The start was chaotic. The main hall was so packed that it resembled the stands of a football game more than the quiet sanctum of a chess game. The bustle seemed endless, as shoulders crashed onto shoulder, feet stamped feet, as Viswanathan Anand made the first ceremonious move in the tournament. The crowd slowly filtered out of the room, as the match time began, 15 minutes later than the scheduled start of the play.
But amidst the cacophony, R Vaishali sat restless, staring into the precisely arranged pieces, keenly waiting to make her first move. Across the table sat her adversary, Sabina Abrorova, the 16-year-old from Tajikistan, a player that trails Vaishali by around 900 points. Maybe the gulf in ratings pushed the Indian to launch an all-out attack soon after the early exchanges. Vaishali’s sixth move was a knight B3, apparently a tempo destroying move that could potentially enable her opponent to make inroads into her territory, if she was willing to embrace risks. The 16-year-old Abrorova, instead, blinked. She went for the defensive e6. Vaishali seized the opportunity, and responded with a g4, putting her into really strong attacking positions.
21-year-old Vaishali R is defending the second board of the India A team. The Olympiad is taking place in Vaishali’s home state, very close to her hometown.
— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess) July 29, 2022
However, Abrorova repelled her tenaciously, making a string of defensive moves to tightly guard her fort, putting paid to Vaishali’s early attempts to attack the queenside. But Vaishali did not budge, rather attacked even more aggressively, even nearly sacrificing her advantageous positions at times, embracing high-risk tactics that could have been self-destructive had her opponent been sharper.
But that in essence is Vaishali’s game—an all-or-nothing approach at the start, quick moves that rattles the adversaries—though it should not be misconstrued as an ineptness to play the defensive game. She could maintain tight defensive positions, but that’s her acquired nature. Like she was slightly defensive in the meandering middle game, before reacquainting with her aggressive streak later on to wrap up the match in emphatic fashion to herald a day when all of her teammates, barring Tanya Sachdev, won without any scare. Overall, the day was hassle-free with all six teams trouncing their opponents.
Vaishali hides her gung-ho aggression in her warm smile. On the board, she hardly looks tense or bothered and does not keep staring at her opponent. Often, she takes a stroll after making a move, perhaps plotting her next line of attack.
It’s the duels with her that has honed the attacking game of her more feted brother R Praggnanandhaa. He had once told this paper of her influence: “She had a very fast and attacking style. The way she plays could make you nervous. I used to get so nervous that I used to lose all the games. Only when I grew a bit older that I learned to take more time before making my moves.”
Soon the younger brother began to jot down more “Ws” to his name in the win-loss log-book they jot the results of their in-house matches. But Praggnanandhaa still rates her as a better player. “She is still my inspiration, from whom I keep learning a lot every day and a better player than me when she is in her elements,” he said.
Clean Sweep! 😎🤘
All 6️⃣ Indian teams kicked off the 44th #ChessOlympiad in their home turf with comfortable wins in round 1️⃣.
— All India Chess Federation (@aicfchess) July 29, 2022
He has, in a sense, outgrown her, completing her Grandmaster norms, two months after he turned 13. At that time, Vaishali was still chasing her IM norms (after she had completed the Women’s GM three years ago), which she completed last year. He was taking on the cream of the chess world, accumulating points and wisdom, beating some of them and earning high praise, when Vaishali was still doing the hard yards of playing week after week of state-ranking tournaments, content to be the unassuming, withdrawn sister of a vaunted globe-hopping prodigy.
“The competition between them was always healthy, they would help each other out, always together and seldom fight. They are very close to each other,” says father Ramesh Babu.
In the last couple of years, the 21-year-old has emerged from the shadows of her brother, narrowing the gap (2642-2422) and has wrapped up two GM norms herself. Beating women’s blitz world champion Bibisara Assaubayeva in the Women’s Speed Chess Championship in June further attested to her swelling quality. She then beat senior compatriot Harika Dronavalli in the same tournament to further assert her calibre, carefully calibrated by coach RB Ramesh, who has always praised her work ethics. Her game, like how the opening round of the Olympiad began, could look chaotic at times. But chaotically brilliant.