Despite being given no odds to succeed, Indian grandmasters leave a mark at Candidates chess

Six players, one point apart, four more games each, playing for one position that matters — finishing atop the FIDE Candidates 2024.

Over the next five days, Ian Nepomniachtchi, D Gukesh, R Praggnanandhaa, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Vidit Gujrathi — will play four of the most decisive games of their careers as they race towards the top spot of the double round robin event featuring eight players where finishing first gives the right to challenge the World Champion.

It’s a tournament where pressure comes in many forms, not just from the opponent across the board.

Sample this: The racing pack of six is currently separated by one point on the standings after 10 games. No American has been world champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972, over five decades back. Caruana, who has competed in four Candidates previously, had his shot in 2018 but was denied by Magnus Carlsen.

No Russian has ascended the throne since Vladimir Kramnik in 2006. Nepomniachtchi has had two shots at the title, after winning the last two Candidates tournaments, but was denied by Carlsen and Ding.

Festive offer

The three first timers from India will also be aware that no Indian has been world champion in just over a decade. All three of them were given low odds to succeed in the tournament.

Viswanathan Anand called the trio “longshots”. Carlsen had placed the three Indians, along with Nijat Abasov, at the bottom half of his predicted rating list ahead of the event.

With only four games left, Gukesh leads the race with Russia’s Nepo at six points, Pragg is tussling with the Americans Nakamura and Caruana half a point behind, and Vidit is on five points, one point away from the top. The other two contenders — Alireza Firouzja and Nijat Abasov — are out of the race.

Not only have the Indians handled the rigours of the competition well, they have also arrived in Toronto armed with a bag of tricks that have caught their opponents off guard at times.

While Vidit got Nakamura hot and bothered by offering his bishop as a sacrifice in the 11th move in the second round (in a game which the Indian went on to win), Caruana was taken aback by Pragg’s opening choice against him in their Round 7 clash.

“I don’t think he’s played the French at all (moving the pawn to e6 instead of e5 as a response to white’s e4). It’s usually e4, e5. In this tournament, he’s so far played every game with e5 (as the first move with black). I sort of knew the line, but he knew it better,” admitted Caruana in an interview with St Louis Chess Club’s YouTube channel.

Candidates 2024 Round 10 highlights

At some point during his analysis with the laptop, he starts discovering the mousetraps Pragg had set up for him.
“I wasn’t sure whether it was good or not that he played the French. In hindsight, it wasn’t good for me that he played this line,” he added.

Caruana went on a run of six draws and a defeat before he finally won his Round 10 clash on Tuesday.
Nepo was forced into a double take by Gukesh opting for the Cozio Defence with black pieces (light-squared knight jumps in front of the king on e7 square) when the Russian chose the Ruy Lopez to attack him with white pieces in Round 10.

“I would have preferred to put a bit more pressure on Gukesh, but this Nge7 became trendy recently. It’s not as simple as it might seem,” said Nepo in his own analysis during an interview with St Louis Chess Club’s YouTube channel.

Pressure at an event like the Candidates also comes from what’s happening in the adjacent boards. After his win over Caruana in Round 8, Nakamura had explained how pressure messes with your mind at an event like the Candidates. At that point, Caruana was just half a point behind sole leader Nepo.

“Everyone was expecting Nepo to beat Nijat Abasov (in round 8) with white pieces. So I felt that Fabiano really felt the pressure to do something. He was probably thinking in his mind that Nepo is going to win his game and then get away (from touching distance on the leaderboard),” explained Nakamura, who capitalised on that desperation of Caruana to defeat him.

“At the Candidates, everyone is just super nervous. Crazy out of their minds,” said Nakamura, who went on to proclaim, as he has many times in the past fortnight, that he’s only at the Candidates playing for fun since he thinks of himself as a streamer first and a chess player later, which is why there’s no pressure on him.
He pointed at the game between Alireza Firouzja and Gukesh (in round 7 where Alireza had won against the Indian), where the French GM had about three minutes to make nine moves to make the time control.

“Alireza was super calm, super relaxed, super focussed… the way he should have been at the start of any tournament. But if you were (contending for the title and you had three minutes to make nine moves), you would have been shaking and nervous. That’s just a by-product of the Candidates tournament where everyone is on the edge. It occurs more at this event than at other events.”

There are pressures in other forms as well: Winning the Candidates means taking a shot at the world chess champion’s crown, currently worn very uneasily by Ding Liren. Since he became the world champion last year, Ding has largely been missing from action. In whatever little competitive action he has taken part in, he has seemed shaky, which should embolden all six players to take their chances at the current Candidates cycle.
But it will also ratchet up the pressure for the 20- and 30- somethings in the eight-man field, who are already starting to feel the pressure from the next generation of teenage brawlers.

Pragg has slightly harder path

Here is a look at the four games that stand in the way of the Indian trio. Gukesh — who is the second youngest player in the Candidates in history — has a slightly easier path, as does Vidit, since they will face others from the top 6 in two games while Pragg runs into three prospective Candidates winners.

Gukesh’s opponents:
White pieces against Fabiano Caruana (reverse game was drawn)
Black against Nijat Abasov (Gukesh won reverse game)
White against Alireza Firouzja (Gukesh lost reverse game)
Black against Hikaru Nakamura (reverse game was drawn)

Praggnanandhaa’s opponents:
White against Hikaru Nakamura (reverse game was drawn)
Black against Ian Nepomniachtchi (reverse game was drawn)
White against Fabiano Caruana (reverse game was drawn)
Black against Nijat Abasov (Pragg won reverse game)

Vidit’s opponents:
White against Ian Nepomniachtchi (Vidit lost reverse game)
Black against Fabiano Caruana (reverse game was drawn)
White against Nijat Abasov (reverse game was drawn)
Black against Alireza Firouzja (Vidit won reverse game)

Results from Round 10

Hikaru Nakamura beat Nijat Abasov
Fabiano Caruana beat Alireza Firouzja
Ian Nepomniachtchi drew with Gukesh D
Praggnanandhaa R drew with Vidit Santosh Gujrathi

Kateryna Lagno drew with Anna Muzychuk
Aleksandra Goryachkina lost to Lei Tingjie
Nurgyul Salimova lost to Vaishali Rameshbabu
Tan Zhongyi drew with Humpy Koneru



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