After move 38, Magnus Carlsen found his king left with just one safe square to seek fleeting refuge. The end was in sight and inescapable. Sixteen-year-old Indian GM R Praggnanandhaa laid out the traps beautifully with Black, which culminated in moving his light-squared bishop to the c2 square, cordoning off the white queen’s ties with the second rank. Both players knew it was over. The fidgety 16-year-old sank back in his chair, shook his head and rested a palm against his face in mild disbelief as Carlsen promptly resigned after 39 moves.
Praggnanandhaa had just become the third Indian to beat Carlsen in tournament play – after Viswanathan Anand and P Harikrishna.
The massive moment in the Indian teen’s young career arrived in the early hours of Monday at the Airthings Masters, a 16-player online rapid tournament. It’s the first leg of the Play Magnus group-run Champions Chess Tour and the round-robin is scored football-style – three points (and $750) for a win, and one point (and $250) for each draw. Each player has 10 minutes for all moves plus a 15 second per move increment.
On Move 32, in what appeared to be an equal endgame, Carslen stumbled into a tactical blunder. He trapped his own knight by pushing it to the c3 square. Chess engines went wild, giving Black the overwhelming odds for a win. Praggnanandhaa leaned forward over his screen, and his surprised pupils filled the webcam feed. He just needed seven more moves to tuck into a win. And win he did.
To wind his body clock and mind to stay focused through games that start late at night in India and spill into the early hours, Praggnanandhaa began work 10 days in advance. He tweaked his sleep and training schedule to mimic the tournament timings.
The Indian began on a disastrous note on Day 1, losing three games in a row. Day 2 turned out to be a world apart. Within the space of a few hours, he had a win each against two top-10 players – Levon Aronian and Carlsen. Further, to outwit a player of Carlsen’s strength without the first-mover advantage of White, deserves even more credit.
“What I really admire about him is that he takes the blows and does it his way, as the song goes,” Anand, who mentors Praggnanandhaa along with other teen Indian GMs, told ESPN, “In Wijk aan Zee he had some really tough blows but still fought and beat (Andrey) Esipenko in the last round. The first day in the current tournament was really bad for him but on the second day he came up with two very good wins. His fighting spirit is really something.”
Praggnanandhaa was always something of a precocious talent. In 2016, he became the youngest International Master in history – at 10 years, 10 months and 19 days. Two years later he became the then second-youngest GM (after Sergey Karjakin) at 12 years, 10 months, 13 days. At sixteen today, he belongs to the group of Indian teens who are throwing down the gauntlet on the world chess circuit.
“Before the pandemic, he was in a really good form and reached 2600 Elo rating at the age of 14. The long break in tournaments impacted him quite a bit, particularly in confidence,” Praggnanandhaa’s coach RB Ramesh said, “His results in the past six months has swung between extremes. In some games he has been playing like a 2750 player, in others he’s operating at a 2550 level. The fluctuation can be worrying and needs to be stabilised. This win against Magnus is important. Beating one of the strongest players in chess history is a huge moment for him.”
Among Ramesh’s pre-tournament pointers for Praggnanandhaa has been to completely stay away from social media. This, he believes, might ease the youngster of the pressure of being watched. “He knows people are following live streams of his games, commenting on his play on social media and going through them can have a direct impact on him. He’s been running into time trouble pretty often in tournaments and it’s largely psychological. The burden of expectation can get to him at times. When he loses, it sometimes affects him more than it should. He’s working on it, but he’s just 16 and I’m really glad at how he’s handled himself against some of the top guys.”
Soon after his win past 2 AM, when asked if he had any celebratory plans, Praggnanandhaa could only think of one possible way to unwind. “I’m just going to go to bed.”