Rival cheers, pundits speechless as Praggnanandhaa finishes second

After R Praggnanandhaa realized that all his roads to a comeback were blocked in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Chessable Masters tournament final against world No. 2 Ling Diren, he flashed a wistful smile.

The 16-year-old, having lost on the first day to the spirit of an experienced virtuoso, had fought an exciting but futile battle. He fought back to level the game after hanging out overnight and forced the duel to a tiebreaker – two blitz matches then an armageddon if the game was still level. But a few slip-ups – notably those that led Liren to escape with a draw in the first game of the tiebreaker – cost him the game.

But after the game, Liren, who was exhausted, cheered on the youngster while Grandmaster commentator David Howell said: “I’m almost speechless. I’m running out of superlatives, running out of praise for Pragg because he’s so good right now.

He is only 16 years old. But in chess, more than in any other sport, 16 is not too tender an age. There have been as many as 40, including the eleventh grader from a Chennai suburb who became a grandmaster before he was 15.

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Praggnanandhaa is no stranger to the circuit either – there was a manic frenzy in the chess landscape when he beat Magnus Carlsen a few months ago, the youngest to do so since the Norwegian became world champion . Then he beat him four days ago in chess, before scalping world number 10 Anish Giri and closing in on Liren.

Yet Praggnanandhaa is considered a “kid”. Before the semi-final, his opponent Giri had tweeted: “6:00 p.m. CET. Isn’t it kid’s bedtime in Chennai? »

His still adolescent appearance could have fooled his opponent. The boy from Chennai looks younger. He sees only the faint outline of a mustache, although his voice has taken on the shrillness of a teenager. But the teenage malice persists in her tone.

“For us, he would always remain a child,” says father Ramesh Babu, who drops him and picks him up from school. “He’s still naughty sometimes, his mother always cooks him lunch, and sometimes he sneaks out of his house on his bike,” he says.

Sure, he devotes less time to cartoon shows (although Tamil news and comedy keeps him glued to TV). Mother Nagalakshmi still accompanies him whenever he travels abroad (frequency has dropped due to the pandemic and the online chess boom), along with her rice cooker.

Then Praggnanandhaa posts tweets like these that make him feel even younger. “I have to be at school around 8.45am, and now it’s 2am! I’ll try not to sleep during my internal exam.

But resemblance to a child should not be interpreted as frivolity. “He knows he has to keep working hard to improve and reach the level he wants to reach. He is more driven and determined,” says Ramesh. eight hours of chess play every day, he watches a lot of tapes of different players in various positions, on the advice of his trainer RB Ramesh.

Quiet confidence

There is also a supernatural poise about him. From an early age, he did not shed much emotion; he smiles warmly when he wins, when he loses, he just looks at the board questioningly. “He wasn’t jumping for joy when he first beat Carlsen. He just casually told us he beat Carlsen and immediately fell asleep,” his dad said. unfazed, there is a smoldering maturity that has no doubt helped him cope with the pressure of expectations that first grappled him in his pursuit of GM’s fastest feat. weeks, but that didn’t matter to him.

Even Praggnanandhaa, too, hid his joy. “It’s a big thing of course, but I think it’s completely normal. I continue to do what I do“, he said then. The words flowed naturally, without any hint of false modesty.

Maturity is also in full swing on set. He arguably did his best beating the seasoned Giri. The first game was bland and ended in a draw; in the second, the Indian ambushed the Dutchman by setting a death trap in the late game, the first game Giri had lost of the entire tournament. He gave it his all in the next game and was close to claiming victory, but Pragg held his nerve to force the draw. Giri stepped up the aggression, even as Praggnanandhaa stoically held on, though in the end Giri broke through his defence. At the tie-break, the Indian pushed his opponent into a corner, who finally opted for retirement.

The dancing expressions on Giri’s face captured Praggnanandhaa’s ever-blooming potential. Her emotions ranged from bewilderment and fear to shock and discouragement. After the match, he tweeted: “Tweets that haven’t aged well are the best. They get double likes.

Reputation does not intimidate Praggnanandhaa. “He focused on the pieces on the board. As they say in cricket, play to the merit of the ball, not the bowler. Praggnanandhaa also plays according to the movements on the board,” explains Ramesh, his coach.

Since the beginning of the year, he has taken his game up a notch – in chess, shifting is sometimes a long process. Beating Carlsen twice could be the icing on the cake – among other things, he defeated Giri and Wei Yi, in addition to scoring his career-high ELO points (2642) – despite being at an age where he is learning just baking a cake, forget the frosting. However, he builds a compelling case for not being considered a child. Except maybe for his beloved parents.

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