I have the potential to be a world champion, declares Pragg

The 18-year-old is the centre of attraction in Kolkata as he arrives in the city to play Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz chess

Chess plyer R Praggnanandhaa takes part in Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz chess (photo: Gautam Bhattacharyya)
Chess plyer R Praggnanandhaa takes part in Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz chess (photo: Gautam Bhattacharyya)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The clatter of flashbulbs and the buzz on the hotel lobby that signalled R. Praggnanandhaa’s arrival on Monday morning left no doubts about his status as the new poster boy of Indian sport. A rare thing in chess since Vishy Anand’s heydays, but the 18-year-old shows a maturity way behind his years to shrug off the hype and focus on the business at hand. 

‘Pragg,’ as he is popular as, landed in the city late last week and plunged into the ongoing national camp for the upcoming Asian Games in China under the mentorship of veteran Grandmaster Boris Gelfand. Next on his agenda is the Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz chess, which gets under way on Tuesday with a strong field in contention. 

If the last year and-a-half underlined his status as the wonderkid of the sport ever since he beat five-times world champion Magnus Carlsen for the first time in an online rapid game, his runners-up show in the FIDE World Cup has the media hailing him as the next Anand and a future world champion. ‘’I feel I have the potential to become a world champion in future, but there is still a lot of learn. Right now, I am only working on improving my game,’’ Pragg said.    

Speaking to a select media gathering on Monday, Pragg said that he has learnt on how to shut the noise and keep on raising the bar for himself. ‘’I have a long, long way to go to reach anywhere near Anand sir. Indian chess is set for an exciting future with the likes N. Gukesh, myself, Arjun (Erigaisi) and Nihal (Sarin) doing quite well at the moment. Comparisons like these or Carlsen’s  be-like-Pragg advice to his students are nice to hear but I don’t take these things seriously,’’ Pragg said – a trademark half smile playing on his lips.  

The Anand effect, much like the earlier generation of Indian GMs, had been playing it’s part in mentoring this precocious talents – all of whom are still below 20 years. ‘’We have learnt a from Anand sir at his  West Bridge Chess Academy – not only about the technical side of the game but also the mental aspect and handling of challenging situations. The group is in constant touch with him as his influence on us is simply huge,’’ said Pragg, who and his parents were guests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin, ever since he touched down in Chennai to a tumultuous welcome last week.    

After the high of FIDE World Cup, where Pragg became the second youngest player (after Carlsen and the legendary Bobby Fischer) to qualify for the Candidates series, what went somewhat under the radar was that he was a member of the star-studded WR Chess team which won the inaugural World Team Rapid Chess Championship last week. 

Carrying on his good form, the Indian stood out amid much decorated team members with a score of 6.5/7 to help his team clinch the title – relegating Anand’s Team Freedom to runners-up spot.

‘’Yes, I just wanted to enjoy the event, quite a relaxing one after the Fide World Cup which was a tense and long affair. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about Blitz games as we had a very good team. It was a good experience on the whole,’’ Pragg said, replying to a question from National Herald.  

The Candidates event next April in Canada will pit the eight qualifiers in a long drawn struggle to decide on the challenger to take on FIDE world champion Ding Liren, but Pragg still has not had the time to think about it. ‘’Our goal now is the Asian Games, for which we had an intensive camp under Gelfand sir – playing and discussing lot of chess with him. The next two months will be very tight for me as I have two more tournaments lined up after the Games. 

‘’The Candidates is a long tournament where you have to be mentally and physically fit. There is still time to think about it,’’ he said, brushing aside any suggestion that his job may be made a shade easier if Carlsen stays away from the event. The five-time world champion from Norway, who knows Pragg’s game quite well, maintained that he may pull out of the running to fight for the world title match again – but the last has not been heard on the issue. 

No conversation with the young mastermind can be complete these days without a reference to his mother Nageshwari, whose presence on the sidelines of his matches has gone viral in the social media space over the past month – including a post from the great Garri Kasparov. How much of a help is it to have her around, especially in the global tournaments?

‘’As I said before, her presence and the role of my parents have been enormous in my career,’’ Pragg said, also acknowledging that a Indian meal cooked by her ahead of a game is a must for him. 

The sacrifices that a young Pragg made to come this far for more than a decade (he reveals that he has never played video games like anyone of his age) has been repeated too often in the media in recent times. Well, does he get time to follow any other sport? ‘’ I follow cricket and catch up on the Indian cricketers’ performances,’’ he said. 

Who is his favourite cricketer? No prizes for guessing this one: it’s fellow Chennaiyan Ravi Ashwin. ‘’He is interested in chess too,’’ he quipped. 

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