Vaishali Rameshbabu’s victory against Turkish Fide Master Tamer Selbes in the IV El Llobregat Open chess tournament in Spain had a much greater upshot.
With her rating nudged to over 2,500 after the match late Friday, the 22-year-old made her way into the elusive Indian Grandmaster (GM) club, becoming its 84th member and, more significantly, only the third woman GM after Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli.
Reaching the pinnacle of chess’ pecking order — a Grandmaster — will also go a long way in liberating Vaishali from the tag of being ‘Praggnanandhaa’s sister’, as she has been referred to over the years.
While it was Vaishali who first started playing the sport, it was Praggnanandhaa, her younger brother, who started making waves on the chess scene, becoming the world’s youngest International Master. But now, GM Vaishali, who last month also secured a spot at the prestigious Candidates Tournament by winning the ultra-competitive FIDE Grand Swiss tournament, is achieving all the goals she had set for herself as a kid.
“For a phase in her career, when Pragg started doing well, it had a bit of a negative impact on Vaishali because of all the attention on Pragg. She was referred to as Pragg’s sister. But she’s a good player herself in her own right. So that was not a pleasant situation to be in. The fact that she has qualified for the Candidates and has become a Grandmaster… She’s shown that she can stand on her own merits, which is very important for her as well,” says Grandmaster RB Ramesh, who has been a coach and mentor for both siblings since their early age.
But, according to Ramesh, having a player like Praggnanandhaa at home also comes with its perks. “They help each other during tournaments. They practice a lot at home,” Ramesh told The Indian Express last month. “In recent times, Pragg has tried to help her with prep… giving her opening ideas and so on. It’s always good to have a strong player in the home helping you.”
While Vaishali clinched the GM crown much after her brother, she gave an early indication of her chess credentials a decade ago, when Magnus Carlsen came to Chennai to take on reigning champion Viswanathan Anand in the World Chess Championship.
Much before Pragg’s famed victory against Carlsen in an online chess tournament in February 2022, Vaishali was among those who defeated Carlsen in an exhibition game in 2013 — called a simul — that the Norwegian played against 20 Indian juniors at the same time. She was just 12 years old then.
And all her coaches vouch for her dedication to the craft. As a seven-year-old, her ability to sit still at the board with monk-like discipline was what struck S Thyagarajan, who was her first coach at the Bloom Chess Academy in Chennai, where she was sent by her parents to wean her off cartoon shows.
“Her biggest quality that stood out for me was how she could stay patient for five hours — or more — at that age. Time plays a big role in chess. You need to play long matches to improve your rating points. That she could sit for hours at a stretch was very special. Besides that, she could also play fast under time pressure. At the age of seven or eight, these are not common qualities. She could do both,” Thyagarajan says.
It was that sort of discipline that started getting her results that had her coaches rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Her most jaw-dropping performance, Thyagarajan says, came when she defeated a player over 150 rating points higher to claim the U12 World Championship.
In those early days, seeing Vaishali scythe through the rest of the field, M A Velayudham, the founder of Bloom Chess Academy, had boldly remarked the girl would one day rule the sport in India. All these years later, like the seven-year-old version of herself sitting glued to a chess board, she’s been unwavering.
“Most players also have other interests. And they’re trying to manage chess along with balancing those other interests. In her case, she’s dedicated herself completely in this journey (to the top). It’s not easy. Her single-minded dedication makes her different,” says Ramesh.
Indeed, dedicated they are, both siblings. “Right from the start, when they were not very strong players, just reasonably good players, they would travel nearly one and a half hours daily just to get to my chess academy. No matter what… Even in heavy rain, they would both travel on their father’s two-wheeler. At the academy, there would be non-stop chess for four hours. Everyone else would take a break in the middle. Not Pragg and Vaishali,” says Ramesh.
“Eventually, what stood out about the two was that they never got bored of chess,” he adds.