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Indian siblings take the chess world by storm

Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa and his sister Vaishali are among the world’s best chess players (Chessbase India photo by Amruta Mokal)

Susan Ninan
BBC News, London, December 2, 2023

In the last decade, few have fit the chess prodigy descriptor as well as India’s Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. He was 10 years old when he became the then-youngest International Master, the second-highest title after Grandmaster.

He became the second-youngest Grandmaster in 2018, defeated five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen three times in a row in online games, and is only the second Indian after Viswanathan Anand to make a World Cup final and qualify for the Candidates tournament.

While all of this unfolded, another chess-playing member of his family diligently awaited her turn – Praggnanandhaa’s sister Vaishali, who is older than him by four years.

The first in the family to play chess, Vaishali’s skill and toil have never been in doubt.

She is now ended India’s 12 year-wait, becoming only the third-ever female Grandmaster after Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli. It also makes the Chennai siblings the first Grandmaster brother-sister pair in history.

“You personify passion and perseverance” Narendra Modi told Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa at a meeting with the young Master and his parents Ramesh Babu and Nagalakshmi in New Delhi on August 31, 2023 (PMO Photo)

Successful Kinship

In November, 22-year-old Vaishali defeated three former women’s world champions to win the Women’s Grand Swiss tournament and qualify for the Women’s Candidates tournament.

It is a remarkably successful kinship in chess. The role of sibling rivalry can hardly be overlooked.

“When Pragg became the youngest International Master, he crossed my rating for the first time. Suddenly at home, the focus was entirely on him,” Vaishali told BBC.

“It upset me. I don’t think I managed those emotions well,” she said and added that this took a toll on her playing.

“My parents would chat with me about it and I would be okay for a while. But every time he had a great result and the attention was on him, I would slip back to feeling a bit miserable. It took me some time to overcome those feelings and accept that he is exceptional. Once I completed my Woman Grandmaster (WGM) title, I felt better about myself. Over the last couple of years, I have been nothing but proud of his achievements. I saw the hard work behind it,” she said.

When they began training under Grandmaster RB Ramesh as children, Vaishali was the higher-rated player of the two. Over the years, their journey in the game took different paths and it was often accompanied by stabs of envy for the one trying to keep up.

“It has never been easy for the sibling who is on the other side,” Ramesh said.

Vaishali and Ramesh are the first-ever brother-sister duo to make the Candidates players (Chessbase India photo by Amruta Mokal)

The pressure to perform

For the longest time (as recently as the World Cup in August) the media would turn up at their home in large numbers after every major result from Praggnanandhaa and ask Vaishali how it felt to be his sister or ask their parents how proud they were of their son.

“I think somewhere in her head it converted into pressure. The pressure to perform and not be ignored” says Ramesh.

The urgency to get to a Grandmaster title and not be cast into oblivion was visible in her confounding opening choices at times.

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“I would look at her live games sometimes and wonder, why is she playing this? I could sense the desperation and pressure. What she has been doing well lately is sticking to what she knows best. The results are showing,” he said.

Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali’s relationship evolved over the years and the pandemic phase brought the siblings closer. Today, they are each other’s fiercest mascots and closest confidantes.

“During the pandemic, we really got talking about all sorts of things that perhaps we never did before. He has a lot of confidence and clarity. Sometimes when I’m feeling lost or unsure, I turn to him. He often has the right answers. Not too many others in chess have someone they can go back to, a family member, or an active player with whom they can analyse games and talk chess for hours. It is only now that I think that we both really value this privilege,” Vaishali said.

At the Asian Games in October, Vaishali dragged Praggnanandhaa along on an hour-long walk and bawled to get a bad game out of her head.

The rest of her Indian teammates had drawn their respective games in the women’s event, but her loss to Tan Zhongyi had seen India fall to China.

Overcome with emotion and disappointment, she decided not to play the next tournament on her calendar – the Qatar Masters. Praggnanandhaa managed to talk her out of it. It worked well for her. She finished the tournament as one of its best women’s players and earned her third and final Grandmaster norm.

Vaishali has qualified for the Women’s Candidates tournament Chessbase India photo by Amruta Mokal)

Differing temperament

At the Grand Swiss tournament that followed, they shared a playing hall and Praggnanandhaa was seen walking over to his sister’s board during her games to see how she was doing.

The Indian siblings are a contrast in temperament.

Praggnanandhaa is extroverted, fun-loving, and gregarious. Vaishali is quiet, introverted and prone to overthinking. The latter comes with a mind that is built for brutal self-admonishment despite a major win at the Women’s Grand Swiss and Candidates qualification, Vaishali couldn’t stop thinking about her narrow GM title miss.

Over the board, Praggnanandhaa has shown incredible defence skills and level-headed play. Vaishali is the sort of tenacious attacker who can play a line that is not particularly favoured by chess engines, sacrifice a number of pieces, create a web of tactical complexities and smother the opponent.

She demolished International Master Leya Garifullina in this exact manner at the Women’s Grand Swiss. In another game at the same tournament, she crushed former world champion Mariya Muzychuk in 23 moves after the latter overreached, inviting the Indian to employ a devastating attack. Vaishali’s sheer dominance at the tournament, scorching all in her path was the loudest statement of her arrival.

Having the most promising male and female Indian chess player in the country coming from the same family is a pretty remarkable sight.

An illustrious family

Father Rameshbabu handles the logistics and travel planning and Mother Nagalakshmi is the sergeant on eternal vigil who accompanies both children through long tournaments around the world.

No glib PR work goes into their image building. Vaishali usually manages both their social media accounts and Praggnanandhaa often seeks her out for help with responding to emails. It is almost like a family-run start-up on a chess excellence mission.

In 2012, Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa won the nationals and qualified for the Asian youth championships in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

Back then, the primary concern for the family was shoring up the money to meet travel expenses for three. They managed to stitch together the funds and both returned champions – Vaishali in the under-12 girls, and Praggnanandhaa in the under-eight boys.

“We have grown up winning age-group tournaments together. Recently, we won the same medals at the Olympiad and Asian Games. Now we are headed to the biggest tournament of our lives together,” Vaishali said.

Theirs is the kind of rare, rousing story that chess fans and writers wait to watch and write about and has everyone else curiously invested in this pair of siblings who are overhauling records, and browbeating opposition while sneaking smiles at each other.

Susan Ninan is a Sportswriter at BBC News. The above article, which appeared on the BBC News website, has been reproduced here under a Special Arrangement.

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