An intimate portrait of an incredible chess prodigy!
by Sagar Shah - 24/06/2017
How does a child prodigy develop? And not just a normal one! He is the youngest IM in the world and perhaps the most talented chess player on the planet as on today. In order to know how Praggnanandhaa developed and works on chess, IM Sagar Shah went to his house in Chennai and spent a few hours with the boy and his parents. He shares his findings in this article. To sum it up in one line - Praggnanandhaa's chess imagination knows no bounds but his feet are firmly placed on the ground!
Two hours with the world's youngest IM R. Praggnanandhaa
As I got out of the Chennai airport, hot and humid breeze blew across my face. Of course, I had booked an air-conditioned taxi, but the driver turned out to be a cunning fellow. He did not switch on the air condition and I was too busy preparing for my meet with the world's youngest IM R. Praggnanandhaa. From my earlier meets with the prodigious young talent, I had realized that the boy doesn't like to speak a lot. Hence, there was no point in preparing questions for him. Chess is the language that he loved, and it was through some selected chess positions that I wanted to test him.
After travelling for 30 minutes in the hot and sweltering Chennai heat, I realized that I had booked an air-conditioned cab. I asked the driver to pull up the window, which he reluctantly did. We had already traveled three quarters of the way by now. As the taxi pulled up, I saved the final position and named the database as Pragg test. I was happy with my work. The positions I had selected were not too easy and ten puzzles in an hour would definitely test even the best in the business.
The one-storeyed building in Kumaran Nagar, Padi, where Praggnanandhaa's family lives. The ground floor belongs to them.
All three family members came out to greet me with smiles on their face. I could see Pragg was a little tensed. He didn't know what exactly I was going to ask him. His sister Vaishali was in Russia playing a tournament. As soon as I got down of the cab, Rameshbabu asked Praggnanandhaa to pick up one of my bags. The boy obediently did as he was told. I was given a warm welcome to their place.
Already the first few minutes were enough to make me understand that the family believed in simplicity and modesty. Pragg might be the most prodigious talent alive on the planet as on today, but at home he was just an eleven-year-old boy.
Praggnanandhaa with his proud parents Nagalakshmi and Rameshbabu
Rameshbabu was attacked by polio early in his childhood. That left him in a state where he could not walk normally. Through sheer grit and determination he managed to complete his graduation. He is currently the branch manager at the Tamil Nadu State Corporation Bank. Rameshbabu could not fulfill his ambition of becoming a Chartered Accountant, but he made sure that all the dreams of his children came true.
The elder of the two siblings R.Vaishali was quite addicted to television. In order to break this routine Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi decided to enroll her in a chess class nearby. Very soon the girl started becoming better, and seeing her play little Pragg also started getting interested. "We really didn't want Pragg to play chess," says Rameshbabu. "First of all due to my physical condition my wife would have to travel all alone with the two kids. And secondly sustaining two chess careers was financially not an easy task." But Praggnanandhaa's desire to play chess overcame the father's reluctance. He had no option but to back his kids in this royal game.
These two siblings have four World Youth titles between them!
As the kids started to improve, funds started flowing in. The kids received sponsorships which kept their chess career going. The role of coach GM R.B. Ramesh has been instrumental in moulding these talents. "He is not only a chess coach, but also a mentor, guide and philosopher," says Rameshbabu. "He not only guides the kids but also the parents and tells them about the right approach towards the game." The chess academy of Ramesh is nearly one hour away, but both Pragg and Vaishali never miss a class. They travel either by bus or shared auto-rickshaw in order to save money.
Ramesh writes on his Facebook page "Physically lightweight, but talent wise heavy weight - Praggnanandhaa"
The kids kept improving and trophy case in the house began filling up pretty quickly. But the focus has never been on the results. It's always about improvement. The parents, coach and Praggnanandhaa are happy if he is improving in every tournament that he plays. It comes as no surprise that the fight for the title of youngest GM is not at all important. Praggnanandhaa has around eight months left to eclipse the record of Sergey Karjakin becoming a GM at 12 years and 7 months, but Rameshbabu makes his point very clear, "There is absolutely no pressure on Pragg. He should enjoy the game and keep improving. We never remind him about the youngest GM record, nor do we care about it."
A short chat with Rameshbabu
Praggnanandhaa with one of the biggest trophies in his collection
"Shall we begin with the test?", I asked Praggnanandhaa. The fact that I had already spent some time in the house had made him quite relaxed. With a smile on his face he sat down next to me. Pragg's parents went inside in order to not disturb the boy. And then we began.
I would setup a position on the board and Praggnanandhaa would look at it and try to solve it as quickly as possible
The next one hour left me completely speechless. Praggnanandhaa's speed and accuracy were simply out of the world. What amazed me the most was how he was able to weed out all the unnecessary variations and zoom in on the most important line in minimal time. It simply meant that the boy's intuition was extremely strong. I had expected that Pragg would take at least an hour to solve those ten positions. But the boy was just too quick. He was able to breeze through the problems in just 35 minutes! After that he also showed his win against a Danish grandmaster from Hastings 2016-17.
As per Indian traditions, a guest must never leave the house without having eaten something. I was served the most delicious coffee I had ever had by Nagalakshmi. The sugar, coffee powder, milk, everything was just in the perfect proportion!
My work was done and I tried booking an Ola or an Uber to take me to my hotel for the night. However, I was not able to find any cabs in the vicinity. Rameshbabu immediately suggested that he would take me to the main road where I would find many cabs. Praggnanandhaa and his mother joined us. I was expecting that we would be going by a car. I was surprised when Rameshbabu sat on his scooter and asked us to join. "All four of us," I said. "Yes, Pragg, Vaishali, me and my wife travel this way all the time!"
The three of them fit in quite easily on the scooter! There would definitely be space for Vaishali in there, but not a full grown man like me!
We waved goodbye to Nagalakshmi and the three of us went to the main road. When we reached the main junction I thanked them for their hospitality, but they were not yet ready to leave. "We will wait until you get the cab." Pragg was performing his duty admirably by keeping full attention on my bag. When the cab arrived, he ran over to the driver and told him where I had to be taken. The shy and quiet boy whom I had met two hours ago had transformed in to his true self - caring, friendly and full of energy!
That's the way Pragg likes to travel with his father on the streets of Chennai
As I travelled back to the hotel I realized, that there was no way in which a boy like Praggnanandhaa could be stopped from becoming one of the best players in the world. His talent is phenomenal, so is his ability to work hard. He has an excellent mentor in Ramesh and his parents ensure that the boy remains firmly grounded. With the right backing it shouldn't come as a surprise if the boy becomes the World Chess Champion within a decade! And as you must have already guessed, the moment I reached the room, my phone rang with Praggnanandhaa on other end asking me if I had reached safely!
I fell in love with the family, and next time I am in Chennai I would surely visit them. This time not for a ChessBase India show or an interview, but to just enjoy Nagalakshmi's brilliantly brewed coffee and have some fun time with Praggnanandhaa!