Pragyan and Pragga: Triumph of the Indian Intellect

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by M G Radhakrishnan

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Pragya or Prajna in Sanskrit means intelligence, wisdom, or enlightenment. Last week witnessed India’s “Pragya” scaling amazing heights to touch the moon, literally. On August 23, Chandrayaan-3 made India the fourth nation to soft-land on the moon and the first to touch down near the lunar south pole. The next day in Baku, Azerbaijan, an 18-year-old helped India soar to another dazzling height when he became the world’s youngest to play the FIDE World Cup Chess final.

Though both mark the triumph of Indian Pragya, the Sanskrit word features in both in an amazing coincidence. Chandrayaan’s four-legged lander, Vikram, soft-landed on the moon, carrying a 26 kg rover named Pragyan at 6.04 pm on Wednesday. The Indian prodigy who created history on the 64 squares board on Thursday bore the name Praggnanandhaa, meaning the one to whom intelligence is bliss. His achievement doesn’t pale even a wee bit because he was defeated in the final by the Norwegian maestro, Magnus Carlsen (33), World Number One, five-time world champion, and considered the greatest chess player in history. The Indian kid was the youngest to beat Magnus in rapid chess in 2022.

Chandrayaan-3 Rover ramps down from the Lander to the lunar surface

It's an inferiority complex-driven tendency to claim India as the fountainhead of every knowledge and technology, whether plastic surgery or aeronautics. But the roots of chess or “chaturanga” surely belong to India. Pieces of a board resembling chess were found in the city of Lothal of the Indus Valley civilization, dating from 2000 to 3000 BCE.

But the country has never witnessed an incredible explosion of talent in chess as now. A stunning array of Indian youngsters are continuously scaling new peaks in world chess. As Viswanathan Anand, India’s first Grandmaster (GM) and five-time World Chess Champion, beamed, “This is India’s golden generation of chess.”

"Vishy", now 53, became GM when he was 18 and was World No 1 in 2007 at 37. He also became the world’s first “undisputed world champion" that year, beating eight players in a round-robin tournament in Mexico and taking home a whopping prize of $390,000. In subsequent years, Anand defended his world title thrice, beating challengers like Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov, and Boris Gelfand. But in 2013, Anand’s unchallenged marathon was halted by a 23-year-old Norwegian called Magnus Carlsen, who was coronated as the new world champion. Ironically, “King Anand”’s aswamedha ended in his home city of Chennai in the 2013 World Chess Championship. Earlier, Anand had beaten Carlsen 6-3 in the 29 games since 2005, with 12 matches drawn. Next year, he lost a rematch also to Carlsen in Sochi, Russia.

India's Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa (R) competes against Norway's Magnus Carlsen (L) during the final at the FIDE Chess World Cup | AFP

While their king was being dethroned in that cold November of 2013 on their home turf, a seven-year-old kid with a long name, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, from Padi, a city suburb, was among those who witnessed in disbelief the drama at Chennai’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, the championship’s venue. Exactly a decade later, that kid came close to avenging his icon’s defeat when he went down fighting Carlsen at Marriot Hotel Boulevard, Baku.

Today, the five youngest GMs in chess history are Indians. They are the following with the age at which they became GMs in brackets. Gukesh Dharmaraju (12 years seven months) , Praggnanandhaa (12 years, ten months), Raunak Sadhwani (13), and Parimarjan Negi (13). Abhimanyu Mishra became the world’s youngest GM in history at 12 years four months and 25 days in 2021. Though Abhimanyu lives and plays for the US, he has Indian roots.

(Interestingly, Anish Kumar Giri, the 29-year-old national champion of the Netherlands and currently the World Number 7, born to a Nepali father and a Russian mother, also has Indian roots).

Indians in FIDE’s current world’s top seed list are Anand (9) and Gukesh (11) Vidit Gujrathi (23) P. Harikrishna (27) Praggnanadhaa (29), Arjun Erigaisi (32), Kerala’s own Nihal Sarin (51). When he was ten, Praggnandhaa (Prag) became the world’s youngest International Master (IM).

Viswanathan Anand (File) | PTI

There are today four Indian kids among the World’s Open Top 50. Sarin is among these wunderkinders, ranked 42nd with 2694.2 ELO points. The others are the top-ranking Gukesh (8th with 2758.4), Prag (23rd with 2720), and Erigisi Arjun (30 with 2712). Other Indians in the top fifty include Raunak Sadhwani, Leon Luke Mendonca and Aaditya Dhingra. They are also among the Top 20 Juniors.

This generation shift is visible across chess-playing countries, but India is leading this upsurge. What has made India’s golden generation emerge? Chess has always seen child prodigies from its very early days. Most masters began as child stars. However, the present adolescent reign is triggered by information technology, which has transformed the game beyond recognition. Today, chess is dominated by supercomputers armed with dedicated chess software, engines, and databases. Computers have been part of chess since its earliest years in the 1950s. By the 1990s, they began to defeat even the game's best practitioners. History was made on 12 February 1996 when Deep Blue, a supercomputer made by IBM, defeated Russia’s World Champion Gary Kasparov in barely 37 moves at the Pennsylvania Convention Centre. However, Kasparov triumphed over the machine in the subsequent games to end at 4-2. Though many masters, including Anand, were beaten by machines and vice versa, the machines have proved the ultimate winner with phenomenal technological advances. They are now multiple times ahead of humans in advanced calculations. Today, the top super chess engines like Houdini, Stockfish, Leela Chess Zero, or Komodo have Elo points beyond 3000, much above Carlsen’s 2835.

Carlsen (L) and Anand at the King Salman Rapid & Blitz Chess Championships | Getty image

Since the race has been finally decided in the machine’s favour, masters like Carlsen have decided not to play against computers. Instead, the awesome chess engines, the advanced software, and databases have been tamed to serve humans. Thanks to continuous technological advances, most are now available cheap or even free, like the masterly engine Stockfish. This has made talent the only way to success that even youngsters from very ordinary backgrounds can come up with. Since information technology respects no barriers, Praggnanandhaa from Chennai or his closest friend, Nihal Sarin from Thrissur, can confidently take on a Carlsen from Tonsberg or a Nakamura from Pennsylvania. The Covid -19 also helped these talented youngsters spend hours on online coaching and work deeper on the new technologies that raised the game's bar. Devanghshu Datta, an International Master, wrote recently, “Roughly 50 million games are played online every day on chess platforms, and smart phone-wielding Indian kids contribute a large chunk to it”. This has expanded India’s chess playing base to expand widely, where more than 10,000 Indians played a tournament in the last 12 months, says Datta. No wonder the number of Indians who watched the Carlsen-Prag final was more than 13 lakh. India today has 82 GMs, 124 IMs, 23 Women GMs, and 42 women IMs as of May 2023.

This is not to belittle the efforts of exemplary coaches. Prag’s coach, R.B. Ramesh, India’s 10th GM, has now risen as a super coach as he is also the head coach at Offerspil Club, owned by none other than Carlsen, which conducts regular online tournaments. The 47-year-old Ramesh, who won 2002’s Commonwealth and British Games, runs Chennai’s Chess Gurukul with his wife Arthie Ramaswami, the first student he coached to win the World U-18 Championship in Spain in 1998. Chosen by FIDE as the World’s Best Youth coach in 2018, Ramesh’s other disciples include GMs like R Vaishali (Prag’s sister), Savitha Sree, Karthikeyan Murali, Aravind Chithambaram, Pranesh M and so on.

Another super school of chess that has made Chennai, India’s Chess factory is the WestBridge Anand Chess Academy (WACA), launched by the legendary “Madras Tiger,” Viswanathan Anand, in 2020. The prodigies who trained here included Prag, Gukesh, Nihal, Raunak, and Vaishali. International masters like Boris Gelfand, Gajewski, and Artur Yusopov are among WACA’s mentors.

Besides the academies, certain regular schools in Chennai have contributed immensely to chess’s new wave. Velammal Matric High School (Mogappair branch), Prag’s alma mater, leads here. The Trust headed by MVM Velmohan, which runs the school, sponsored Prag in his early struggling years. Besides Prag, as many as 17 GMs, including India’s highest-ranked Gukesh, A Adhipan, and SP Sethuraman, are from this school. Even prodigies like Mendoca from Goa have come to Chennai to join this school. Here, chess prodigies need to attend classes only for three months when they get special classes. Naturally, the school team led by Prag and Gukesh was the World School Chess Champions in Dubai in 2021. More spectacular stories are sure to emerge from Chennai soon.

What is Kerala’s position in this new chess spring? India’s Top 10 list is dominated by South Indians but for one -Vidit Gujrati- from Maharashtra. Tamil Nadu led with five, followed by Kerala with two. The Kerala masters are Sarin (7th) and the 25-year-old S.L. Narayanan (8th) from Thiruvananthapuram, who became India’s 41st GM in 2015. But until now, Kerala’s share in India’s 82 GMs is just three. Kerala’s first GM is GN Gopal, who became India’s 16th in 2007. Kerala has only two -K Ratnakaran and Arjun Vishnuvardhan- among India’s 124 IMs. Not impressive at all. Hope Kerala takes note of the rising wave and books a place as early as possible.

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