New Delhi, India – In India, a country of more than a billion people who are especially fond of cricket, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa was drawn to chess at the age of three.
He watched as his sister Vaishali Rameshbabu – enrolled in a chess academy by their father who was angry about her television addiction – practiced in her room. That’s when Praggnanandhaa says he fell in love with chess.
Initially, he would play alone before starting to practice with his 21-year-old sister, who became his first role model in the game.
Praggnanandhaa’s rise to success took a steep path. At the age of seven, he obtained the title of FIDE Master, the third highest title a chess player can achieve after the Grandmaster and International Master titles.
Just three years later, he achieved the title of International Master, becoming the youngest player ever to accomplish this feat.
More success soon followed.
Two years later, in 2018, Praggnanandhaa became the fifth youngest grandmaster in the world and the youngest Indian to achieve the title. His routine of practicing for hours a day had finally paid off.
In February of this year, the 16-year-old added another feather to his cap when he defeated the world’s best chess player Magnus Carlsen in the Airthings Masters, an online fast-paced chess competition.
If you need a reason to smile this Monday night, all you need to do is look at the smile on the face of Smt Nagalakshmi, mum of GM R Praggnanandhaa & WGM R Vaishali pic.twitter.com/y28qwb4eaX
— arati (@arati1411) February 21, 2022
It was after 1am in India. Praggnanandhaa, dressed in a pink t-shirt, was constantly playing with his hair, seemingly exhausted.
Carlsen, in a more comfortable environment as the tournament was held during Central European Time, seemed in a better mood.
The match was Praggnanandhaa’s fourth of the evening. In the three games before that, Praggnanandhaa had won one, lost another, while the third ended in a draw.
For the first 31 moves over 33 minutes into the game, Praggnanandhaa gave a tough competition to Carlsen, a five-time world champion from Norway, until the latter made what the commentators called “a blunder”.
From there, it took Praggnanandhaa just seven moves to capture a stunning victory over Carlsen, making him the third Indian – and the youngest – to do so since the Norwegian became world champion in 2013.
For a moment, the teenager, who stunned Carlsen in the eighth round of the tournament, couldn’t believe he had beaten the best in the world.
Shortly after his historic victory, Praggnanandhaa casually remarked, “It’s time to go to bed, because I don’t think I’m going to eat at 2:30 in the morning.”
By the time he woke up in the morning, Praggnanandhaa was in the headlines.
What a wonderful feeling that must be for Pragg. All 16, and the experienced and decorated Magnus Carlsen have beaten, and that too while playing black is magical!
Best wishes to a long and successful chess career ahead. You made India proud! pic.twitter.com/hTQiwznJvX
— Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) February 21, 2022
“I definitely envisioned one day beating the world’s number one player, but I didn’t expect that day to come so soon,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone from Chennai just days after he left. delivered the performance.
Praggnanandhaa, born in 2005 to Rameshbabu, a bank manager, and housewife Nagalakshmi in Padi, a town on the outskirts of the southern city of Chennai, spent most of his younger days playing chess and cycling.
Rameshbabu said he realized his son was a talented chess player when Praggnanandhaa was eight.
“I never expected him to go this far,” Rameshbabu said of his son’s achievements.
After learning from his sister, India’s grand master Viswanathan Anand became the idol of Praggnanandhaa.
In 2012, Anand had won his fifth World Chess Championship. On his return to his hometown of Chennai, Anand was greeted as a hero by a huge gathering at the airport, including a six-year-old Praggnanandhaa.
When the teen registered his win over Carlsen, Anand tweeted: “Always proud of our talents! A very good day for Praggnanandhaa.”
“It was clear that he is very talented,” Praggnanandhaa’s coach RB Ramesh told Al Jazeera.
“Most talented children die within a few years. If they start winning at a very young age, they get complacent and think it’s happening to them and it will keep happening on its own because I’m talented. They don’t work hard.”
Praggnanandhaa practices between six and eight hours a day and hardly has time to go to school or concentrate on his homework.
But his father insisted this didn’t mean the child prodigy, who is currently in 11th grade, isn’t good at academics.
“As long as he does well, I think he should focus on chess,” Rameshbabu told Al Jazeera. “We did not expect this win. We are really happy for him. We cannot express it in words.”
Bharat Singh, secretary of the All India Chess Federation, told Al Jazeera that in 2005 there were only 10 grandmasters in India, but today there are 73.
“We are probably the only chess federation in the world that organizes 23 national chess federations [tournaments] in a year,” he said. Apart from that, Singh said they host several international tournaments and nearly 300 rating tournaments in which about 100,000 Indian chess players participate.
“We have 50 percent of the junior talent in the world. We are concentrating on junior chess,” Singh said.
Pragg the role model
Despite his stunning rise to stardom, the teen has remained humble and has his eyes on a bigger cause.
“I got this attention from the age of seven because I started winning tournaments from that age. I don’t think it changed anything in me. To be [the win against Carlsen] a big thing of course, but I think it’s quite normal. I will continue to do what I do,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he aspires to be “in the top 10 in the world and become world champion one day”.
Praggnanandhaa’s coach Ramesh believes beating the world champion in any form will give him a lot of confidence.
“The game has benefited from his win as more people are reading about chess and more people are reading about the young rising star. To develop any sport you need attractive stars who can inspire the population,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Thousands of young children would read about Pragg or see him on TV. They will say I want to be like him.”