When Anna Muzychuk walked out of the playing hall after eliminating her sister Mariya from this year’s Women’s World Cup and was asked how she felt, the Ukrainian chess player spoke for most siblings in sport – “I won but I feel sorry for her.”

Indian chess grandmasters R Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali address a press conference for the upcoming World Chess Championship 2024(Mohd Zakir)

India’s Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa are grateful that, unlike the Muzychuk sisters, they aren’t quite in each other’s path. The siblings from Chennai are now the first Grandmaster (GM) brother-sister pair. This happened after Vaishali crossed the required 2500 Elo rating following two successive wins to confirm a GM title at the El Lobregat Open in Barcelona. The 21-year-old has ended a 12-year wait, becoming only India’s third female GM, after Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli.

The GM title has been among the earliest, most fervent goals for Vaishali. Her first GM norm (of three) arrived in 2019 and since then it’s been a somewhat exasperating chase, through years, tournaments and near-misses, to arrive at the title. When she was younger, Vaishali looked at the GM title as a marker of her calibre, of how far she could go in the game. In a surer sign of both, she qualified for the Women’s Candidates tournament last month. Again, the first brother-sister pair to do so. The GM title continued to elude her. Though she won the tournament, she narrowly missed the GM mark at the Grand Swiss last month. It rankled. She didn’t wish to dive into full-blown preparation for the Candidates in April – the biggest competition of her career – with an unchecked box beside her biggest childhood dream. Closure was necessary.

Now, she’s India’s 84th GM and joins the tiny pool of little over 40 female GMs worldwide.

Harika, who became India’s second female GM in 2011, is relieved that finally there’s a third name in the roll call. “Had it not been for Covid, Vaishali would have probably gotten it a couple of years ago. I know she’s always dreamt about this title,” she says. “I have a special bond with Vaishali. We’ve played more than a couple of team tournaments together. During the Asian Games, I wasn’t keeping well so she cooked rice for me and herself for two whole weeks. That’s how incredibly sweet she is.”

For a while, it looked like it wasn’t turning out to be a great year for Vaishali. She was knocked out in the second round of the Women’s World Cup in August and a sudden health problem scuppered a bunch of tournament opportunities that followed – notably the World Women’s Team Championships and the Tata Steel India event – as well as a Boris Gelfand-run Asian Games training camp in Kolkata.

Vaishali found herself cooped up at the hospital for a few days and later at home for weeks together and watched the player who was drafted in as her last-minute replacement, Divya Deshmukh, start as the lowest-rated player at the Tata Steel Women’s rapid event and finish as champion. “It was upsetting for me to miss everything,” said Vaishali. There was a silver lining to it all she knows now.

In shaping her journey and ambitions, the presence of an overachieving sibling has been a key ingredient.

In her book Mind Games, former Olympic silver medallist and world champion rower Annie Vernon calls first‑born children “self-referencing” – making the mistakes, forging their path. The siblings that follow, she says, are in a way born with a target, knowing who they need to eventually overtake. Vaishali, older than Praggnanandhaa by four years, was the first to play chess in the family. Success came second to her.

In the documentary ‘Venus and Serena’, Serena spoke about the challenge of growing up in the shadow of Venus. “Venus was always in the newspapers and media. I was never supposed to be a good player. I was a copycat. That’s the reason I played tennis,” Serena, younger by 15 months, said.

“Not to win the first major was tough for me,” Venus looked back. “I thought as an older sister I should step up. I didn’t know how to fight. it didn’t come naturally to me. It did to Serena.” Some, like the Klitschko brothers – Vitali and Wladimir, who were the best heavyweight boxers in the world for a decade, refused to fight each other in the ring.

For Visakh and Vignesh NR, who became India’s first Grandmaster brothers, the challenge for the family early on was funding the ambitions of two chess-playing members and having to take turns playing tournaments. Visakh, younger by a year, was the first among the brothers to turn GM in 2019. “Between us, it wasn’t so much about who got to the GM title first,” says Visakh. “We both knew we’re of the same playing level. I turned GM a day after Gukesh became the second-youngest GM in the world. Praggnanandhaa was already a GM then. My brother and I knew back then that it wasn’t us against each other but us against other stronger Indian players.”

Praggnanandhaa hit the marks early and the effect it had on Vaishali morphed in form over the years. It began in frustration and later turned into fuel. “The possibility of qualifying for the Candidates didn’t even cross my mind, it was my brother who told me I had a good shot. That’s how I ended up pursuing it,” said Vaishali.

“I played the Muzychuk sisters in consecutive rounds recently. I mentioned it to my mother later, sharing how amazing it is to have what they have – travelling together and helping each other through tournaments,” says Vaishali, “My mother looked at me and said, ‘it’s what you and your brother already have’. I realised it’s so easy to forget what we are to each other.”

The gift of a sibling who fires ambition – pushes you to become a better player and doesn’t give up on you.

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