Smart moves: When knight becomes king

When the tournament began, everyone didn’t rate Gukesh’s chances of an upset. A couple of reasons: One, he lacked experience. Two, his 2023 wasn’t pretty.
D Gukesh
D Gukesh

In the days after D Gukesh became the youngest to win the Candidates, the International Chess Federation (FIDE), tweeted an official video from when the Indian was 12 years. “I want to become the world champion,” he said then. He’s now mere months away from challenging China’s Ding Liren in the summit clash. The win would make him only the second Indian to become the champion and first since his idol, Viswanathan Anand.

In five years, the Indian, the third youngest GM in history, has already blossomed into one of the finest Classical chess exponents. If you want somebody to go for an all-out attack, call Gukesh. If you want somebody to launch periodical skirmishes while maintaining structure, he’s already getting there. He has already displayed his razor-sharp moves, even as he maintains ultra calm.

Going into the 14th and final round of the Candidates (the elite eight-player field from where the winner goes to play the reigning world champion) on April 21, the 17-year-old was faced with a general dilemma. He was leading the field by 0.5 points and was up against Hikaru Nakamura, one of three players, half-a-point behind. In one of the other games, Ian Nepomniachtchi faced Fabiano Caruana, two players who could still catch Gukesh provided there was a winner in that match.

The Chennai-born player had destiny in his own hands; if he beat Nakamura, he would advance. If he drew, that result could potentially invite tie-breakers in the Rapid format a day later. Stick or twist? It’s here that his role clarity played a big part. He didn’t play for a draw. “We always play to win,” Vishnu Prasanna, his coach, told this newspaper hours after the match. “We can win but what’s the best way to go there? Be patient and wait for chances. Nothing too reckless but go for the win when you have to.” He remained rock solid and played out a draw after 71 moves.

In the other game, Caruana and Nepomniachtchi went at it for over six hours. The former had multiple chances but blundered. In the end, they signed a peace deal after over a 100 moves. “I’m very sorry,” the Russian, a Candidates veteran who either had sole or joint lead in 40 of the previous 41 rounds, said. “My fault,” Caruana managed. It just puts into context the scale of Gukesh’s achievements. He was a novice up against some of the best battle-hardened veterans in the modern history of chess. To come out on the other side unscathed and victorious is monumental.

When the tournament began, everyone didn’t rate Gukesh’s chances of an upset. A couple of reasons: One, he lacked experience. Two, his 2023 wasn’t pretty. He had stumbled into the Candidates, getting in via the Circuit thanks to taking part in a tournament that was essentially organised to help him qualify in Chennai.

So, how did he overcome his own inexperience? “There are pros and cons,” he had said after he won the tournament. “Considering my age and, say, lack of experience, there are also some advantages. (In) such a long tournament, it’s easier to stay focused at my age, I guess.”

The one thing that he continues to exhibit is his remarkable maturity for somebody who is a teenager. It’s something Liren agreed. “He has a maturity that doesn’t match his age,” the Chinese is believed to have opined.

It’s something he has added to an already imposing arsenal over the last few years. Back when he was a kid, he used to have a tough time dealing with losses. At the Olympiad in 2022, the teen broke down after an agonising endgame loss to Nodirbek Abdusattorov in the 10th round. Following that loss, Viswanathan Anand had paid him a visit. “If I’m going to kill myself,” he had told himself after that defeat, “I am going to do it after the last round.”

Since August 2022, apart from maturing in terms of dealing with pressure (there was a phase in 2023 when he struggled with his own lofty expectations), he has also grown as a player. He has added more variations and expanded his opening work. Many believe that by the turn of the decade, Indian players could dominate the game’s top table. Gukesh can kickstart it if he can become the youngest world champion.

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The New Indian Express