India’s Vaishali qualifies for women’s Candidates, emulates Humpy

Over the past few weeks, Vaishali Rameshbabu has had some of the best chess of her life. It is one of the most impressive runs by an Indian women chess player in recent memory.

Grandmaster Rameshbabu Vaishali’s Indian wife poses for a photo.(PTI)

The 22-year-old defeated three former women’s world champions to qualify for the Women’s Candidates at the Swiss Women’s Championship on the Isle of Man. She joins her brother Praggnanandhaa, 18, who has secured his place in next year’s Candidates – the final eight-player qualifying competition for the World Championship. They are the first brother-sister duo in history to make the Candidates.

Vaishali is often an International Master with plenty of Grandmasters for some time under the shadow of her famous brother. Tactical, aggressive and dynamic, she has shown immense comfort and grit against some of the biggest names in the women’s game over the past few weeks in the heart of the Irish Sea. Vaishali is far from becoming India’s only third woman GM. It was a huge personal goal for her.

On the Isle of Man, the world got a glimpse of Vaishali’s formidable drama beneath her quiet, angelic exterior, shredding former women’s world champions Mariya Muzychuk, Antoaneta Stefanova and Tan Zhongyi. She crushed half of the amazing Muzychuk sisters in Ukraine in 23 moves. In August, Mariya Vaishali was knocked out of the World Cup.

She was not done.

In Round 10 against China’s Tan – she beat Vaishali at the Asian Games a month ago – Vaishali may have been laughing hard at her opponent’s decision not to trade queens early. After 25. Qb4, Vaishali’s white queen moved into the b-file to attack the black king. Black somehow managed the time control after white’s powerful Nxd5 threat with 33. Nf4 but gave up soon after.

The result consolidated Vaishali’s position as the sole leader in the competition with another round to go, guaranteeing her one of the two points available for the Candidates. She is only the second Indian female chess player to qualify for the Women’s Candidates tournament, after Koneru Humpy. Humpy reached the final of the Women’s World Championship in 2011, which she lost to China’s Hou Yifan.

Vaishali believes that mental recalibration may have played a role in her recent results. “When we were kids, we used to enjoy the game. In the last few years, I was so focused on norms and titles that I forgot to enjoy chess. Now I have started doing that again, even with the preparation. That probably helps,” she told Chessbase India. Praggnanandaa and Vaishali are receiving personalized coaching support from Westbridge Anand Chess Academy.

It’s not just the Swiss Ladies. In the week before, Vaishali put on an impressive show at the Qatar Masters, among the strongest open tournaments of the year. She faced GMs in eight of the 10 rounds, called in her third final GM norm and finished among the best women in the tournament. She talked about her brother, who was then back home in Chennai, helping her with initial preparations against a stacked field.

Vaishali’s promise was not without her early vision.

In 2013, when Chennai was gearing up to host the World Championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen, Vaishali had her little moment. She was among the four children that Carlsen won on a similar model that he played against 20 children. She was already a multiple age group national champion by then.

She is a study in contrast to her more popular brother. She is not used to being the hyped sibling, she did not rack up records in the youngest GS and GM titles ever or that is held separately flashy early in her career. They have two world junior titles each and two bronze medals each (team and individual) at last year’s Olympics.

Although she always had promise, it took some time for Vaishali to get here. Never willing to hang back and let her brother step into the spotlight, she was never short of ambition. She can give a polite, almost self-deprecating smile when asked if she helps her brother with chess ideas and almost always declares that she is the main beneficiary of their exchanges.

On the Isle of Man, the siblings share a playroom and Praggnanandhaa has been seen walking up to her sister’s table often enough to pause and take a look at proceedings. On Saturday too, with Vaishali sniffing victory, Praggnananandhaa sported a quirky look and a tiny green jumper as he sauntered by her table just after finishing his own game.

Like all competitions, their mother Nagalakshmi accompanies them on British Isles. This year’s World Cup has turned her into a bit of a celebrity and she’s been asked a lot about her portable cookware and the staple rasam-rice meals she whips up for her elite kids from hotel rooms during tournaments.

It is a family on a milestone mission. This time it is Vaishali’s turn. She knows she’s been waiting long enough for her moment. It’s finally here – all the glory and gunpowder.

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