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HomeChessQueen mothers and their talented sons – Kasparov, Anand or now Praggnanandhaa

Queen mothers and their talented sons – Kasparov, Anand or now Praggnanandhaa

About 50 years ago in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where Magnus Carlsen and R Praggnanandhaa played the chess World Cup final, a father at the fag end of his futile fight with leukemia shared with his wife the last decision of his short, 39-year-old life. It concerned their seven-year-old son.

Hailing from a family of musicians — and himself an accomplished violinist — the chemical engineer had wished for his young boy too to hit the same notes. However, the couple, who had first met at a concert, were in for a surprise. The son was endlessly fascinated with the little chess pieces and the board with 64 black and white squares at home. Even at the age of five, he would join the family in solving newspaper chess puzzles.

From his deathbed, the father told his wife: “No music… send him to chess”. The young widow would end up doing much more. After drafting him into a chess school, the mother would travel with him to tournaments, be his mentor, act as a sounding board and be his virtual manager. She would never remarry, dedicating most of her adult life to her son and his passion. The son, meanwhile, would go on to be a world champion and use his stature to challenge the Soviet system during his playing days and be an unabashed Vladimir Putin critic after retirement.

In an old BBC podcast, Garry Kasparov shares enough anecdotes to tell the world that if not for his mother Klara Shagenovna, he wouldn’t have been a champion or a challenger to the high and mighty. And it is this that explains Kasparov’s congratulatory tweet for R Praggnanandhaa and his mother Nagalakshmi. “Congrats to @rpragchess—and to his mother. As someone whose proud mama accompanied me to every event, it’s a special kind of support! …”, he wrote on the day Pragg reached the final.

ALSO READ | R Praggnanandhaa: The OG, original child prodigy, now challenger to World No 1 Magnus Carlsen

The Kasparov post was tagged to a picture where a proud but shy Nagalakshmi stood far away from the cameras focused on her son. It was only after the Kasparov tweet that the world woke up to the efforts of the mother whose son had become the youngest World Cup finalist ever.

Chess, chess world cup, chess world cup final, Magnus Carlsen, R Praggnanandhaa, newspaper chess puzzles, indian express, opinion, indian express news In an old, Garry Kasparov has shared anecdotes that if not for his mother Klara Shagenovna, he wouldn’t have been a champion or a challenger to the high and mighty. (Illustration bs CR Sasikumar)

The unfolding of Praggnanandhaa’s glorious hour in Baku, Kasparov’s birth place, might be a coincidence but fate has rhymed the stories of the two child chess prodigies separated by generations and geography. Over the years, away from the board, chess has been a matriarchy run by committed women. Hidden from the news-hounds blindly chasing the champion are the unsung heroines of the chess ecosystem. India too has heard this story before. After Kasparov, and before Pragg, there was Viswanathan Anand, another world beater whose mother was his first coach and a life-long motivator.

Visit any local chess tournament and the piercing maternal gaze on the kids moving the pieces on the board is hard to miss. Away from the playing area — sometimes in the garden or porch outside the venue — mothers with luggage, water bottles, bananas and an anxious expression spend hours waiting, thinking, hoping.

ALSO READ | Pragg loses to Carlsen, misses top chess title, but leaves his mark

While Pragg’s father, a bank manager who was afflicted with polio as a child, mostly accompanies him to local tournaments, it is his mother who has the thicker passport. Most reports slot Nagalakshmi as a simple home-maker but it’s a designation that is unequivocally insufficient and also undermines her toil in shaping her son’s chess dreams. Although it’s difficult to find a tag for her, she qualifies to be called a talent spotter, mentor, dietician, minder, spiritual guru, psychologist or all rolled into one.

Praggnanandhaa, Nagalakshmi R Praggnanandhaa’s mother Nagalakshmiat the World Chess Championships in Baku. (FIDE)

At most tournaments, Nagalakshmi spends time either cooking or praying. When travelling, she carries utensils so that Praggnanandhaa gets his comfort food. Breakfasts are mostly at the hotel spread, but for lunch and dinner, the mother’s mini south Indian kitchen gets operational with sambar rice, tomato rice, curd rice and rasam on the menu list. Praggnanandhaa had once called his mother, “the backbone of my success” but even if he had called her the brain and heart, it wouldn’t have been wrong.

In Anand’s story too, it’s his mother, Sushila, who features prominently in the early chapters. Hailing from a family where chess was actively pursued as a pastime, she initiated her three children into the cerebral board game. When he was eight, Anand’s father, an engineer with Railways, moved to the Philippines on a special assignment. With the two older siblings staying back to pursue higher studies, Anand and his mother found themselves in an alien land with lots of time on hand.

For Sushila this was an opportunity to polish her son’s chess skills. That was the time the Philippines had a world champion in Eugenio Torre. The enterprising mother would pore over the phone directory calling up virtually all the Torres in Manila so that she could get through to the right man to train her son. Eventually, she hit the jackpot when the world champion’s brother picked up the phone and shared with her the details of a chess coach.

Praggnanandhaa At most tournaments, Nagalakshmi spends time either cooking or praying for her son Praggnanandhaa. (FIDE)

When Anand would be at school, the mother would tape a popular chess show on television. Later in the day, mother and son would break their heads over problems the host threw at the viewers.

The three mothers — Sushila, Nagalakshmi and Klara — have had varying degrees of involvement in their sons’ actual game play. Pragg’s mother doesn’t even ask the result of the match, Sushila would take the back seat after a point, but Klara would even overrule Garry’s coaches in world championships.

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Once, in a world championship game against his arch rival Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov was trailing by a huge margin. Most of his coaches were of the view that the young star should give up or retire to avoid the ignominy of a whitewash. Klara put her foot down and said that if fate had decided that her son would lose badly, so be it. On the BBC podcast, Kasparov said: “My mother said, ‘This is the only way to temper his character’”.

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In years to come the “half-Armenian, half-Jew” boy from the deep south of the Soviet Union would beat Karpov, the true blue Russian who was the darling of the state. About Karpov, Kasparov would say “the system wasn’t with him, he was the system himself”. When the change of guard happened and Kasparov won, it was said to be a watershed world event. “Many people who supported me told me that the moment Kasparov won the title and Karpov lost, they realised that the whole system may one day collapse,” he said. And it did.

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The chess mom Klara hadn’t just helped her son be a world champion but did her bit to change the course of history. It all adds up, the signs were there. It’s not surprising that in a game where the Queen is the most powerful piece, it is the mothers who have been the silent driving force.

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