The Indian wunderkind: on Praggnanandhaa's success and the Indian chess wave


Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa this week is playing his first tournament as a Grandmaster. The event, held in the Spanish city of León, sees him take on top talent Wesley So. This match-up shows how far Indian chess has come — So recently beat world champion Magnus Carlsen in a tournament and is one of the most dominant players in the world today, while ‘Prag’ may be the youngest Grandmaster around but he is still a 12-year-old boy.

Chess is not just a battle between two isolated intellects. It is a clash between two different approaches to life. It is also often a symbol of a larger struggle, of changes in society and culture.

Snapshots of cultures

The way you play chess is a snapshot not just of you, but the culture you come from. And this can be seen in the man whose record ‘Prag’ wanted to beat — Sergey Karjakin. Over the board, Karjakin is nicknamed “the Minister of Defence”. He can defend himself for hours, finding resources that elude others. Karjakin, born in 1990, grew up in a bleak and unforgiving environment; the Soviet Union had collapsed and he, an ethnic Russian from Crimea, ended up as a Ukrainian. The 1990s were terrible times with great economic distress and rampant criminality. One could argue that his style is very much a child of those traumatic years — just hang on, by any means. A struggle where survival itself was victory.


Every culture found its reflection in the game. It seemed to fit Soviet society, with its mathematical certainties of the dialectic and the inevitable outcome of the class struggle. Just as it did to the clergy of Spain in the 16th century. To the Church, chess was an excellent tool to teach the masses. Know your place, be it a pawn or knight, and fulfil His will.

So what does Praggnanandhaa’s success show? What is the snapshot it takes of India?

Praggnanandhaa’s background is arguably a classic matrix of Indian middle-class anxieties and aspirations. He got into the game when his parents wanted something to reduce the amount of TV his elder sister was watching. They enrolled her into chess ‘coaching’ and she displayed a remarkable aptitude (eventually going on to win the world U-12 girls championship). Praggnanandhaa, then a precocious 4-year-old, learnt by watching his sister play. He too developed rapidly and went on to win the world U-8 championship – a classic Indian middle-class child done good. Their father, a bank employee, and mother, a home-maker, made enormous sacrifices to give the best to their children.

The Indian chess wave, of which he is a part, is emphatically not the Chinese mass-produced, Five Year Plan ordained variety, but very much a home-grown innovation. Sponsorships scrounged from private companies supplemented with negligible support from the government — his coach’s application for the Dronacharya award was turned down, and cash awards were far and few. And yet he succeeded, somehow.


The rise of chess in India was originally fuelled by Viswanathan Anand’s successes. Now perhaps it has taken a life of its own, reaching a critical mass. The game’s return to the country of its origin also has an historical echo. Chess reflects the societies which encountered and transformed it. In its primeval avatar in India, the movement of the pieces was limited, perhaps reflecting the static society in India at that time. It was in Persia that these rules began getting questioned (and the dice was eliminated keeping with Islamic injunctions against gambling), becoming the dynamic, fast-moving contest of today. Thus, we have a picture of the evolution of humanity’s thought in the growth of chess.

It is no coincidence that the vizier had to give way to the queen when chess entered Europe — for this was the time of the powerful queens, Isabella and Elizabeth, who were setting up the waves of colonial conquest. In contrast to this dream of empire, in subsistence communities deep in Siberia, the prime minister was replaced by a hunting dog.

Praggnanandhaa’s journey

Praggnanandhaa’s first step in his new journey is in a venue that in a way also sums up the journey of chess.

It was the King of Leon, Alfonso X, who more than 700 years ago commissioned the “Libro de los Juegos”. The Book of Games was a fluid blend of metaphysics, abstract thinking, morality as well as the practical aspects of game playing – and it opens with a painting of the “transmission of the game of chess from an Indian Philosopher-King to three followers” and from there, to the world.

Praggnanandhaa’s success is part of this original transmission – a journey of the intellect that began in India all those years ago.

Jaideep Unudurti writes on travel, popular culture and books

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 3:43:25 PM |

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