The runner-up of the World Cup expressed surprise at how quickly a chess player is gaining recognition across India.
The wide arc of questions spanned the Candidates, camaraderie, mother, movies and Magnus. The answers featured Ashwin, Asian Games and Anand. Acknowledgement of the need to improve was followed by the assertion that he could be a world champion soon. Happiness and gratitude at new-found fame came with awareness of its fleeting nature. Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa showed why there is a lot to pack in the comment, “Be like Pragg.”
That was attributed to GM RB Ramesh telling players at Swedish chess club Offerspill and amplified by the owner of that club, Magnus Carlsen. Praggnanandhaa speaks with candour as refreshing as it is remarkable in the age of PR-groomed stars but also with the confidence of a Grandmaster who at 18 knows he has been special for some time.
One who went to the first world rapid team event to “enjoy” after a “tense” World Cup, where he was runners-up to Carlsen, and was part of the winning team that also had Wesley So, Nodirbek Abdusattarov, Ian Nepomniachtchi and former women’s world champion Hou Yifan. “I just thought this would be an opportunity to learn,” said Praggnanandhaa.
That was his answer to the first question at a media session here on Monday and through the over-30 minute interaction, curiosity for information was a recurrent theme. From Viswanathan Anand, always refereed as Anand Sir, whose brain he has picked on chess and the physical and mental side of the sport, and Carlsen when he was teammate. “I am always curious to see… Is he doing something different or is he doing what we are doing but maybe better? I always have questions…,” he said.
Praggnanandhaa wants to learn from other Grand Masters
Praggnanandhaa said he was equally curious to learn from friends such as Arjun Erigaisi, Nihal Sarin and D Gukesh, all part of the young group of Indian GMs that has got the world’s attention. He called himself a chess fan.
A fan who thinks he can be world champion. It was Ramesh who said Praggnanandhaa could do that in a few years. “There is still a lot to learn and improve for me. I feel like I have the potential to be the world champion and I am working towards that.”
An important attribute in the World Cup run that fetched a Candidates berth is his never-say-die attitude. “From young age, if I got a bad position, I was always good at finding resources that keeps the game going… I think that is one my skills that has stayed. But I think fighting can also be different (like) fighting for a win from the start,” he said. But it is not always perfect. Sometimes, when I need a draw, that fighting spirit dips he said.
Praggnanandhaa had stayed off social media during the World Cup but knew of the spike in interest in India. What happened since has been unexpected. “Everyone recognising a chess player. I didn’t think it would happen this soon, I knew it would happen at some point. I am happy to see this. Not only me, have other strong players who will be recognised soon.”
Questions on being famous, of the kind that fetched an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, Praggnanandhaa said, made him feel at home, were dealt with different versions of the same response: they are nice to hear and it is good that chess is more popular but best not to get too swayed by them as they can affect you. “I don’t feel pressure (of expectations) now. Maybe in future, I will.”
Praggnanandhaa’s next tournament
Praggnanandhaa will play the Tata Steel open category rapid and blitz events from Tuesday. He has been in the city over the past few days for an “Intense” Asian Games’ preparatory camp conducted by Boris Gelfand with Gukesh, Arjun, Pentala Harikrishna among others. He described the Asian Games team as strong and one full of friends.
A hectic schedule, after the Asian Games he said he will play the Grand Swiss Tournament in October, has precluded planning for the 2024 Candidates. But given that “we lost a year-and-a-half to the lockdowns,” Praggnanandhaa said he was not complaining.
He said it wasn’t really true that he could stay impassive through a game. “My mother can figure out if I have a good position or bad from my face or body language.” Praggnanandhaa spoke richly of his mother Nagalakshmi and the support of his family including sister WGM R Vaishali. “My mother does everything for me (at tournaments).” Including making Indian food that he prefers before games.
From mother to movies. Praggnanandhaa said he watched Tamil movies to take his mind off chess and followed cricket more than other sport. His favourite player? Ravichandran Aswin, “who is also interested in chess.”
Disclaimer: Except the headline and synopsis, this story has been taken from the HT News Service.