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Chess Candidates: R Praggnanandhaa focusing on opening preparations, physical fitness

Praggnanandhaa’s coach RB Ramesh tells The Indian Express ahead of the Candidates chess tournament, “I’m proud to see that Pragg has come this far, but I don’t think this is his best. The best I believe is yet to come.”

AT THE upcoming Candidates chess tournament, India’s 18-year-old R Praggnanandhaa and 22-year-old R Vaishali will carve a slice of history before a pawn has marched down the battlefield of the 64 squares: they will become the first brother and sister duo to play at the prestigious tournament, which has been around since 1950.

In sport, there cannot be a better advantage than having a sibling who can play at the same elite level. But in chess, that equation does not hold true, which is why the brother and sister have been training separately as they work towards what is the toughest test of their fledgling careers so far.

“They both are going to play in important tournaments. So both their preparations have been largely separate. It’s very logical. Both are playing in different events with different expectations. Simple thing is, Pragg’s rating is almost 2750 and Vaishali’s is around 2500. There’s an almost 250 points difference there. The kind of opponents they will be playing will be very similar. They cannot be playing the same openings. It will be like showing all your cards to the opponents in the beginning itself. If someone wants to prepare for Pragg, he just has to look at Vaishali’s openings and he’ll know what Pragg is bound to do. That’s why we’ve been training separately. They’re two different individuals, even though they’re siblings. They have different needs going to the Candidates,” explains Ramesh.

A few months back, at Viswanathan Anand’s suggestion, Vaishali had also started to train under grandmaster Sandipan Chanda, who has been a second to Anand for some of his World Championship battles.

That sentiment — of not showing your cards — will dominate everything the Candidates do in the coming days. In an interview with The Indian Express recently, Dr Rajinikanth, Gukesh’s father, another of India’s Candidates competitors, would not put an exact number to how many trainers and seconds the 17-year-old is working with in preparation for the Candidates. That may not be a conscious move, but it underpins the idea behind preparing for a high-stakes event like the Candidates: every bit of knowledge about your prep can be exploited by your opponents.

Ramesh too frequently sidesteps specifics about Pragg’s prep, like where he has been training in the lead up to the Candidates. What Ramesh does offer up, is that Pragg has been spending almost the entire day working for the Candidates, with physical fitness being a crucial element of his prep. This, because players at a stressful and gruelling tournament like the Candidates can lose thousands of calories per day while competing. And even a momentary loss of focus due to physical tiredness can be the difference between victory and disaster at an event where only first place counts.

“We have been preparing since January whenever he was not competing at an event. He had a couple of big tournaments he played at: Tata Steel at Wijk Aan Zee and Prague Masters. But otherwise he has been training for the Candidates for almost the whole day. The focus also has been on his physical fitness, so he played a lot of sports like beach volleyball for a few weeks,” says Ramesh.

On the board, Ramesh says, Pragg has been focusing on his opening preparations rather than middle or endgame.

“We’ve been largely focusing on the openings ahead of the Candidates. Usually for other tournaments, we like to focus on other aspects as well, but here we’ve been focused on openings,” says Ramesh.

Why specifically openings?

“You have to get something out of the openings to play for a win. That’s becoming increasingly difficult because of computers. Every top player has access to good computers and has good preparation. So everything goes normally, most games will end in a draw. So if you want to play for a win, you need to have something special,” explains Ramesh, who adds that he will be assisting Pragg from Chennai and will not be travelling to Toronto.

How Pragg has evolved

Pragg and Vaishali have been training under Ramesh from a very young age, so Ramesh is the perfect person to trace the evolution of Pragg into a Candidate.

Ramesh says he has seen his ward getting better, not just technically with his chess, but also as an individual off the board in a short span.

“He’s a self-sufficient, confident youngster. Right now, he firmly believes that he can make it to the top, which was always his dream. Even at a young age, I never saw any doubts in him. He always knew he wanted to become a world champion even from a young age. But not just that dream, he also knew the responsibility that comes with chasing that dream. When he started playing against 2700-rated GMs regularly, there was some doubt whether this jump was coming too early in his career. But then he handled it well. That stage must have given him the confidence that he belongs. I’m proud to see that he has come this far, but I don’t think this is his best. The best I believe is yet to come,” says Ramesh.


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