MAHABALIPURAM: Fabiano Caruana had his hands on his head. The same gesture was being aped by Wesley So and Leinier Perez Dominguez. Levon Aronian was sipping a beverage, wearing a blank expression. The much-vaunted ‘dream team’, a moniker that was bestowed on the US side before they arrived for the Olympiad, were expected to walk the Open section. Their form, though, has been patchy at best.
On Saturday, the four super GMs — all of them having ratings of above 2700 — ran into four Indian teenagers (three 16-year-olds and one 18-year-old), prodigies touted to reach the promised land — 2700 and beyond — in due course.
At stake was more than just wounded pride. The US knew that with a win, they could recover lost ground to make a serious dash for the medal placings. By the time the tie finished, the unthinkable had happened. All four teenagers produced on demand, elite-level chess to stun their higher-rated opponents to help the hosts to a fine 3-1 win. Placing their hands on their head is very common among chess players. Inside hall one on Saturday, though, it was symbolic of US’ problems. They were given a mighty headache.
The star of the show, not for the first time, was D Gukesh. The 16-year-old Chennai boy, who is said to have the highest ceiling among the current crop of chess-playing centennial geniuses, produced his biggest Classical win till date, taking down Fabiano Caruana, who played the 2018 World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen. Raunak Sadhwani too prevailed over Dominguez to secure the match points after R Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin secured two draws.
What made Gukesh’s win even more remarkable was Caruana, who has been swimming in choppy waters all through the week, began better. Starting with white pieces, already an inherent advantage according to engines, Caruana caught Gukesh out with an unfamiliar opening. “I didn’t know the line he played,” the 16-year-old admitted as much following the game.
“I tried to hold on. After he played b4, I got some counter play.” Gukesh was referring to Caruana’s 24th move. After that move, the engine slowly but surely began tilting the game in Gukesh’s favour. They traded pawns soon after as Caruana tried to rectify the situation by being proactive. He responded with a knight to c5 and that proved to be the beginning of the end. Gukesh attacked with a queen to d5. All of a sudden, Gukesh was now in the driving seat and he had a clear line of attack.
After ‘suffering a little bit,’ in the words of Judit Polgar in the commentary box, ‘we are witnessing history,’ she noted. “We see a youngster flying. Completely winning position, so close to getting his eighth win.” After the 40th move, Gukesh went extremely aggressive, with the endgame in sight. Caruana had no choice but to throw in the towel.
“I just play to win, irrespective of black or white. Play aggressive,” he said. Interestingly, he called the game a ‘learning experience’. “It’s a learning experience for me. Opening, I was outplayed. I didn’t panic a lot because I still took it as an opportunity for me to prove to myself” that he can still play against strong opponents.
The win also makes him India’s No 2 on live ratings (2729.1), behind only Viswanathan Anand. As of Saturday night, he is the World No 20. For India A, it was below-par as they lost to Armenia in a marathon tussle, with the game on the top-board -- between P Harikrishna and Gabriel Sargissian -- going for six hours and 40 minutes. It ended with Sargissian prevailing.In the women’s section, India and Ukraine played four draws for a 2-2 score. The hosts, though, are on the top of the standings with 15 points.