Praggnanandhaa - Student by day, world-beating chess star by night

R Praggnanandhaa R Praggnanandhaa/Facebook

The way 16-year-old R Praggnanandhaa says it, he makes it sound like the most normal thing in the world. "I decided to play this tournament [because] it was a study break during my exams. I thought I would play at night and study in the morning."

'This tournament' was the 2022 Chessable Masters, an online rapid time control event in which he finished second. This past week, Praggnanandhaa had been studying for (and appearing in) his 11th standard exams in the mornings and then beating some of the best players in the world in the evenings. Including the best: Magnus Carlsen, world no.1 and one of the GOATs, in the group stages (second time this year, by the way).

In the knockouts, he beat world nos. 22 and 10, Wei Yi and Anish Giri. In the final, he took world no. 2 Ding Liren to a tiebreak before losing out (Ding won 2.5 - 1.5 on day 1, Praggnanandhaa won 2.5 - 1.5 on day 2, forcing the blitz tiebreak). The morning after that epic final, he woke up and wrote his computer applications paper. As you do.

"I didn't expect that I'd go to finals and that it would [clash with] my exams. Somehow I've managed it and so far" - and here's where we are reminded once again we're talking to a proper Indian schoolboy - "I've written my exams pretty okay."

It's been a draining week, and he looks the part. Dressed in his customary dark, slightly oversized blazer, a thick line of temple ash on his forehead, his big eyes look a touch weary as he leans on the armrest of his computer chair. He had to be woken up just before this press conference, after a nap post that computer applications exam.

"I didn't expect managing both would be so tough," he says with a faint grin. "I realised that studying also makes you tired ... So you just get double tired! I didn't get enough sleep...The [final] finished around 2.40 [AM IST] and I slept around 4. I was just lying in bed thinking about the match. And then I had to wake up at 7. It's kind of hard to manage these things but they're normal for a chess player."

You can sense Praggnanandhaa trying to downplay it all, trying to normalise the extraordinary. It really isn't. In a strange coincidence, though, his coach RB Ramesh had faced a similar predicament 27 years ago.

Ramesh had qualified for the senior chess nationals in 1995 as one of the youngest ever but the tournament itself was happening when he was to appear in his 12th standard boards. With matches in the early afternoons, "I finished my exam, took an autorickshaw to the stadium and played the nationals," he laughs.

Ramesh has been with Praggnanandhaa for nearly a decade now and takes pride in listing out the milestones that mark his steady climb up toward the upper echelons of the chess world: youngest International Master in history, at the time (10 years old), second youngest Grand Master ever at that point (12 years old), and crossing a rating of 2400 at 14, something Ramesh reckons Praggnanandhaa is the youngest to do.

"After the IM norm happened, we knew it was just a matter of achieving milestones one by one," he says. "He's 16-17 in a few months - and his rating is 2642 now. That's 42 points gained in the last two and a half years, but that is mainly because he's not been playing during the pandemic. In a way, that helped Pragg. It gave him time to work on many areas which we didn't have time to work on before. For example, before the lockdown, he was largely an E4 player but during the lockdown he got time to learn D4 and many other openings with black pieces. He's trying to expand his opening repertoire."

The work is paying off. Having previously (largely) ignored online games and the rapid chess format, they have now fully embraced it. "There was an online tournament last year where the top junior players in the world played, and the winner qualified to play in the Champions Chess Tour... and that's how Pragg got here (the Chessable Masters is the fourth of nine legs on the Tour)."

Ramesh believes it was the right decision. He can see a tangible difference in Praggnanandhaa's game: in his time management, in the confidence he has in his at-the-moment decision making, in the "quality of his thinking".

This self-belief has also meant he doesn't rely on pre-game preparation as much as he used to. Praggnanandhaa concurs, "I didn't really care about preparation for this tournament, I just wanted to play with my over-the-board strengths and see what happens. Even on the last day of the final, I probably prepared for like half an hour or so."

This, the ability to completely let go of something he had previously depended on so much, is part of the quality that Ramesh feels defines Praggnanandhaa. "He believes everything in chess can be learned... it's the main distinguishing factor between Pragg and other talented players."

Ramesh loves the fact that his student would rather face and overcome a problem area than avoid it altogether. "Pragg understood at a very young age that he is talented - he knew for sure that he's extremely talented - but he is extremely ambitious and hardworking as well. He knows that he has to keep growing stronger and stronger."

Part of that includes not celebrating mini-triumphs along the way. Like this run in the Chessable masters. "Our philosophy is that in a sports career, and we hope to have a long one, it's very important that we keep perspective about what's happening to us in the short run. We should not react too much about what's happening on a game-to-game or even tournament-to-tournament basis. Winning, losing, and drawing are all just different experiences and we can always learn something from all of them."

Easier said than done, surely? How can you beat the best in the world and just continue with something as mundane as studying for a commerce test? For Praggnanandhaa, though, it's just a matter of logic: "I don't celebrate at all. [Beating the top players once or twice] is nothing compared to what they have all achieved."

Finishing second in such a strong field, then, is just part of the process. "There are many things to learn," says Praggnanandhaa. "I have to go through the games again to analyse where I went wrong and how I could improve. [For example] in the first match of the finals, the two games I lost are something which I can learn from. The positions with white, I just got outplayed, which shouldn't happen so easily."

So now it's back to the board, where he will put in hour-after-hour into ironing out his weaknesses, preparing for the tournaments to come, including the Chess Olympiad that India is hosting. 2022 has been quite the year already -- on Thursday he was also inducted into the Indian Oil Corporation, a tenure-based engagement which will become a job once he turns 18.

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"These last four-five months have been a turning point in Praggs' career," says Ramesh. "He also realises he's improving very fast."

If what we've seen so far means anything, that realisation will merely spur Praggnanandhaa on as he continues on this seemingly inexorable path to greatness, one square at a time.