The original child prodigy, now challenger to Carlsen

In the post-pandemic world, a new tidal wave of Indian teenagers had swamped the chess landscape, but the 18-year-old R Praggnanandhaa remains the OG, the original child prodigy. The other bright young stars – D Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi, Nihal Sarin – are all walking the path paved by the Chennai boy who goes by the name of Pragg on the global chess circuit.

On Monday, Pragg nudged a reminder by downing the reigning US chess champion Fabiano Caruana via the tiebreaker to enter the final in Baku, where Magnus Carlsen, the modern day chess genius, another OG, awaits him. Befittingly, Viswanathan Anand, who breathlessly tweeted about Pragg’s progress, would be moved to post: “what a performance”.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought over-the-board chess tournaments to a grinding halt, Pragg was India’s brightest star. He became an international master at the age of 10, the youngest in the world to do so; became a GM at the age of 12 in 2018, the second youngest player to do so at the time. Sarin and Erigaisi followed on his heels in the same year before D Gukesh became a GM in 2019. Pragg reached the 2600 mark in the ELO rating at the age of 14, once again a world record at the time.

“Then COVID happened. We lost one and a half year (to the pandemic)!” says RB Ramesh, who was the 10th GM of India who has been training Pragg since his early days in the sport.

“In that period he got the experience of playing with all the top players in the world. He improved his chess strength overall. But the price we paid for that was playing in a lesser number of FIDE-rated tournaments. Last year, he must have played only in 60 rated games in the standard time control (games that have an impact on ELO ratings). He wasn’t slowing down. He was just playing lesser games. This year we are focussing on standard time controls,” Ramesh tells The Indian Express.

Freedom Sale

In the aftermath of the pandemic, as Pragg played in the online rapid events, his classical ratings slowed down (classical games last for longer time, with rapid games being played in shorter time controls), but he gained valuable experience of taking on the biggest players in the world. This included wins over Carlsen in the online rapid format in February 2022 and May 2022, before August 2022’s triple whammy.

But over the last few months, Gukesh has made waves, especially after becoming the youngest player to cross the 2750 rating mark in July and then overtaking Anand as the country’s top-ranked chess player in FIDE’s live ratings earlier this month.

For India, the Baku World Cup could be a watershed event. After 4 Indians made it to the quarters, Pragg won a nail-biting semifinal against Caruana. After the two classical games on Saturday and Sunday and a couple of rapid games on Monday ended in draws, Pragg defeated the American GM in the third rapid game.

The first rapid game in the tiebreaker on Monday saw the Indian tether on the edge of time trouble — there were times he made moves with just three seconds left on the clock, He stared at trouble in the eye multiple times with his pieces under duress, before escaping with a draw with black pieces. The second game too petered out to a draw without any drama. But in the third tiebreak game, Pragg managed to seize advantage and never relinquished his hold on it. His opponent, Caruana, appeared shocked at how quickly his fortunes had evaporated, as he was forced to defend for once, his palms cupping various parts of his face as he tried to find an escape hatch.

INTERACTIVE: You can follow the move-by-move action from the third tiebreak game (with 10 minutes for each player + 10 seconds increment per move) in the semi-final clash between Praggnanandhaa and Fabiano Caruana below and also click on the notations at the right of the board to retrace the way the game developed:

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At the World Cup, Pragg has accounted for World No 3 Hikaru Nakamura, fellow teenage prodigy Erigaisi, and now World No 2 Caruana — all wins coming via tiebreakers. Such was the magnitude of his win over Nakamura that Carlsen got up in the middle of his own game to walk up to pat Pragg on the shoulder.

Coach Ramesh looks forward to his student’s final against Carlsen. “He has played Magnus a lot of times. They’re both reasonably good friends also, Magnus has a soft corner for Pragg. He was the first of these prodigies to be doing well at the highest level. So Magnus has been noticing him since then. In one of the earliest games they played against each other, Magnus offered him a draw. Pragg declined. That got Magnus to come to him and praise his fighting spirit,” points out Ramesh.

Over the course of the next few days, World No 1 Carlsen is about to be acquainted once more to that famous fighting spirit.

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