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Pragg-Matism: What Makes Chess Prodigy Praggnanandhaa a Player Par Excellence?

Praggnanandhaa has carved a niche for himself with his pragg-matic style. Now, he faces the challenge of evolution.

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It could just be a coincidence, that the name 'Praggnanandhaa' has an element of pragmatism associated with it. There is a school of chess that relies entirely on practical approach – a quality that generally world champions are known for.

This 2023 FIDE World Cup in particular, albeit Praggnanandhaa lost to the world’s best-ever player Magnus Carlsen 1.5-2.5 via tie-breaker in the final, has put the 18-year-old lad from Chennai in a different league, and suggested that he could surely belong to the club of the pragmatists such as Max Euwe and Bobby Fischer, though it is too early to brand him as a future world champion.

Praggnanandhaa has carved a niche for himself with his pragg-matic style. Now, he faces the challenge of evolution.

Despite losing to Magnus Carlsen in the final, the 2023 FIDE World Cup has put Praggnanandhaa in a different league.

(Photo: FIDE/Maria Emelianova).

Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa has only started his journey, but there are hints that his approach is based on strong fundamentals and even stronger mental toughness.
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Understanding the Different Schools of Thought in Chess

This World Cup, in particular, could be separated into two parts as the Pragg journey in Baku, the place that in chess is more known for Garry Kasparov’s nativity.

The first is before Carlsen, and then Carlsen himself – which can again be detailed in two parts, Classical and tiebreaks.

You have legendary players such as Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Tal who could be classified as aggressive, or what the new theorists call – the 'activists.'

Of course, with age, the activists tend to be pragmatic, as in the case of Kasparov.

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Then you have the 'reflectors' – such as Magnus Carlsen, Jose Raul Capablanca and Anatoly Karpov, who could be a rare combination of everything. Carlsen belies definition in this as he won’t give out anything; the reflector looks at the harmony of his pieces and nothing else. And, Magnus is a rare reflector.

He would pounce on small advantages, looking at unforeseen endings, and could go on and on while the book and all the pundits will say draw.

And then, you have the 'theorists' – such as Mikhail Botvinnik and Vladimir Kramnik.

Interestingly, this classification was done by a German school, and Viswanathan Anand does not figure in the list, though we know that he was a mix of the aggressive (initial stages) turning pragmatic (after becoming world champion) kind of player.

The fourth category happens to be 'pragmatists' – as if tailor-made for Praggnanandhaa in a coincidental synchronisation.

Praggnanandhaa has carved a niche for himself with his pragg-matic style. Now, he faces the challenge of evolution.

Praggnanandhaa's gameplay can be associated with the pragmatism style.

(Photo: FIDE/Stev Bonhage)

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The Pre-Magnus Approach of Praggnanandhaa

Let us first talk about the pre-Magnus opus of Pragg. It was highlighted by a series of tiebreak wins, especially against world number 2 Fabiano Caruana and world number 3 Hikaru Nakamura. Then there was one against his Indian compatriot Arjun Erigaisi, which went into the three-minute thriller called sudden death. These were the three matches that led to his meeting with the great Magnus.

Praggnanandhaa has carved a niche for himself with his pragg-matic style. Now, he faces the challenge of evolution.

Beating speed chess wizard Hikaru Nakamura on tie-breakers was a momentous achievement for Praggnanandhaa.

(Photo: FIDE/Stev Bonhage)

The one against Nakamura was particularly momentous for Pragg, as the number 3 is known for his expertise in speed chess. Moreover, it must be mentioned that Arjun, who is of the same age as Pragg, had broken into the 2700 Elo-league before the Chennai lad did.
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Analysing the Pragg-Matism on Display in the Final

Now, let's move to the 'pragg-matism' approach in the final. Having come through the grind, Pragg took a solid psychological approach to his trial against Carlsen. The Indian prodigy must have clearly planned his strategy for his two-game final against the numero uno.

Instead, he employed a solid opening – the English – and revealed a part of his somewhat rare preparation with his eighth move, a pawn push (b4) on the Queenside.
Praggnanandhaa has carved a niche for himself with his pragg-matic style. Now, he faces the challenge of evolution.

In the final against Carlsen, Pragg made it evident that he was not interested in bloodshed.

(Photo: FIDE/Stev Bonhage)

The activists would have screamed for blood, as with white in a final such as this, they would reckon Pragg should have selected an aggressive approach. But the teenager waited for his opponent to show his hand and quickly understood he was not interested in shedding blood.

Here, Pragg was helped by some external factor too, as was conceded by Magnus himself after the game. The world champion was not in the best of health owing to stomach problems. Pragg steered the position to an ending that was dead equal.

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The pragmatic approach was evident even in the selection of his openings, as Pragg knew fully well that his best chances lay in the tiebreaker, relying on his dream run in the shorter games in this World Cup against Arjun, Naka and Caruana. It was evident that he wanted to take the match into tie-breaker, and there was no better situation than this as Carlsen was bogged by his health trouble.

What must have surprised him was Carlsen’s approach with white in the second game. The Four Knights opening is not a weapon that signals bloodshed. So the die was cast as early as the fifth move, the knight exchange, and the tiebreaker was on the horizon much earlier than expected.

With white in the first game of tiebreaker, Pragg seemed to hold some advantage, but Magnus got into the act to create complications in the Italian Opening. Until the second half, Pragg was okay but in the complications, his clock let him down. It was easy for Magnus to hold with white in the reverse game as he sealed his first-ever World Cup title with a 1.5-0.5 win in the two-game rapid set.

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The Next Major Task for Pragg – To Evolve

While it remains his strength, there is, however, a big challenge for pragmatists – to evolve to be reflectors. This requires tremendous understanding and complete mastery of the chessboard as a battlefield. Pragg is on the path as he is only 18, and it is just destiny that Carlsen is his teammate in Offerspill and Alpine Warriors clubs.

Praggnanandhaa has carved a niche for himself with his pragg-matic style. Now, he faces the challenge of evolution.

With the helping hand of Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand, Pragg has the opportunity of making India proud at the 2024 Candidates Tournament.

(Photo: FIDE/Stev Bonhage)

As Carlsen has opted out of this World Championship cycle, will we see two world champions (Carlsen and Anand) helping Pragg in the Candidates Tournament matches, where the Indian will feature, being the first after Anand from this land?

(Hari Hara Nandanan was sports editor of The New Indian Express, sports editor of The Times of India (Chennai) and sports editor of DT Next. He was also the first professional chess journalist to cover an event abroad (Olympiad 1990). In the 35 years of his journalistic career, he has covered many chess events.)

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