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Praggnanandhaa’s ready to do the star turn for India

On August 30, an air of frenzy and festivity awaited R Praggnanandhaa’s return home. On a typically warm and sultry morning, the size of the gathering at the arrival hall of the Chennai International Airport almost resembled the reception reserved for India’s cricketers returning from a World Cup triumph. As soon as his frail frame made it out of the parted glass doors of the airport, he was mobbed by the melee of people waiting to catch a glimpse of him.

Grandmaster R Praggnanandhaa(Hindustan Times)

Rose petals were showered, fragrant bouquets were offered, a purple shawl was wrapped around his shoulders and a crown was placed on his head. Yellow banners greeted him. Folk dancers performed merrily to the sound of drums and trumpets. Fans and schoolchildren from his alma mater queued up for selfies. Cameras followed him and reporters shoved a swarm of microphones into his face for a sound bite as he somehow squeezed himself into an open-top car arranged by the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT).

The chaotic scenes may have been more daunting than running into world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen on a chess board, but Praggnanandhaa, 18, handled it with characteristic poise. “It feels great to see so many people turn up here, and it is very good for chess,” he said, soaking in the celebratory mood despite the palpable exhaustion and jetlag.

He was every bit deserving of the extraordinary welcome after his extraordinary performance at the FIDE World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he finished runner-up only to Carlsen. On his way to the final, he got the better of world No. 3 Hikaru Nakamura in the fourth round and world No. 2 Fabiano Caruana in the semi-finals.

Through the course of this splendid run, reams of newsprint, web space and primetime television coverage were afforded to Praggnanandhaa as his role in helping chess become more mainstream was acknowledged.

“It (life) has changed a lot in the sense that now a lot of people know about chess in general. A lot of people recognise me. It has changed in that way. It’s good for the game. I think many more young players will start playing, many more sponsors will come to the game. So, chess becoming popular, as a fan, I’m very happy to see that,” Praggnanandhaa told PTI recently.

To be fair, he’s not alone in this endeavour to popularise the game and build on Viswanathan Anand’s legacy. In D Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi, Nihal Sarin and a few others, the country has a spate of chess prodigies putting in notable performances on the global stage. Gukesh is India’s highest-ranked player right now, knocking Anand off that perch on his way to becoming world No. 8. At the FIDE World Cup, Gukesh was outdone by Carlsen in the quarter-finals, the Norwegian later picking out the 17-year-old as the strongest in the classical format. Erigaisi was also a step away from reaching the semi-finals and sealing a berth in next year’s Candidates, but Praggnanandhaa — ranked world No. 19 — pipped his compatriot to that privilege by prevailing in the tiebreaker.

While an entry in the Candidates (the winner of the tournament will compete in the World Championship match) is an important first step in his transition to the elite level, Pragg — as he is commonly known — thinks he can eventually go all the way. “There is still a lot to learn and improve for me. I feel like I have the potential to be the world champion and I am working towards that,” he said in an interview during the Tata Steel chess tournament in Kolkata.

But to harp on those future ambitions would be uncharacteristic of him. Pragg’s mentality, shaped largely by his no-nonsense coach RB Ramesh, is to focus on the here and now after all.

The Asian Games is the next big tournament for India’s chess contingent, but Ramesh is ensuring his ward gives it no special attention. “As a coach, we don’t think along those lines. We don’t think about how he should play in this tournament. We want to do well in every tournament. We don’t make any specific strategies for these tournaments,” he said matter-of-factly. “What is more important is to play well. If you play well, you will get good results irrespective of the tournament.”

Part of a five-member contingent that will take part in the men’s team event at the Asian Games, he will certainly have a keen eye on likely battles against world champion Ding Liren of China and Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan. If he can outsmart them on his way to an Asian Games medal and check another box in his already glittering CV, expect an even bigger gathering to greet the youngster when he returns from Hangzhou.

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