Tamil Nadu’s Pragg ends long wait for chess Arjuna Award, coach Ramesh hopes others get their due soon

In a game where India is dominant, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa and Bhakti Kulkarni become the first chess players to win award in nine years. The former is the first from South India, known for its profusion of grandmasters, to win it in 14 years.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Nov 16, 2022 | 9:05 PMUpdatedMar 16, 2023 | 4:23 PM

Pragg after winning the Asian Individual Championship 2022 with his mother Nagalakshmi and sister Vaishali, a woman grandmaster

Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa knows how to enter record books.

First, he became the then-youngest player (16) ever to beat the world champion, Magnus Carlsen earlier this year, and now he is the first chess player in 14 years from the southern states to win the Arjuna Award.

“He (Pragg) got to know about it after I told him that it has been officially announced. He is happy about it but this is not his aim, so he is focusing on giving his best for the tournament he is currently playing,” his coach RB Ramesh, who is currently in the US with Pragg, told South First.

The Chennai chess prodigy is currently making his moves against some of the top chess players in the world at the Meltwater Champions Tour Finals in San Francisco, the US, where Carlsen is also participating.

Named after Arjuna from one of the oldest and longest Sanskrit epics Mahabharata, the award is the second-highest sporting honour in the country after the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award.

This year the awards, announced on 14 November, will be presented by President Droupadi Murmu on 30 November at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

No Arjuna Award for chess for nearly a decade

The last time a chess player was awarded an Arjuna Award, Manmohan Singh was still the prime minister of India and MS Dhoni was leading the Indian men’s cricket team.

Grandmaster Abhijeet Gupta from Rajasthan was the last chess player to have won the Arjuna Award way back in 2013.

And a South Indian chess player last being given the Arjuna Award dates back to 2008 when Dronavalli Harika from Andhra Pradesh received it.

In 2008, India had 18 grandmasters, the highest title a chess player can attain. Since then, the number of grandmasters in the country has skyrocketed to 76.

Out of the 58 new grandmasters from India since 2008, 34 are from the southern states. They include Pragg, D Gukesh (both Tamil Nadu), Arjun Erigaisi (Telangana), and Nihal Sarin (Kerala), who are among the young Indian grandmasters capable of reaching the pinnacle of chess.

Out of India’s 76 grandmasters, 27 are from Tamil Nadu. Telangana has produced five grandmasters, Karnataka and Andhra four, and Kerala three.

Anantharam R, vice-president of the Tamil Nadu State Chess Association, called the Arjuna Award a proud moment for Tamil Nadu as well as India and told South First, “He [Pragg] is capable of becoming the world champion in the future.”

Along with Pragg, International Master Bhakti Kulkarni from Goa has also been awarded the Arjuna Award for chess, becoming the state’s first woman recipient.

“It is good that after being ignored completely, a few chess players have got some recognition. No doubt both players have contributed immensely to chess and deserve the award but I hope the other players too will get their due in the coming years,” RB Ramesh, coach of Pragg, said.

Pragg with his coach Grandmaster RB Ramesh, Sheikh Dawood (grandson of former President APJ Abdul Kalam's brother), and Woman Grandmaster and Ramesh's wife Aarthie Ramaswamy

Pragg with his coach Grandmaster RB Ramesh, Sheikh Dawood (grandson of former President APJ Abdul Kalam’s brother), and Woman Grandmaster and Ramesh’s wife Aarthie Ramaswamy (Twitter/Rameshchess)

On being asked why chess did not feature in the awards list for over a decade, Bharat Singh Chauhan, former AICF secretary and deputy president of the Asian Chess Federation, told South First, “I think that organising the Chess Olympiad was a milestone due to which the sport got its due place. The PM also came [for the inauguration].”

However, Vipnesh Bhardwaj, All India Chess Federation vice-president and interim-secretary, was of the view that organising the Olympiad had nothing to do with the player winning the Arjuna Award.

“It is a historical achievement for India to organise the Chess Olympiad for the first time. I do not know why chess did not receive this award for many years,” he told South First.

Pragg plays a friendly chess game with Magnus Carlsen ahead of the ongoing Meltwater Champions Tour Finals in San Francisco, US

Pragg plays a friendly chess game with Magnus Carlsen ahead of the ongoing Meltwater Champions Tour Finals in San Francisco, US (Twitter/ChampChessTour)

Meanwhile, Rameshbabu, father of Pragg, said that he did not go check the list of Arjuna awardees in chess before applying for it.

“We wanted to apply. So we applied and we were confident that he would receive it,” Rameshbabu, a bank employee, told South First.

‘Pride of Velammal’

Rameshbabu also noted that Pragg’s school, Velammal, supported him and his sister, Woman Grandmaster Vaishali, with free education at a time when they were struggling financially.

Aravindh R, principal of the Chennai-based school, told South First, “He [Pragg] is the pride of our institution and India. We feel honoured that he received the Arjuna Award.”

“Praggnanandhaa, who is in Class 12 now, is not just good in chess but equally good in academics. He comes to school rarely, a fortnight or so before the exams, but even then performs well. This shows his determination. In his Class 11 exam, he scored above 80 percent with 93 percent in accounts,” the principal added.

Who is the youngest to win Arjuna Award?

The youngest sportsperson ever to win an Arjuna Award was a 14-year old.  This was former swimmer Kutraleeswaran Ramesh from Erode, Tamil Nadu, who swam across six channels including the Palk Strait and the English Channel in a year. The record stands to date.

In chess, Pragg is the second youngest Indian to receive the Arjuna Award behind Grandmaster Koneru Humpy, who received it at the age of 16 in 2003.

The 17-year-old from Chennai is also the youngest male chess player to win the award, surpassing the record of Grandmaster Parimarjan Negi (Delhi) by a few months, who also got it at the age of 17 in 2010.

Other Arjuna Award winners from South India in 2022

In addition to Pragg, five other sportspersons from South India also won the Arjuna Award in 2022.

They are triple jumper Eldhose Paul (Kerala), shuttlers Prannoy HS (Kerala) and Jerlin Anika J (TN), shooter Elavenil Valarivan (TN), and table-tennis player Sreeja Akula (Telangana).

Veteran paddler Achanta Sharath Kamal was chosen for the 2022 Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award.

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