Vaishali emerges from the shadows to chart her own destiny- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

Shortly after winning the FIDE Grand Swiss event, R Vaishali had just arrived in Chennai. During an event at MOP Vaishnav College, her alma mater, where she was being facilitated by the legendary Viswanathan Anand, she was getting all the attention from her college mates and the media. 

Despite not having slept and looking visibly tired, Vaishali was obliging all requests for autographs, selfies and interviews. It was justified.  She had secured a place in the Candidates next year, becoming the third Indian to do so this year alone. She was also on the cusp of becoming a GM.  

Getting media attention is nothing new to Vaishali. Being the elder sister of R Praggnanandhaa — one of the chess prodigies of his generation — she had always been flooded with queries about his laurels throughout her life. But now, the attention and questions were all about her and her achievements.
Unsurprisingly, she was thrilled about being in the limelight. Ask her if it added more pressure, especially with the GM title and Candidates looming over her, she had an immediate reply. “I don’t feel the pressure. I am just enjoying the attention actually, maybe it will come in future,” she said with a smile.

From the outset, it is the quiet unassuming personality that strikes you. But as is often the case, there is more to Vishali than just that. She beat Magnus Carlsen at the age of 12, Woman International Master at 15, Woman Grandmaster at 17, International Master at 20, and has won Chess Olympiad and Asian Games medals in the last couple of years. Like Praggnanandhaa, she too has been working with RB Ramesh from a very young age, who says that there are many similarities between the siblings. “You can say initially, they both had a similar style and it evolved slightly in different directions. Both are very hard working. They don’t have much interest beyond chess and I think many other children of their age, so they are very committed and dedicated to chess. Both spend a lot of hours on a daily basis working on chess, both didn’t go to school from a young age practicing almost single-mindedly on chess,” says the coach.

If you had any doubts on the time she puts in for the sport, ask Vaishali what was the last movie she watched, she would think for a long time and say “I don’t even remember.” For someone who has been playing the sport forever, Vaishali used to be a lot more emotional with her results in the past. Defeats could hurt her so much that she would be worrying about the results. As a result, she would curtail her natural inhibitions, talents. “When you start playing artificial chess, you won’t be happy doing that, but you’re doing it with the thinking that it will help you cut down the losses, but you kind of become a different player,” says Ramesh.

However, things have changed and for the better. Despite not having a smooth run in the first half of 2023, Vaishali has turned it around in the last few months. Ramesh believes she is playing with freedom and aggression and is more calculative of her risks, trusting her instincts. Her confidence has seen a significant rise in the last year or so. And the one thing that has helped her in that aspect is the work she has put in at the gym. 

Around the Chess Olympiad last year, Vaishali started hitting the gym. At that point, she had realised that her mistakes often happen after playing for several hours. She would be playing well and suddenly would not be able to focus. It has been over a year, and Vaishali is seeing the difference when she is playing. Ramesh feels there is scope for more improvement. “This has been something I insist on with all the students but usually they don’t understand its significance.

Generally, it builds your stamina, but I still think there is more scope for her to get physical. She does get tired towards the end of the tournament. She doesn’t have the same energy levels. Like even in the FIDE Grand Swiss, had she won the last round, she would have become a Grandmaster. She came close, but she didn’t finish. She let the opponent escape. So, the stamina level is still not at the optimum level,” he says while acknowledging the difficulties in doing so when the siblings continuously travel for tournaments.

The other factor that has helped the siblings is how much they have leaned on each other along the way. As the teenage brother’s stature grew exponentially over the past few years, he has, in some ways, helped Vaishali, feels Ramesh. “She still wants someone to guide her and help her during tournaments. But in Pragg’s case, he’s very independent, he can decide what to play… all that he can do himself. She is still to some extent largely dependent, mostly she’s leaning on Pragg because they both travel to some tournaments together. Pragg helps her in choosing openings and getting her help in preparation,” he says.

After the event at her college, Vaishali had to stay back and do a series of interactions with the media where she was patiently giving time to every reporter. To be in the limelight and having all the attention could sometimes be overwhelming, but not in her case. Her coach feels it will only help her rather than adding extra pressure. “I think she was under more pressure earlier. I would say she feels she is getting what she has been deserving all along. It’s like now she’s being acknowledged of her own, right? Something like that. So, it’s not putting pressure. Right now, she just completed two good tournaments and she’s more optimistic than under pressure,” he says.

At the moment, her focus is on the GM title, something she has dreamt about since she can remember. She wants to get it out of the way in the coming month and focus on the Candidates. “From the day I started playing chess, becoming a GM has been my dream. I have been playing chess for 15 years. Whatever tournaments I play, making a GM has always been my goal. Now, I am just a few points away from the title. I want to complete it soon,” she said with resolve.

Having ticked a lot of boxes, that day should not be too far away. A GM title — only the third Indian woman to achieve it — and a chance to make a name for herself at the Candidates awaits Vaishali. And when the moment comes, you’d know she will be ready for it.

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