Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Smells Like Teen Spirit: Indian chess's changing of the guard

Four Indians made it to the quarterfinals of the Fide World Cup, three of them below 20. And none of them Viswanathan Anand

Published: Aug 19, 2023 10:21:52 AM IST
Updated: Aug 19, 2023 07:02:10 PM IST

Smells Like Teen Spirit: Indian chess's changing of the guardA teen Super GM who's just getting started, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, dreams of becoming world champion. Image: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

It’s been a montage of passing-the-baton moments in Indian chess compressed into a fortnight’s play at the Fide World Cup.

It began with Gukesh surpassing five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in the live ratings to become India’s No 1 chess player. By the quarterfinals, we were looking at Indians taking up 50 percent of the playing field, the highest-ever number from the country to make it that far. Three of them below 20 years of age. The fourth Indian was Vidit Gujrathi, who made his second successive World Cup quarterfinal. Only one, 18-year-old R Praggnanandhaa found a place in the last four and next year’s Candidates tournament—the eight-player final qualifier for the World Championship. The first time that someone from India not named Anand has done either. 

It’s a lot to process in two weeks. India chess may have turned a fresh chapter. To be fair, though, none of it is unexpected or inexplicable. It’s been in the making for a while now, waiting to burst forth.

In 2016, Praggnanandhaa became the youngest International Master in history at 10 years, 10 months and 19 days and then the second-youngest Grandmaster in 2018. A year later, fellow Indian D Gukesh surpassed him, missing the youngest-ever GM record by just 17 days. The beginnings of a race to the top between two precocious Indian prodigies.

If Praggnanandhaa marked himself out with three wins in a row over world No 1 Magnus Carlsen in rapid and blitz last year, Gukesh’s aptitude and strength in classical chess shone at the Olympiad with an impeccable 8/8 wins. Since 2018, India has had 29 new Grandmasters, taking the total count to 83.

India's growth story in chess has other nations and players looking in, curious. Everyone wants in on the secret sauce. Last year, Carlsen’s chess club Offerspill signed up Praggananandhaa’s coach GM RB Ramesh to help develop chess in the Nordic region. He’s just back from running a training camp in Stockholm for young Scandinavian players. “When I ask young players in these countries if they like chess and want to do well in it, their answer is always yes. But they’re honest about not being able to devote enough time to it. I often cite the examples of Pragg and our other top teenage GMs. At that age, to be able to put everything aside, whether that’s an active social life, friends, or any other interests, and just grind away in the chess is really tough. But if you want to be the best, you have to put in the work.”

Since the camp was scheduled months in advance, Ramesh wasn’t in a position to accompany his student for the length of the World Cup. He had the option of being with him for the first 10-odd days of the tournament before travelling to Stockholm. “But he preferred to be alone throughout, rather than having to deal with me leaving midway. This is good for him. It’s been a conscious effort to allow him to become more independent, so he gets used to not always having a coach around.”

Praggnanandhaa arrived in the Azerbaijani capital with preparation plans running up to Round 4—a possible match against World No 2 Hikaru Nakamura. To look beyond that, at the outset, seemed both presumptuous and impractical. The match spilt into tie-breaks, Nakamura blamed himself for messing up the move order and the Indian teen ended up eliminating the second seed. He called it “one of the happiest days” of his life.

It was only about to get better.

In the quarterfinal, he ran into fellow Indian and buddy Arjun Erigaisi. A year older, Arjun became the second player from the teen bunch—after Gukesh, to break into the 2,700 Elo club last year. He hasn’t quite hit the headlines as much as Praggnanandhaa perhaps but is among the strongest Indian players around—ranked after Gukesh and Anand. Their tiebreak was among the most thrilling contests of the World Cup. Two friends chasing one result, to pull ahead of the pack and find a place in next year’s second-biggest chess tournament. It’s been the obvious common dream for these young Indians, looking to follow the path of their favourite legend, Anand.  

Smells Like Teen Spirit: Indian chess's changing of the guardA file photo of the inaugural ceremony of Tata Steel India Rapid and Blitz Chess competition in Kolkata, India in late 2021, showing V Anand, Vidit Gujrathi, R.Praggnanandhaa and Arjun Erigaisi among others. Image: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After the games, Arjun and Praggnanandhaa have been going for walks along the hotel boulevard overlooking the Caspian Sea. Even on the eve of their games against each other. It might go against conventional wisdom in elite chess to socialise with your opponent. Margins are fine and emotions must be kept at bay. It doesn’t ruffle these two. At least not yet. They’re okay to flip hand-me-down counsel and kick back with banter after their tense games. “Pragg usually likes going back to his room after games. I’ve been pushing him to go for long walks. It helps clear the head. Between him and Arjun, there’s no awkwardness about playing with each other and hanging out together right before or after. It’s a nice thing I suppose. I hope they can keep up this friendship down the line,” says Ramesh.

The tiebreaks between them went down to the wire, with the scores remaining equal after three sets of tiebreaks featuring wins with Black. The seven-game marathon was decided after Praggnanandhaa ended White’s curse with a win in the sudden-death blitz and he turned out to be the last Indian standing in the event.

So much of surviving the business end of these month-long tournaments can be down to managing nerves and fatigue. After being pushed to the brink game after game, you can end up running on fumes. Praggnanandhaa might know a thing or two about it now. Two of his wins so far in Baku—against Nakamura and Arjun—will count among those that he’ll carry with him through the challenges ahead.  

For the teen, the January 2022 Wijk aan Zee Tata Steel tournament, may have brought a moment of epiphany. Ramesh, who travelled with him to the Dutch coastal town, tested positive for Covid-19 on the first day and was put under a 10-day quarantine. Suddenly, for the first time, the Indian teen was all by himself at an overseas tournament. His mother, Nagalakshmi, wasn’t by his side either. “He cooked his own meals and managed on his own. He'd never done it before. The quicker route from the hotel to the tournament hall passed through a graveyard and it would get dark by the time the games were over. He was just 16 then. It taught him to look after himself."

Back when Praggnanandhaa broke into the scene with his IM and GM records, his unique spelling bee challenge of a name caught the fancy of chess communities in other countries as much as tales of his prodigious talent. “Wherever I go for tournaments people are fascinated with his name and they ask me how it's pronounced,” Anand told me in 2018.

Everyone's stopped trying and he now goes by Pragg. A boy who dreams of becoming world champion. A teen Super GM who's just getting started.