LONDON • An 11-year-old Indian boy with a very long name is changing chess history.
Already the youngest international master (IM), the Chennai prodigy is likely to eclipse Sergey Karjakin’s longstanding world record as the only pre-teen player to achieve the grandmaster (GM) title.
His early career is outpacing both Russia’s Karjakin (GM at 12 years seven months) and Norway’s reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen (GM at 13 years four months), whose title match starts in New York on Nov 11.
Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa learnt chess at five and soon made remarkable progress.
He won the world Under-eight title in 2013, the Under-10 last year and is currently the No. 1 seed in the world Under-12 championships in Batumi, Georgia.
He outclasses his peers but it is his advance in global adult chess which has set new all-time peaks for age achievement.
His first IM result in Cannes, France, in February this year was soon followed by his second at Moscow Aeroflot in March, then his third and final norm in Bhubaneswar, India, in May, so qualifying him as an IM at 10 years nine months and breaking Karjakin’s world record by more than a year.
And the way he did it hints at much more to come.
He recovered from a 0.5/3 start in Moscow, while at both Cannes and Bhubaneswar, he reached the IM score with a round to spare.
Several talents including Carlsen have reached IM at 12 but Karjakin (11 years 11 months) and Praggnanandhaa are the only players to have qualified before their 12th birthday.
Once the first title breakthrough is achieved, the best of the best are likely to make further quantum leaps.
Karjakin and Carlsen both took less than a year to progress from IM to GM.
Praggnanandhaa still has 17 months in which to break Karjakin’s GM world record and the omens for his doing so are bright.
He has already shown that he can play well outside India, in Cannes, Moscow, and again at this month’s Isle of Man Open.
A property entrepreneur has sponsored his travel.
To become a GM, a player needs three norms of 2,600+ performances from individual tournaments plus an overall 2,500 rating.
His World Chess Federation world rating is already within range at 2,454, his personal best and only 46 points short of the target.
His world GM age-record chase is sure to interest every tournament organiser who wants to maximise publicity.
Europe’s prestigious events like the London Classic Open at Olympia in December along with Tradewise Gibraltar and Tata Steel Wijk B in January could all invite him.
Two of his replies near the end of his interview after his final round Isle of Man game revealed his ambition.
Asked if he was pleased with his score of 5.5/9, he answered that he would have liked another point or so. That would have put him close to 2,600.
Asked whether he hoped to become a GM, he replied “in about a year”.
GM at 11 might be pushing it, but such is the speed of his advance that it cannot be ruled out.
Praggnanandhaa comes from Chennai and his chess hero is Viswanathan Anand, the Indian former world chess champion.
His parents do not play chess but his older sister Vaishali has led the way for him, winning the world girls’ Under-12 and Under-14 championships and qualifying as a woman IM.
He has been coached since the age of eight by GM Ramachandran Ramesh, who in 2002 earned his own place in chess history as the last player from his country to win the British championship before Indians were ruled ineligible.
It is not just that he plays very well. His style is rich in tactics, with two queen sacrifices at Moscow Aeroflot in addition to his Isle of Man 18-move miniature against one of the best players in South America, Axel Bachmann, a 2,645 GM from Paraguay.
This brilliancy is going round the chess world, has made many chess fans fully aware of the new Indian talent, and has been compared to Bobby Fischer’s Game of the Century against Donald Byrne in 1963.
That game, played in New York 60 years ago this month, was of much higher quality with deeply calculated knight and queen sacrifices. But Fischer was 13 against 11 while Praggnanandhaa’s last dozen or so moves were almost all the first choice of the computer, and he saw and was ready for the better defences missed by his opponent.
His victory is sure to become part of chess lore and be quoted in future as a classic example of dynamic attack.
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– GM Susan Polgar