R Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin seem to be heirs apparent but they will be pitted against heavyweights of the game
Viswanathan Anand, India’s first World Junior Champion in 1987 and Grand Master in 1988, is undoubtedly the best chess player the country has ever produced. Winning multiple world championships and becoming World No.1 in 2007, Anand invoked unprecedented interest in the game among Indians.
This was a breakthrough. Chess never enjoyed this status in the country until Anand happened. India’s governments never considered it to be a game important enough to sponsor a team for the World Olympiad. Advantage Anand changed all that. India started sending teams and in the 2014 Olympiad, the country won a medal in the open category.
That was a first, and in 2016 both men and women finished in the Top 5. India now shines brightly at youth olympiads for different age groups. It also makes its presence felt at the World Juniors very often. India has been winning medals at the World Youth Olympiads every year since 2000. But how many of these players go on to make the cut at the highest level, like Anand did?
To answer that, let’s take stock of the game today. Manuel Aaron was the first International Master from India in 1961 . The country had to wait another 17 years to produce another International Master. Today, India has more than 35 Grand Masters and two women GMs in Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavalli. Both Humpy and Harika feature in the Women’s Top 10 as well. P Harikrishna, another big name in Indian chess, is the country’s youngest GM and the only player sparing Anand to consistently feature in super GM tournaments.
Humpy who won the World Juniors in 2001 and Harikrishna who won it in 2004 were considered to make it big on the international stage. Humpy was the youngest women player to become a GM, beating Judit Polgar’s record, and was expected to make it big on the international stage and better the feats of Polgar in the Open category. But that just didn’t happen. Harikrishna has been in the Top 50 in the world consistently. Despite being a top women player for years, Humpy failed to win the Women’s World Title. At the peak of her career, she was thwarted by the Chinese prodigy Hou Yifan, who at 22 has already put up performances that outsmart even the mighty Polgar.
Of late, India has produced some World Junior champions. Abhijeet Gupta and Harika winning the title in 2008 was the first and only occasion when India won the title in both Open and Women’s category. Harika is a steady player in the women’s circuit and players such as Padmini Rout, Tania Sachdev and Vaishali R perform without pauses in the women’s game. This year at the Chess Olympiad, India finished in the Top 5 in both open and women’s category. Clearly, this is an indication of how strong Indian chess has become.
However, a question still remains: who would be the next Anand? With just three players crossing the Elo rating of 2700 (Anand, Harikrishna and Sasikiran), Indian chess lovers would be keen to see a set of Super GMs emerge from the country. China boasts of six Super GMs, including the 17-year-old phenomenon Wei Yi, who is considered to go one better on the current World Champion Magnus Carlsen. With the upcoming World Championship being a fight between two prodigies, Karjakin, the youngest ever GM in history, and Carlsen being the one to have achieved highest rating at a lower age, it would be interesting to look at the prodigies coming from the Indian chess stable.
R Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin dominate the discussions thanks to their Elo ratings at this tender age (2420 for Praggnanandha and 2347 for Nihal). Both are aged below 12, and are Under 10 World Champions. Praggnanandhaa who is the younger of the two has gone on to become the youngest IM in chess history. Nihal already has a silver medal in U12 World Championship. What makes him a player to watch out for is his results against higher-rated opponents in a few international tournaments. After peaking to a rating of 2360+ his rating has slightly dipped in recent times, but chess mavens still talk highly of this 12 year old. He has already beaten GMs and has shown that he can take it to the next level.
Praggnanandhaa has gone ahead of Nihal in recent times. He finished the best under 12 player in this year’s World Junior championships, finishing ahead of Nihal and that makes it a curious rivalry. With Praggnanandha already earning the IM title and getting ahead of Nihal by almost 80 Elo points, the scenario is getting supremely enchanting. In this year’s Under 12 World Championships, Praggnanandhaa is seeded No. 1 while Nihal is seeded No. 3 and it would be interesting to see the outcome. Praggnanandhaa has already won a few games against stronger GM opponents. He won the Asian U12 championship this year and would be looking to win the World’s title where he could face tough opposition from Nihal.
So, it is hard to predict what would happen to these prodigies as they progress in their career, but achievements at this young age is a pointer to a bright future. This year’s world championship between Carlsen and Karjakin could be a pointer. If the Elo ratings of Praggnanandhaa and Nihal are any indication to their future, Indian chess is all set for exciting times ahead.