'Psychologically, I feel like something has changed': Praggnanandhaa
Through last month’s history-crafting, Candidates’ tournament qualification, and breaking into the 2700 club, Praggnanandhaa has been tapping into a quiet joy
The past few weeks have been a blur for Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. He turned into a teen star and a hashtag and was swept by the full tide of fame upon his arrival home, in Chennai a couple of weeks ago.
This month, the 18-year-old has already played three tournaments – World Rapid Team Championship, Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz and the Spanish League. His first Asian Games appearance, in the team competition starting September 29, will cap off what’s been a busy stretch of weeks. The last time chess was part of the Continental Games was in 2010. Praggnanandhaa was five years old then.
“I have never watched a live sport in a stadium. So, I’m looking forward to catching at least a few matches of Indians in other sports,” he says, dropping a wish, “If I get the chance, I’d want to meet Neeraj Chopra.”
Apart from the individual men’s and women’s events (played in rapid format), medals in chess will also be contested in the men’s and women’s team events (in classical format with five players in each team). In addition to Praggnanandhaa, India has D Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi, Vidit Gujrathi and P Harikrishna in the men’s section. Arjun and Vidit feature in the men’s individual event while Koneru Humpy and Dronavalli Harika play in the women’s individual event. It’s fair to say that medal expectations for India in all four events run high.
Through last month’s history-crafting, Candidates’ tournament qualification, and breaking into the 2700 club, Praggnanandhaa has been tapping into a quiet joy. The kind people in all sorts of professions spend their lives hunting.
“I’m enjoying chess like never before,” he says, “Psychologically, I feel like something has changed. It’s hard to place a finger on it. It’s not linked to my World Cup results. I first felt this mental shift at the Sharjah Masters in May this year. I was coming off a bit of a break. I played well but the results were far from great (finished outside the top 10). But I still found myself feeling pretty happy and positive. I’m in a zone now where it’s just about having a good time playing chess.”
What seems harder than before, he says, is coping with losses. “I'm taking more time to recover from a defeat these days. Losses hurt more because I’m putting a lot more effort on the board. After a game, you want to take your mind off it and focus on the next one. Of course, curiosity does kick in and I quickly go and check it with the computer. But other than that, I try different things to relax. Arjun (Erigaisi), Nihal (Sarin), and I would go for walks or play table tennis during the World Cup. I don’t think I’ve gone on walks with someone I was facing in a match before. I think it’s because Arjun and I were able to separate those walks and our friendship from the game.”
Training with coach RB Ramesh has shifted from regular shared auto trips to T Nagar in his early years to online sessions now. “When I go over to the academy, I love to play TT on the roof, like I used to before. With all the tournaments, in-person training is rare for me now. When I’m home in Chennai I get together with a few friends in my neighbourhood to play badminton. I try to hit the gym sometimes when I’m playing abroad. I think Magnus has set the example of what an ideal chess player should be like – physically and mentally. I learn a lot from him.”
Celebrity and loving the spotlight don’t always march in lockstep. Well before the World Cup in August where he finished runner-up and found stardom, Praggnanandhaa often leveraged pandemic habits to show up for his flights out of Chennai in his incognito best – face mask, cap et al.
He’s now learning to embrace the attention. As part of an elaborate welcome by his school earlier this month, he rode a horse-drawn chariot in his school uniform with his mother Nagalakshmi. He was greeted with a humongous garland, hoisted by a crane and feted with a cash award of ₹30 lakh by the government of his home state, Tamil Nadu. “If people show up, I consider it my job to interact with them. If they want a picture, I have to oblige. It’s a good thing for chess I suppose. What I like most is that my parents' efforts are being recognised now.”
Praggnanandhaa comes from a family that’s seen some hard times paying for two kids to pursue chess and travel to tournaments. His success has had a significant impact on the family’s finances. Until they bought a car last year, the family had to rely on the adapted scooter that his father Rameshbabu, affected by polio at a young age, rode. “Maybe in the future, how I look at money might be different. Right now, I don’t think much about it and don’t spend it on myself. My father takes care of the finances entirely.”
There’s some anecdotal evidence for it.
Once during a tournament, Praggnanandhaa was invited to a private dinner along with Carlsen, Anish Giri and Wesley So. Each of the players was paired off with one of the guests for a mini-chess match. Praggnanandhaa finished on the winning side. “When he came back to the hotel, he told me he’d won, and showed me a trophy,” says Ramesh, “He was excited to have met Sundar Pichai at the party,” says Ramesh, “We then got talking about other things. Later I asked him if he won anything else. Absolutely expressionless, he pulled out a piece of paper. It was a check for $40,000. He didn’t realise what kind of money it was. I don’t think he does even now.”