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For long, Viswanathan Anand was lonely at the top. But his presence there helped to inspire many others to take to chess as a serious passion and a profession — like young Praggnanandhaa. Over the years, many of those inspired by him have come up in the ranks to even challenge Anand.

India today has many grandmasters and top chess players, the credit for which goes to Anand to a large extent. But none has seemed big enough to take the place of India’s only champion chess player until today. By beating world champion Magnus Carlsen, Praggnanandhaa has shown he is really the man, rather the boy, everyone wished would succeed Anand.

Anand is past his prime. Age is showing on him. He has become just a little too defensive in a game where silence and almost nil movement is compensated by ferocious aggression at the mental level.

In the online game on February 20, Praggnanandhaa took on an off-colour Magnus Carlsen with sustained aggression throughout the game. Carlsen had been down with Covid-19 and didn’t look to be on top. He went offline moments after the match. As Carlsen made mistakes, Praggnanandhaa kept up the pressure.

To use a cricketing analogy, Anand is like Sachin whereas Praggnanandhaa is like Dhoni. Their personalities are different and they come from different backgrounds. Anand comes from a relatively affluent family who were in Manila, Philippines, when Anand learned chess from his mother. Praggnanandhaa comes from a much more modest background in middle-class Chennai.

For Praggnanandhaa, this was not the first major win in the Airthings Masters online tournament. He had earlier worsted Levon Aronian, whom Anand had called a gifted tactician.

Praggnanandhaa would have been the world’s youngest grandmaster but for a few days. He has beaten world champion Magnus Carlsen just like Carlsen, then a mere boy, beat former world champion Anatoly Karpov and stunned the world.

To use a cricketing analogy, Anand is like Sachin whereas Praggnanandhaa is like Dhoni. Their personalities are different and they come from different backgrounds. Anand comes from a relatively affluent family who were in Manila, Philippines, when Anand learned chess from his mother. Praggnanandhaa comes from a much more modest background in middle-class Chennai.

Praggnanandhaa borders on genius. His rather ascetic sounding name translates as the lord of intelligence and awareness. The strange spelling, possibly decided by numerology, gives away the deep religiosity he has likely inherited from his mother who is his chaperone, protector and caregiver. The bright stripe of sacred ash on his forehead is an indication that he belongs in the same league as yet another genius of mental calculations – Srinivasa Ramanujan – who cited the Namakkal goddess as the source of all his strangely beautiful theorems.

Praggnanandhaa seems to have the careful persona typical of chess players. Isolated and protected, chess players tend to be deadpan and unemotional, at least in public. So does Praggnanandhaa and so did Anand. Any indication that they have a human nature could be quickly seized upon and exploited by the opponent. The warlike aggression in chess has no place for obvious mental weakness.

Praggnanandhaa’s calmness seems only an acquired trait though. He looks like a boy with an impish smile who is probably a prankster at home. He could be the bright but mischievous kid good at maths who would smile away his guilt if his mischief is found out.

When Anand emerged on the scene, Garry Kasparov dismissed him as superficial. That putdown was classic Soviet-style psychological warfare. It devastated Anand briefly and made him think there was some truth to it.

Praggnanandhaa’s calmness seems only an acquired trait though. He looks like a boy with an impish smile who is probably a prankster at home. He could be the bright but mischievous kid good at maths who would smile away his guilt if his mischief is found out.

Praggnanandhaa’s defeat of Carlsen may be taken as a sign of the times. During the pandemic, the game itself had moved online. While most other games cannot be conceived virtually, chess lends itself to it. Without the physical element, however, pressure was likely less on Praggnanandhaa. It’s one thing to take on Carlsen face to face, quite another to play with him online. Praggnanandhaa, as today’s teen, is probably more in sync with work from home and play from home.

Move on, rest of the world. Adieu Anand! The time has come for a new chess champion from Tamil Nadu.

(The author is a sports analyst)


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