India's latest chess sensation R Praggnanandhaa may have fallen short of his World Cup title dreams, going down to Magnus Carlsen in the final, but the 18-year-old prodigy on September 3 asserted that the five-time world champion Norwegian was "far from invincible".
Praggnanandhaa had a dream World Cup run in Baku last month when he became the youngest ever finalist and in the process qualified for the Candidates tournament in 2024 where the winner will face China's Ding Liren in the World Championship.
The Indian teenager is the third youngest player after Bobby Fischer and Carlsen to qualify for the Candidates tournament.
"It's not like he (Carlsen) is invincible," Praggnanandhaa said of Carlsen in an exclusive interview with PTI.
As a matter of fact, the Chennai boy has won over Carlsen five times, but all of them came in online matches. He has never beaten the Norwegian world number one in a board match.
"He's definitely strong. But, he does lose games. It's just I think he's consistent in winning. Doesn't lose many, that's why. He's just strong, mentally and physically. Basically strong in everything."
As of now, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Fabiano Caruana and Praggnanandhaa have qualified the Candidates tournament while five more spots are still up for grabs and will be decided by the end of this year.
Praggnanandhaa said he's not going to put any added pressure on him and he wants to take the Candidates as any other tournament.
"I don't think it is going to be added pressure. I just want to take it as another tournament. If you think it's very important, then you start putting added pressure. I just want to play like how I play in the last three tournaments," he said.
'World Cup final, a small step'
The success of the Indians at the World Cup -- where four of them made the quarterfinals -- has raised expectations of another world champion emerging from the country after five-time winner Viswanathan Anand.
"There is a lot more to achieve in chess for me. This is just one small step, but still a very good one," Praggnanandhaa said.
Carlsen has already pulled out of the race to become a world champion again.
Asked whether that would make the field easier, Praggnanandhaa said: "Not really, everyone else is also very strong. It's not like it's going to be easy or anything.
"Candidates is going to be a really strong event. It requires not only chess aspect but you have to be in good shape to fight, physically and mentally.
"To win a world championship, you need to be physically and mentally very, very strong. I don't think because Magnus won't be there it would make it easier. It would be very tough. I'm just hoping to give my best and see how it goes," he said on his Candidates preparation.
'Badminton, long walk keep me fit'
A badminton and cricket fan, Praggnanandhaa often tries different sports when he's in Chennai to keep himself in shape.
But when he is playing a tournament, he often goes for long walks or engage himself in self-talking "to de-stress".
"I try to play badminton when I'm in Chennai. During the tournament, I try to go for walks. One or another to keep myself in shape. Any sport which does not injure me, I play that.
"It might sound strange, but I talk to myself to prepare myself mentally. In a proper attitude, it works for me. It's different for everyone, so we have to find our own way in that. I try to be in the right shape," he revealed about his preparation.
A product of WestBridge Anand Chess Academy, Praggnanandhaa said just talking to the Indian chess wizard (Anand) boosts his confidence.
"It has helped me a lot. I have learned a lot discussing chess with him (Anand). Discussing chess, other than the technical aspects like talking about psychological things as well.
"In general, speaking to him gives you a lot of confidence. Knowing that you are working with a five-time world champion and one of the greatest of the game, he has helped me a lot through WACA," he said.
Just a day after he landed in his hometown Chennai to a rousing welcome, Praggnanandhaa had to attend a Sports Ministry felicitation in Delhi. The day after, he's here in Kolkata to attend an Asian Games men's camp before the Indian team heads to Hangzhou this month end.
'A lot of people now recognise me'
Life has become hectic after the World Cup dream run, but the 18-year-old is not complaining.
"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," he said.
Asked whether he's not getting distracted by it, he said: "I'm trying to do it so that it does not affect my preparation.
"I was keen to attend the Indian team camp along with these players Arjun, Gukesh... I'm just trying to focus on chess right now. So far, it's been okay. I hope to continue the good work," he signed off.