The Chess Olympiad scheduled to be held at Mahabalipuram near Chennai next month, comes at a time when the sport is enjoying a boom in the country. It has been well recorded for posterity that Viswanathan Anand started it all by becoming India’s first Grandmaster in January 1988 at 18 years of age.

Thereafter it became clear that India was an emerging chess superpower. All that was needed was an inspirational figure to trigger an upsurge. Anand provided it, and in the last 34 years there have been 72 GMs produced by the country. Most of them are prodigies, earning the title as teenagers, but it is safe to say that there has never been a prodigy like Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, who is already being hailed as a genius.

Praggu, as he is popularly known, shot to fame when he became the second youngest GM in the world in 2016 as a 12-year-old. Since then he has been climbing up the ladder rapidly, and last month scored his finest achievement till now. He defeated world champion Magnus Carlsen, on his way to storming into the final of the Chessable Masters, an online tournament, and setting up a title clash with world No 2 Ding Liren of China. The prodigiously talented Indian teenager held his own against the more experienced player. The engrossing contest went down to the tie breakers which proved to be a heartbreaker for Praggu. ​

The victory over Carlsen was not Praggu’s first against the world champion from Norway. In February at the age of 16 he became the youngest player ever to defeat Carlsen when he won the rapid game at the Airthings Masters chess tournament.

Setting records is second nature for the Chennai born Praggu. He won the World Youth Chess Championship under-8 title in 2013, earning him the title of FIDE Master at the age of seven. He then won the Under-10 title two years later. In 2016 he became, at 10 years, ten months and 19 days of age, the youngest International Master in history. He achieved his first GM norm at the World junior chess championship in November 2017 and gained his second norm at the Heraklion Fischer Memorial GM norm tournament in Greece in April 2018. Two months later he achieved his third and final norm at the Gredine Open in Italy to become at the age of 12 years, ten months and 13 days the second youngest player ever to achieve the rank of GM (Russia’s Sergey Karjakin attained the title at 12 years and seven months).

So how does Praggu do the balancing act between playing chess at the international level and academics? After all, he is still a student in a Chennai school. Well, going by what he did recently he does it admirably. His final tie break against Ding Liren ended at 2.20 am. By 8.45 am he arrived at his school to appear for the Class XI state board exam. Praggu has been doing this for some time now, planning his day in such a way that there is sufficient time to not only study for his exams but also prepare for the battles against the world’s top rated players.

Praggu’s long time coach RB Ramesh says it speaks volumes of the youngsters’ mental strength that he manages to handle his matches and exams at the same time. “To write an exam just hours after a heartbreaking loss shows his character,” says Ramesh, also a GM. According to Ramesh, Praggu continues to learn new variations, studies new moves and is willing to experiment. “As a player he has made a lot of progress and he is reaping the rewards. He can only get better and better’’ says a confident Ramesh. Currently his FIDE rating has peaked at 2642.

The most encouraging aspect from the Indian viewpoint is that, while Praggu was performing his heroics far away in Warsaw at the Superbet tournament, Anand displayed his brilliance on the board winning the rapid section with a flourish. Many of Anand’s rivals were not even born when he became GM but he overcame them with his fearsome strategic skills. The pioneering legend has neither lost his enthusiasm nor his tactical acumen, his latest victory over Carlsen in a tournament in Norway a few days ago confirms this, and this continues to augur well for Indian chess which right now is riding a wave never experienced before.

There is little doubt that despite the recent achievements of Anand and other Indian GMs, it is Praggu who is the cynosure right now. His precocious talent has made him the finest prospect since Anand. He has attracted considerable attention worldwide. Well known chess commentator and GM David Howell after Praggu’s encounter with Liren said “I am almost speechless. I am running out of superlatives for Pragg because he is just so good.” And how often does a winner applaud his opponent whom he has just beaten as it happened when Liren did so wholeheartedly.

The Chess Olympiad will be the toughest competition for the participants. A record number of 343 teams from 187 countries are taking part and all the top rated players are taking part headed by Carlsen. But India is fielding a strong squad and as hosts they have the added advantage of getting to field two teams. The manner in which the players are shaping up from 52- year-old Anand to 16-year-old Praggu the mood is optimistic.