India will watch with bated breath as its chess prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa takes on Norway’s world number one Magnus Carlsen in the final of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, starting on Tuesday.
In his run to the final, Praggnanandhaa beat world number two Fabiano Caruana of the United States in the semifinal as well as world number three Hikaru Nakamura, also of the US, in an earlier round.
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The 18-year-old from Chennai in the chess-mad southern state of Tamil Nadu will be vying to become the first Indian to win the title since 2002, when celebrated Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand won his second world title.
Carlsen will hope to win the title that has eluded his grasp in his 12-year reign at the top of world chess rankings.
The 31-year-old Norwegian has met his younger nemesis on a number of occasions and was notably beaten by him at the Airthings Masters rapid chess tournament in February 2022. The then 16-year-old was the youngest player ever to defeat Carlsen until October, when another Indian teenager, Donnarumma Gukesh, broke the record.
India’s chess great Anand led the reaction to Praggnanandhaa’s World Cup semifinal win. He lauded his young compatriot with “What a performance!” in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Pragg goes through to the final! He beats Fabiano Caruana in the tiebreak and will face Magnus Carlsen now.
— Viswanathan Anand (@vishy64theking) August 21, 2023
The news soon went viral in India, with sports officials and cricket stars posting congratulatory messages.
Indian cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin said the 18-year-old was “an inspiration to many”.
Congratulations @rpragchess on your wonderful run to the final👏👏.
What a journey and you are an inspiration to many.
Well done to your entire support system too 👍🏻👍🏻
— Ashwin 🇮🇳 (@ashwinravi99) August 22, 2023
‘Modest family, humble kid’
Praggnanandhaa’s rise to fame began in 2016, when he became the youngest International Master in history at age 10 and was earmarked by local chess officials as one for the future.
Growing up under the shadow of his sister Vaishali Rameshbabu, a local chess champion, Praggnanandhaa began playing the game at the age of three with encouragement from his parents.
By the age of seven, he had earned the title of FIDE Master, the third-highest title a chess player can achieve after the Grandmaster and International Master titles.
“He has been participating in local chess tournaments since a very young age and has always seemed very tactically sound,” R Ananthram, a chess arbiter from Chennai, told Al Jazeera on the phone before the final.
“Despite their modest background, the entire family is dedicated to helping him become a world champion and his mother always makes it a point to accompany him to international tournaments,” he said.
— PhotoChess (@photochess) August 17, 2023
According to Ananthram, Praggnanandhaa’s disabled banker father and homemaker mother are the reason why “fame has not gone to his [Praggnanandhaa’s] head”.
The young grandmaster’s win over Carlsen last year, which made sporting headlines in cricket-mad India, made him a celebrity in his hometown.
“He always obliges when people stop him to shake his hands or take a photo with him,” Ananthram said.
Ananthram, who has officiated international chess matches for FIDE, credited Praggnanandhaa’s coach RB Ramesh for making it his “singular mission” to take the teenager to the top of the world chess rankings.
“Ramesh understands Praggnanandhaa’s power, and I have no doubt he will take the kid to the top.”
A fantastic run, beating some of the best players there are. Congratulations on making it to the finals, @rpragchess and my best wishes for a successful end! We are proud of your efforts!@WeAreTeamIndia https://t.co/YFH6dJoqc0
— P.T. USHA (@PTUshaOfficial) August 22, 2023
‘All of India is waiting’
Local chess association officials in Praggnanandhaa’s hometown say Chennai’s affinity for the sport and parents’ encouragement have made chess popular among children.
“We hold about 200 chess tournaments in a year,” Stephen Balaswamy, the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Chess Association, told Al Jazeera.
According to Balaswamy, Grandmaster Anand, who is still ranked in the top 10, motivated young children to take up the sport in the early 2000s.
“With his recent success, Nanandhaa will also help prepare the next generation of chess players,” he said.
Congratulations to R Praggnanandhaa for an outstanding FIDE Chess World Cup journey to the Finals.
My best wishes for the title match against Magnus Carlsen.
More than a billion Indians are cheering for you.🏆🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/3u9MYHeFqc
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) August 21, 2023
Balaswamy expects Praggnanandhaa to “fight it out” against Carlsen in the two-day final.
“He has beaten Carlsen twice, so he knows what it takes, and he knows all of India is waiting.”
However, chess arbiter Ananthram believes Carlsen will be the clear favourite for his title but believes Praggnanandhaa has “nothing to lose” as he plays the biggest match of his career.
“Having beaten the world number two and three, he does not have any pressure any more and hopefully will be able to nullify Carlsen’s experience with his own quick thinking.”
Praggnanandhaa: "I didn't expect to play Magnus in this tournament at all because the only way I could play him was in the final, and I didn't expect to be in the final… I will just try to give my best and see how it goes!" #FIDEWorldCup pic.twitter.com/pRBLBepxzB
— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess) August 21, 2023