Meeting a sports prodigy is always daunting; encountering one from the field of chess doubly so. You can shrug off extraordinary talent in physical sports, put it down to some freak of genetics and/or physical development. But chess is about brains -- and meeting a precocious chess talent is calculated to make you feel like the village idiot.
Prasanna Rao hails from the Mumbai suburb of Dombivli and, at eight years old, is set to follow the likes of Koneru Humpy and Pendyala Harikrishna as the latest prodigy out of India.
He is shy, withdrawn, uneasy under the glare of the media spotlight. And judging by his responses to the standard questions about school and comics and the like, not yet used to providing journalistic 'copy'.
Drop the magic word chess, though, and he becomes the silver-tongued orator, holding forth on the 16 openings, and their innumerable variations, that he has studied.
"The Sicilian Opening and the French Defence are my favorites," he says, naming two of the hardest openings to master.
Prasanna was four when father Raghuram Rao brought a chess board home; mother Tara taught him a few moves and six months later, was startled to find herself check-mated.
"He had a lot of other toys but he seemed to lose interest in them all," Tara Rao recalls. "We even drafted him into dance classes and other sports but he was only interested in chess. He would sit for hours, playing."
Two years after Prasanna played his first move, he found himself across the board from Vishwanathan Anand -- a game that lasted 30 minutes and left the world number three hugely impressed.
The ex-world champion took Prasanna's mother aside and told her that her son "has to play everyday, it's like you have a bath everyday he has to just keep playing. That is the only way he will rise in the ranks".
The advice was absorbed. Today, Prasanna plays for two, three hours during weekdays; on weekends his practice stretches up to seven, eight hours. Net savvy despite his young age, the prodigy seeks out games to download and study, and his personal favourite is Anand.
"I learn a lot from Anand's games. He is an attacking player, and so am I."
Cricket and football are other interests, and Sachin Tendulkar is an icon. Ask him whether he would like to find himself playing Tendulkar at chess, though, and maturity shines through from beneath the childish façade: "No. He is concentrating on cricket, so I can't play chess with him."
In 2001, Prasanna won the Under-7 Maharashtra state championships; this year, he annexed the Wipro Inter School Under-10 title. His parents now hope to enter him in the British Open; finances, they admit, are a major worry.
The child prodigy, meanwhile, is focused on his immediate goal -- bettering his repertoire. Already, the basic Ruy Lopez is history.
"The King's Indian Defence is better," he says, with assurance beyond his years. "It is stronger, more stable."
Photographs: JEWELLA C MIRANDA