Off-side: From outsider to top contender, Candidates winner Gukesh is on the move

Youthful audacity triumphed over seasoned scepticism as D. Gukesh became the youngest-ever to win the FIDE Candidates.

Published : Apr 24, 2024 11:02 IST , CHENNAI - 3 MINS READ

Gukesh (right) facing off against Nakamura.
Gukesh (right) facing off against Nakamura. | Photo Credit: Michał Walusza

Gukesh (right) facing off against Nakamura. | Photo Credit: Michał Walusza

The young, like over-enthusiastic puppies, are eager to bound into the unknown with reckless abandon, thrilled by the thought of defying convention. But as the years pile on, so do the caution signs. We are tethered by the weight of past missteps, hesitant to stray too far from the beaten path.

Those careful voices of experience had thought little about 17-year-old Dommaraju Gukesh. According to former champion Magnus Carlsen, he was not exactly expected to set the chess world on fire at the FIDE Candidates in Toronto. “I cannot imagine him winning the Candidates. I can see him being anywhere from +2 to -5 (at the end of the tournament). I don’t think he will do poorly, but I don’t think he will do too well either. He’s not quite ready yet to make the leap,” Carlsen had told ahead of the tournament.

But youthful audacity triumphed over seasoned scepticism. While the old guard crumbled like last week’s stale biscuits under the harsh glare of the spotlight, Gukesh held steady. Carlsen’s picks — two-time World Championship contender Ian Nepomniachtchi, World No. 2 Fabiano Caruana, and World No. 3 Hikaru Nakamura — finished half a point behind him.

During a post-victory introspection, the youngest winner of the Candidates confessed that his heart-wrenching seventh-round defeat to Iran’s Alireza Firouzja fuelled his quest for glory. Up a pawn and pressing for victory, Gukesh miscalculated under time pressure and lost a precious advantage. “If I had to pinpoint when I really felt this could be my moment, it was probably after I lost to Firouzja. I was actually quite upset, but during the rest day, I already felt so good. Even though I just had a painful loss, I was feeling at my absolute best,” India’s youngest-ever Grandmaster said.

Gukesh has had his fair share of misses, like a stumble at the Swiss Masters, where he finished 81st after starting as the fifth seed, and a third place at the London Chess Classic, where he began as the top seed. A loss of 43 rating points towards the end of 2023 had almost derailed his chances of making it to the Candidates. But Gukesh won the hastily organised Chennai Grand Masters 2023 on tiebreaks to secure the lone qualifying spot from the FIDE Circuit to the Candidates.

In Toronto, too, he bounced back from the loss to the Iranian to win three and draw four of the last seven games.

Gukesh is in a realm where Viswanathan Anand (at 26) had once trodden as the first Indian in 1995. It had taken Anand four years to become a Challenger from a Candidate. But Gukesh, under Anand’s tutelage and the support of the WestBridge Anand Chess Academy, has bridged that divide between candidate and potential champion in one go.

“Age considers; Youth ventures,” Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore once said. Gukesh, at 17, is ready to venture into uncharted territory and create his own legacy. His Toronto triumph will inspire every aspiring chess player in India. And a victory over China’s Ding Liren in November will make him the youngest world champion. Carlsen and Co. will no longer consider him an outsider.

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