Conventional wisdom holds that chess prodigies have an intellectual maturity beyond their years. Do not believe it. When Grandmaster Bent Larsen took on the job of trainer for the 14-year-old Bobby Fischer in a 1958 world championship tournament, he was distinctly put out when the American teenager insisted he read Tarzan comics aloud to him.
More recently, when the current world champion Magnus Carlsen became a Grandmaster at the age of 13, he never travelled to a tournament without a pile of his favourite Donald Duck comics: perhaps more surprisingly, at 26 he still enjoys them. His longstanding affection has been rewarded by being made into a character in the Norwegian version of the strip cartoon.
It is a far cry from the childhoods of chess prodigies of the pre-Disney age. I have been reading Edward Winter’s superb compendium of archival material from the life of José Raúl Capablanca, probably the most naturally-gifted exponent in the entire history of the game. Its first chapter, “Prodigy”, gives the impression of a boy with a maturity quite beyond his chronological age.
A 1916 article under the title “How I Learned to Play Chess” sees Capablanca recording, “While I do not claim that my memory was that of a Macaulay or a John Stuart Mill, yet it is a fact that at school, after a second reading of seven pages of history, I could recite them verbatim.” It’s hard to imagine the pre-teen Fischer or Carlsen wanting to read seven pages of history even once, let alone twice.
Now a new prodigy for the 21st century has burst forth — and, not surprisingly, from India, where chess has boomed in the wake of the triumphs of its first world champion, Viswanathan Anand. In June this year, R. Praggnanandhaa became — at the age of just ten years and nine months — the youngest person ever to attain the rank of International Master, beating the 27-year-old record of the Hungarian Judit Polgar. To gain the title, it’s necessary to produce three tournament results of International Master ranking — so just one freakish performance is not enough.
Praggnanandhaa is certainly a glutton for chess knowledge. His first formal chess teacher, Grandmaster R.B. Ramesh, recorded how when he came across the boy at the age of eight, in his class: “He raised his hand and said that he wanted to learn everything I could teach. I’ve never heard an eight-year- old say something like that.”
But it turns out that this prodigy (from a far-from-affluent Chennai home) is in other respects like any other ten-year-old. His father, Rameshbabu, told a visiting feature writer from the Indian Express: “He is too young to know the value of becoming an International Master. He just likes to play and win, and he likes to watch TV like other kids his age.”
Indeed, when the man from the Express asked the skinny doe-eyed prodigy what his favourite programmes were, he rattled off a load of cartoon titles “in his squeaky pre-adolescent voice: Chota Bheem, Mighty Raju, Tom and Jerry”. His father then complained good-humouredly to the reporter: “Sometimes he refuses to come to the table to eat because his programmes are on. So I have to sit next to him and feed him.”
It is his mother, Nagalakshmi, who accompanies the family prodigy to tournaments — the father had contracted polio as a child, which limits his movements; and in October she travelled with him to the Isle of Man Open, at which, thanks to large cash prizes put up by a locally-based internet poker firm, many of the world’s strongest players were taking part.
In the final round, Praggnanandhaa caused a sensation by forcing the Paraguayan Grandmaster Axel Bachmann to resign after only 18 moves — a massacre. Given that his opponent had won a number of strong Grandmaster tournaments, including the 2015 World Open, Praggnanandhaa’s victory was immediately compared with the so-called “Game of the Century”, when in 1956 the 13-year-old Bobby Fischer unleashed a tour de force of tactics to defeat the American master Donald Byrne.
That was the game which first sent Fischer’s name around the world and it still appears in countless chess anthologies. My own view, for what it is worth, is that while Praggnanandhaa’s opponent was much stronger than Fischer’s, he put up much less resistance. Basically, Bachmann was caught cold by the Chennai comic kid. On the other hand, Praggnanandhaa is still only 11. At that age, Fischer was in no way master strength: his extraordinary spurt happened when he was 13.
Who knows what this young Indian will be achieving in two years’ time? It might depend on how much time he devotes to chess and how much to watching Tom and Jerry. But then, as Magnus Carlsen has demonstrated, cartoons and chess can work very well together. Anyway, here is the remarkable demolition of the winner of the 2015 World Open, Axel Bachmann, by the cartoon-loving 11-year-old Praggnanandhaa.
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Qd2 Bg7 5.Bh6 0-0 6.Bxg7 Kxg7 7.0-0-0 (The decision to castle Q-side shows Bachmann wants a very sharp attacking game: he gets his wish, but not in the way he imagined.) c5 8.e3 Nc6 9.f3? (The idea is to support either e4 or a lunge in the direction of Black’s king with g4; but it is far too slow) c4 10.e4 b5! 11.exd5 Nb4 12.Nxb5 Nxa2+ 13.Kb1 Qxd5 14.Na3?? (A terrible blunder. The best move was 14.Nc7, though after the forcing continuation 14…Qb7 15.Bxc4 Rb8 16.Nb5 Be6! 17.Bxe6 Qxb5 18.Bb3 Nb4 Black’s threat of Nxc2 gives him a clear advantage) c3 15.bxc3? (The only chance was 15.Qf4, though White’s position would be dire) Rb8+ 16.Ka1 Qa5 17.Kxa2 Nd5 (It’s just possible that Bachmann missed this, the only — but entirely sufficient — justification for the youngster’s Knight sacrifice) 18.Ne2 Be6! (It’s not every day you see a Bishop’s first developing move produce an unstoppable threat of mate. Bachmann resigned, sparing himself the even greater indignity of 19.c4 Nb4+ 20.Kb3 Na2+ 21.Ka2 Bxc4+ 22.Ka1 Qxa3 mate). The chess equivalent of Jerry hitting Tom over the head with a cast-iron frying pan.