Praggnanandhaa on the FIDE Candidates Tournament: "If I were more practical, I would have done better

16.05.2024 09:32 | News

"I don't think it's right to call this tournament a bad one," says Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa in an interview with ESPN, just a little over a week after the conclusion of the biggest tournament he's participated in so far.

In the FIDE Candidates Tournament, Praggnanandhaa finished fifth in a field that included the world's best players. "In a way, it was a good tournament. For a first Candidates Tournament, it was good," he adds with a smile.

Before the tournament, he was ranked 14th in the world, and three of those who finished ahead of him were ranked 2nd, 3rd, and 7th (the only one ranked below him was the eventual winner and good friend, Dommaraju Gukesh). And that seventh player was none other than the two-time Candidates winner, Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Praggnanandhaa was one of a record five Indians (out of 16 in all categories) playing in the Candidates, four of whom debuted in Canada. He describes that as an "amazing feeling" and adds, "Playing alongside my sister [Vaishali Rameshbabu] is also a great experience."

"It was a good experience," he says about the tournament. "Especially the games were very interesting. There was a lot of play, so I could learn a lot. I think I played much better than my results show. But sometimes, yes, you don't get what you should get. [But] that's fair." He enjoyed the games and the hard work dedicated to preparation both before the games and before the tournament. "I tried to give it my all," he says. "I managed most of the games. It didn't go my way, but that's part of the game. I have been to many bad tournaments in my journey."

And what a journey it has been for the eighteen-year-old. For example, his qualification path to the Candidates - defeating the aforementioned world numbers 2 and 3, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, at the 2023 Chess World Cup and reaching the final against Magnus Carlsen, who is considered the greatest player of all time.

Praggnanandhaa, however, says that the World Cup had little bearing on the Candidates: "It is a knockout system, and it is a different format. I can't compare it."

Where the Candidates differ is in the length of the tournament, how few of the best players get into it, and how there is no prize for anyone but the winner: outside the World Championships, there isn't a bigger, more high-pressure event in the sport. Praggnanandhaa acknowledges this: "Before the first match, I felt the tension when I went and sat at the chessboard," he says.

But it didn't last long. "But it went away after the game started. I felt the same as in a regular tournament. I would say there was pressure and tension, but I think it was normal. I don't think I felt any extra pressure because of the fans or the press. That wasn't there," he says matter-of-factly. "I think I took it as a normal tournament and did what I usually do."

If you didn't know who was speaking, you might call it arrogance - dismissing the pressure of such an elite event so lightly - but this is what Praggnanandhaa does. Put a chessboard in front of him, and he will get to it regardless of where he is. "Of course, it matters who you are playing," he says with a quiet laugh, "but other things don't matter."

But if he had a chance, what would he change about his approach to the tournament and his play? "It would be not losing three games," he says, before qualifying it: "those three games were played under different circumstances. I also missed some chances to put more pressure on my opponents. There was a match with Ian [Nepomniachtchi] where I missed my chance." The match he's referring to happened in round five, where Praggnanandhaa had a great position that Nepomniachtchi somehow managed to salvage a draw from: it's the fine margins that make all the difference at the very top.

"Those moments, maybe if I had tried a bit more," he says, "or maybe my opening choice and stuff like that. Maybe if I were more practical, I would have been better."

This doesn't mean he went all out in every game, he says, but he wanted to make sure he brought some fight with him every time. "If a fight came with either color, I was happy to take it. And I got many fighting positions, and I also got chances."

However, he isn't wallowing in what could have been. He never has. "I think I am good in that area - recovering from a game," he says. "For me, the main thing is when I feel like I didn't give my best or didn't try hard enough, then I feel more annoyed. But if I, let's say, lost a winning position or something, I am upset for a few minutes. I think I can recover from that because I know it usually doesn't happen. It's just a one-off thing, and I am playing high-quality chess. I am giving my best. So, it shouldn't worry me too much. I think it's more of a mindset thing." (Incidentally, that's his advice for budding chess players too - have fun and don't worry too much about losing games... "give your best and don't worry too much about the outcome")

Now back in India, he is fulfilling commitments to his corporate sponsors, such as the Adani Group, and unwinding from the rigors of the Candidates. Outside of casual chess discussions with his sister GM Vaishali ("they happen spontaneously"), he has turned his attention to other sports. "I watch cricket," he says. "I mean, I follow cricket. Recently, I have also started following badminton. In general, I try to read about all sports."

Does he have a favorite? "It changes from time to time. Right now, I like Virat Kohli. I guess it's an obvious answer for many," he says. "But for me, it's because of how aggressive he is during the match and how much he dedicates to the game: like fitness."

Quiet, unassuming Praggnanandhaa's favorite being the definition of the hyper-aggressive alpha-athlete may sound unusual, but he identifies the common thread between them - the rigor it takes to become an elite athlete at the highest level.

Part of that rigor is now moving on, taking it one tournament at a time as he always does. The next Candidates Tournament will be in 2026, with the two-year World Championship cycle resetting now, but Praggnanandhaa isn't thinking about that yet. "That's still a long way off," he says. "It just ended; it would be too much to look at another one already."

"Besides," he adds with a smile, "it's not guaranteed I will make it. I have to qualify first."

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