Gukesh and a shot at history - Hindustan Times
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Gukesh and a shot at history

Apr 19, 2024 10:31 PM IST

The 17-year-old Indian is in a three-way tie for first place with Ian Nepomniachtchi and Hikaru Nakamura after 12 rounds in the Candidates tournament

Only four players remain standing and a 17-year-old Indian is in with a chance to beat the odds, overrun pre-tournament favourites and make history. 

Indian GM D Gukesh at the FIDE Candidates 2024 chess tournament(PTI)
Indian GM D Gukesh at the FIDE Candidates 2024 chess tournament(PTI)

D Gukesh is in a three-way tie for first place with Ian Nepomniachtchi and Hikaru Nakamura after 12 rounds in the Candidates tournament in Toronto. Fabiano Caruana is half a point off the leaders. It’s India vs USA vs Russia, if you will. Two more rounds remain (not accounting for possible tie-breaks) and only the winner will make it to the pinnacle of chess competition – the World Championship. Viswanathan Anand is the only Indian so far to have played and won the World Chess Championship.

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The final rounds promise to be frenzied. Those in contention not only have to fight their own battles but also keep an eye on how rivals are faring and adjust their plans accordingly.

In recent memory, the 2013 Candidates tournament was among the most dramatic. Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik were in the shared lead. If Carlsen drew and Kramnik won their respective games in the final round, the latter would qualify for the World Championship. As it turned out, both lost their final-round games. Carlsen was declared the tournament winner on account of a higher number of wins.

“You felt like you were part of a theatre performance,” said Peter Svidler, who defeated Carlsen in the 2013 final round and is in Toronto as Praggnanandhaa’s trainer. “There was this whole storyline of Magnus playing against me but also against Vlad (Kramnik) who was playing his Black game against Vassily Ivanchuk. They constantly had to watch how each other was doing. You did get the feeling that you were part of something incredibly dramatic.”

The image of an exhausted 22 year-old Carlsen, shirt untucked, hunched over a staircase handrail after the 2013 Candidates final round, is now perhaps etched in chess folklore.

For Gukesh, the Round 13 pairings position him well for a full point. He faces an underperforming Alireza Firouzja with White while his co-leaders square off against each other. If Gukesh wins and the other game ends in a draw, the Indian goes into the final round with a significant edge. Should two players be tied on scores after 14 rounds, they’ll play a tie-break of two rapid games. If more than two players are on the same score, a single round-robin will be played.

There’s the tiny detail of nerves and fatigue in a long, winner-takes-all tournament like this one. Caruana, Nepomniachtchi and Nakamura – aged 31, 33 and 36 respectively – must be thankful for the rest day ahead of the final two rounds. Nakamura mentioned he felt tired after the recent rounds. He’s now won three games in a row and has become only the third player to do so at the Candidates since 2013. Aside from playing the Candidates, the world No. 3 has also been recording YouTube recaps after every round and winning Titled Tuesdays (online blitz).

The Indian teen shrugged off any suggestion of fatigue. “I think it will come down to whoever plays good chess and manages to stay focused in the last two rounds,” said Gukesh, “I feel pretty good physically and mentally. From the start, I’ve been in good shape. I don’t feel any kind of exhaustion.”

Barring Gukesh, the other three players have featured in multiple Candidates and two of them – Caruana and Nepomniachtchi – have played in the World Championship as well. Nakamura believes their experience will play a decisive role in the home stretch. “Between Fabiano, myself and Ian we have so much experience. All three of us are used to this situation to some degree…Not to sound nationalistic or anything but Fabiano and I both have a shot against Ian and hopefully one of us can find a way to bring it home.”

Caruana, who’s had a lacklustre run for most of the tournament has unearthed form over the last couple of rounds. “My results have kept me alive," he said, "I started to play better and win some games finally after a long time..every other tournament doesn’t compare to this in pressure and stakes.”

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