was minimal, according to coach RB Ramesh. "We thought if it happens, great. If it doesn't happen, that's still good," Ramesh told ESPN.
Parents A Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi initially introduced chess to Praggnanandhaa's elder sister R Vaishali as a diversion from long hours before TV. It soon captured Praggnanandhaa's imagination. Since Rameshbabu's movement is impeded by polio, his wife always accompanies both kids to tournaments. Of course, it's always a relief when they're competing at the same events. It means one long flight less, trimmed expenses and having to sneak in their rice cooker fewer times into hotel rooms.
"My wife was already travelling with Vaishali when Praggnanandhaa started playing. So our first worry was how we would manage both their schedules, but realising his passion for chess, we were forced to give in," Rameshbabu says.
Living in the Chennai suburb of Padi, Rameshbabu and his family centre their existence around their kids' chess calendars. Praggnanandhaa is ambitious but is not easily unsettled by setbacks. The virtue came in handy when he missed opportunities by the bunch at winning GM norms last year. In August last year, he touched a performance rating of 2500 but missed out on his first GM norm after losing his last-round match at the HZ tournament. He didn't find much luck in the tournaments that followed immediately - Sants Open, Isle of Man International or Chigorin Memorial. "I think more than anything else, he just loves playing. Results to him, don't matter that much," Rameshbabu smiles.
Coach RB Ramesh looks at the immediate, tangible benefits that becoming the youngest GM in the country will bring. "Of course it means greater expectations, but it could also bring more sponsor support, which he needs to sustain his career at the highest level," he says.
Praggnanandhaa is part of group sessions at Ramesh's academy and the coach reckons that it can be challenging for him at times to tutor a brood of players of varying strengths and interest levels together. "We manage to have very few individual sessions but Praggnanandhaa is very focused and has been playing like a Grandmaster much before he actually became one," he says. "When he came to me three years ago I knew he was a special kid. I work with many talented kids but he was always exceptional. He's aware of his strengths as a player and is willing to work extremely hard and stick it out through everything. That can be a rare combination to find."
At the academy, Ramesh explains, more than just focusing on helping them win more often, the idea is also to help trainees deal with defeats, recover and come back stronger. "You might be putting in all the hard work you can and still be losing, so what is then needed is the right attitude. Praggnanandhaa has that. He's very pragmatic about his chances. He knows he can't win everything. That helped him stay motivated even when he lost a string of GM norm chances. He never ruled himself out."
A student of class nine, Praggnanandhaa spends his time training and traveling for tournaments only making time for school during exams. At the academy, Ramesh tries to make up for all the fun missed at school by setting up games during lunch breaks. The new TT table up on the terrace is Pragnnandhaa's latest fixation. Of course, it comes only as a close second to hide-and-seek games in the car parking space.
"What's most striking about him is his level of maturity," says Ramesh, "At his age it's almost unthinkable for most kids."
But Rameshbabu busts the claim like only a father can. "All his maturity is only in the game," he laughs.
In surroundings away from chess, the world's second youngest GM carries none of the dour that could perceptibly belong to a player of his standing. He hasn't weaned himself from cartoons and still races to pedal his small, muddied bike the first thing when he gets home.