Vaishali Rameshbabu: India's 3rd woman grandmaster, not just 'Pragg’s sister'
After qualifying for the Candidates, she is now the third women’s GM from India
When R. Praggnanandhaa was making waves on the global chess map a few months back, there used to be the odd reference in media to his sister Vaishali as 'also a ranked chess player'.
But over the last month or so, the self-effacing 22-year-old has risen to claim her own bragging rights, and not just as "Pragg’s sister".
Only last Friday, on 1 December, Vaishali Rameshbabu became only the third women’s grandmaster from India — after Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli —– and the 84th one from India overall, when she defeated F.M. Tamer Selbes at the El Llobregat Open tournament in Spain.
This was followed by her earning a ticket to the elite Candidates tournament in April 2024 — making Pragg and Vaishali the first set of siblings from the country to qualify for the marquee event. There are not too many of their ilk in the global chess fraternity either — only a few followers will recall the Muzychuk sisters or the Van Forest brothers.
The route to becoming a women's grandmaster, an achievement that came at an older age for Vaishali than for her prodigy of a brother, is not an easy one. B.R. Ramesh, coach and mentor to both, was refreshingly candid about it in an interview.
‘’For a phase in her career, when Pragg started doing well, it had a bit of a negative impact on Vaishali because of all the attention on Pragg. She was referred to as Pragg’s sister. But she’s a good player herself in her own right. So that was not a pleasant situation to be in," Ramesh told the Indian Express on Monday, 4 December. "The fact that she qualified for the Candidates and has now become a Grandmaster… She’s shown that she can stand on her own merits, (and) that is very important for her as well.’’
Both of Vaishali's predecessors achieved the women's grandmaster status at an younger age than her too — Koneru Humpy, another prodigy, at 15 and Harika at 20. However, her recent exploits have made the chess fraternity take another assessing look at Vaishali as a player. Those who have seen both at a younger age were unanimous in their observations that the siblings seem tireless at their sport.
Here’s what S. Thayagarajan, Vaishali's very first coach when she was a seven-year-old at Bloom Chess Academy in Chennai, had to say: “Her biggest quality that stood out for me was how she could stay patient for five hours — or more — at that age. Time plays a big role in chess. You need to play long matches to improve your rating points. That she could sit for hours at a stretch was very special.
"Besides that, she could also play fast under time pressure. At the age of seven or eight, these are not common qualities. She could do both.”
Much before her brother Pragg defeated recently dethroned world champion Magnus Carlsen in an online chess tournament and became a household name in the country, Vaishali was one of those few kids who had defeated Carlsen in an exhibition game in 2013 — called a simul — that the Norwegian played against 20 Indian juniors at the same time. Vaishali was just 12 years old at the time.
Speaking of Vaishali's big challenge next year, the Candidates, Ramesh sounds excited for her: “If she wins that, then she would play in the Women’s World Championships. She’s had success at other big events, like winning a medal at the FIDE Chess Olympiad — but the Candidates can be a different ballgame.”
The siblings help each other a lot, their coach said: ‘’They practice a lot at home. In recent times, Pragg has tried to help her with prep… giving her opening ideas and so on.
"It’s always good to have a strong player at home helping you,’’ Ramesh observed. Together, they are certainly one of a kind!