CHENNAI: The sacred ash on his forehead is enough to identify Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa in the mix. Yet it’s not the only mark that separates him from the rest. A quintessential lad from Chennai has other qualities that set him apart. He hides his boyishness with an uncanny broad intelligence and finds ways to punch above his weights with envious regularity.
On Saturday morning, ‘Be like Pragg’ seems to be the word going around in the world of chess. It’s not because Praggnanandhaa’s coach RB Ramesh has been saying it during a camp at Magnus Carlsen’s chess club, Offerspill, in Sweden, but because even one world’s finest Carlsen agrees with ‘be like Pragg’.
The chess prodigy, who became the second youngest Grand Master in the world, has quite an impressive CV already. Just this year, he had beaten Ding Liren, the then world No 2 in the Classical format at the world’s top-rated classical tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands. He has beaten Carlsen in a collection of online matches during the pandemic. On Friday, he added another feather to the cap, knocking out World No 2 Hikaru Nakamura at the FIDE World Cup. Carlsen, who was in the middle of his game against Germany’s Vincent Keymer, stood up in the middle of the contest to go and congratulate Pragg. After beating Keymer, Carlsen threw some light on the conversation.
“My chess club Offerspill, they have a camp right now for young talented players where Ramesh, Pragg’s coach, is the main coach. One of my friends who attended it told me that Ramesh was always telling them ‘be like Pragg, be like Pragg’. So I told Pragg that we all want to be like him today,” the Norwegian told FIDE Chess. For any mortal, a compliment from the genius of chess would have turned into that cherished WOW moment. But not for this young champion. The Indian was his humble self while sharing his feelings. “It was just about congratulations in general. I didn’t expect it too because he was sitting in the game and he was playing a game and suddenly he stood up and came to me so yeah that was a good moment to remember,” he told FIDE Chess.
In a nutshell, this is Praggnanandhaa as a person on and off the chequered board. Chess players are considered cerebral and muted in their celebrations. The 18-year-old is no different. While acknowledging his happiness on achievements, the Chennai lad had always maintained some kind of semblance and often said it in a matter-of-fact manner. Sometimes even to the bewilderment of the listeners. He never shies away from accepting his mistakes. This was evident during the Chess Olympiad in 2022 during India’s contest against Switzerland when despite not playing well the team won 4-0. His words though sombre capture his psyche “capitalise on your good days while learning to win ugly on bad days.”
There is a bit of Chennai in Praggnanandhaa too. The city boasts of a rich history for chess and here, kids often take to chess at a very young age. Praggnanandhaa too went through the rituals. His coach Ramesh throws light on the sporting culture that has paved the way for him and the other teen prodigies.
“In India, we don’t frown upon hard work. It’s considered a virtue, unlike in the West. When we work hard in one aspect of our life, in the West there is a tendency to say ‘you are missing out, you are not having a complete childhood’. Here, we, fortunately, appreciate it. Many children take it up seriously at a very young age when they have fewer distractions (social media and video games). So, they are more hopeful and energetic. It’s the best age to learn. Anyone who starts young and works hard, they have a better chance,” he had told this daily.
All through his teen years, the 18-year-old has shuffled studies and chess. He went to school only between January and March. There had been times when he had been up until the twilight hours, thinking about the match he had played, before waking up at 7 AM to go to school for an exam and do it all over again. It is his attitude of taking every challenge on stride as it comes that has brought him this far. As his coach Ramesh said, the win against Nakamura should only give the smart youngster, who currently has a live ELO rating of 2645, a morale boost.
However, bigger challenges lie ahead and it is yet to be seen how far he goes in the ongoing FIDE Chess World Cup. What can be said for sure, is that at 18, he has already become the sporting icon that the parents in his city would tell their kids when they introduce chess to them and say ‘be like Pragg’.