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Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa: The siblings hoping to take the Candidates by a storm

The preparatory camps are over, prayers have been offered, the jet lag is wearing off and only a day separates Indian Grandmaster siblings R Vaishali and R Praggnanandhaa and the biggest tournament of their young careers so far. The Candidates in Toronto that will decide the challenger to the world chess champion will have their first rounds played out on April 4 (midnight IST). The first-ever brother-sister duo in the tournament’s history is psyching themselves to summon their optimal states of mind. The siblings – aged 22 and 18 – arrived in Toronto a couple of days ago and have each other’s back for last-minute pep chats and what-have-yous.

Indian Grandmaster R Praggnanandhaa during Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz Tournament 2023, in Kolkata. (PTI)(HT_PRINT)

“It’s a good opportunity for me…If I win it will be very good. I’ll give it my best and if a great result comes, I’ll take it,” said Praggnanandhaa, “But it’s not something I should chase right now. I’m trying to treat it as just another tournament and play. I don’t feel like I’m under pressure, even if things don’t go well.”

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He’s a lot more certain about his older sister’s prospects. “I said it before the Grand Swiss (which Vaishali went on to win) that if she plays well, she can dominate the tournament. And that happened. I think it’s possible here (Candidates) too. She has the strength and ability to play at a very high level.”

Vaishali has been training to recreate a “Grand Swiss” (her biggest tournament win in November last year) state of mind. “I play my best when I’m just enjoying my game without pressure or overthinking results,” she said. “Of course, at the back of my head, I know it’s the Candidates and it’s going to be tough to act like it doesn’t matter.”

For Praggnanandhaa it’s about striking the middle path. “If I’m too relaxed, I can’t focus. If I’ve too much pressure then it’s the same thing. Finding that balance is important for me.”

At the recent Prague Masters, Praggnanandhaa’s 47-game unbeaten streak in classical chess was broken. “If you haven’t lost in a long time, you tend to forget the feeling of losing. So, when it happened it hit differently. But I was quick to recover. I felt bad for maybe like five minutes.” It’s sure to come in handy in a long, difficult tournament such as the Candidates.

Mentor RB Ramesh talks about drilling in this attitude early. “Handling losses the wrong way is tough to unlearn later in life. It’s something we were careful about right from early years. It’s also easier for young players to have a quicker recovery since they aren’t carrying a huge burden of past performances.”

Roughly 300 Elo apart, Vaishali said she finds it amazing that her brother who’s the stronger player (Elo 2747), is always ready to talk about the game – irrespective of his mood, energy levels or time of the day. “He’s just so passionate, I can talk to him about the game anytime. Sometimes when he asks me stuff when I’m really tired, I don’t answer properly,” she laughed, “It’s been good to see how he goes about preparation.”

Praggnanandhaa finds the idea of having a sibling around to talk chess, comforting. “We discuss a lot of chess and it helps us both in making opening decisions. When things aren’t going great or when they’re going too great, it’s nice to have someone to turn around to who knows you so well…nowadays I’m stealing her opening ideas,” he laughed.

For the first time, the Candidates will have their Open and Women’s competitions taking place concurrently at the same venue. It will allow the siblings to steal glances at each other’s boards during the games.

Vaishali talks about the time at the Prague Masters when she finished her game and went over to look at her brother’s board. It was just after he’d blundered and lost to Richard Rapport. “I thought the Kings were placed incorrectly at first. I’d seen he was winning earlier but I got into some time trouble and when I had a look later, the game had finished and he’d lost. I was shocked.”

To call upon divine powers so they are in for good games and fewer shocks, parents Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi made a trip to a temple in Andhra Pradesh to offer prayers a couple of weeks ago.

At the Candidates, the women will play shorter time control than the men (90 mins for first 40 moves, as opposed to 120 mins in Open) and Vaishali is somewhat relieved she won’t perhaps be blindsided by her sibling’s results this time.

“This time Pragg is probably going to have that problem,” she laughed.

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