by Leon Watson
Gibraltar’s prestigious international chess festival returns this month with the spotlight firmly on a 12-year-old boy hoping to write himself into history.
Chess wonderkid Ramesh Praggnanandhaa is targeting the event for his bid to become the youngest player ever to reach Grandmaster level.
Praggu, as he is known, needs a strong performance at Gibraltar, which starts on January 21, if he has any chance of breaking the long-standing mark.
Yet time is running out for the boy from Chennai, India.
The current record stands at 12 years, seven months and is held by the Russian world title challenger Sergey Karjakin, who is not competing at Gibraltar.
Praggu has until March 10 to beat that milestone and Gibraltar represents one of the last elite-level tournaments left where is will be able to pick up a GM “norm” to qualify.
Praggu already has one “norm”, or high level performance, but needs two more. He is currently in Charlotte, US, North Carolina, at a tournament hoping to pick up his second before heading to Gibraltar where failure would make it nearly impossible.
Praggu will be up against some of the biggest names in the game at this year’s Gibraltar Masters, a 10-round open event held at The Caleta Hotel.
The stellar field includes Armenia’s in-form Levon Aronian, the US blitz king Hikaru Nakamura and the French number one Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
“There are some big names but all eyes will definitely be on Praggu, and he’s really up against it,” said David Kramaley, who runs chess learning site Chessable. “It’s a real battle against the clock for him and Gibraltar could be his last chance.”
“Praggu broke the record for the youngest ever international master when he was just 10 years old but has so far been unable to qualify for the GM title.
“However he nearly did it just before Christmas and is definitely playing some amazing attacking chess at the moment.
“If he manages to break the record that will be an incredible feat and a big honour for the Gibraltar festival which is already firmly established as one of the most important events in the chess calendar.”
On January 10 the super talent will be exactly 12 years and five months old, meaning he has just two months left to qualify.
Achieving the GM title would put Praggu in an exclusive club of chess greats who’ve held the record. The most famous member is the American genius Bobby Fischer who became the world’s youngest Grandmaster at 15.
Since then the record has been lowered several times although Karjakin’s mark has stood since 2002.
Norway’s reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen achieved it at 13 years four months, which was then the second youngest after Karjakin.
In his latest attempt at the Rilton Cup in Stockholm, Sweden, Praggu had a torrid time. But afterwards he was typically sanguine about his chances.
“I am not thinking about it,” he told Norwegian channel NRK Sport this week. “It’s fun to play some good chess. But if I can achieve it, I will be very happy.”
After starting out at the Rilton with two wins, Praggu’s attempt to bag his second GM norm ended in round 8 of 9. He finished the tournament with a performance rating of just 2485 – way below what he needed.
In a large part that was due to a final round loss to the English International Master David “Eggy” Eggleston after the chance of a norm had gone, but it has led to doubts over whether the youngster will manage it.
Before Christmas Praggu fell agonisingly short of snatching the record outright at the World Junior Championship in Tarvisio, Italy.
In the final round he had the chance to win the tournament, which is unique in that it carries an automatic GM title for the winner, but ended up finishing fourth (joint second).
It followed a similar close but no cigar performances at the Isle of Man International in September and before that the HZ Tournament in August.
Praggu, who is sponsored by an Indian property entrepreneur, has not been the only wonderkid in the running to beat Karjakin’s 2002 record. But now he is the only realistic chance right now who’s still standing.
Praggu’s international compatriot Nihal Sarin, now 13, and Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan both battled hard to get there.
Abdusattorov, who is nine months older, had long been considered a potential record-breaker after he beat two GMs in a tournament aged just nine.
But time ran out on him in July leaving the younger Praggu in pole position.