Fighting for the last semifinal spot of the FIDE World Cup, the way R. Praggnanandhaa and Arjun Erigaisi fought tooth-and-nail over nine games, on Thursday, truly epitomised the spirit of the present generation of Indian players.
Friends off the board and fierce on it, these teenagers caught the attention and the imagination of the chess world with a display of fine grit spread over nine games that witnessed three comebacks, including two by Arjun, before Praggnanandhaa won the first sudden-death game in style.
With this being the background, Praggnanandhaa is now being seen as a serious challenger to rating favourite Fabiano Caruana when the two clash on Saturday for a place in the final. Top seed Magnus Carlsen will play home-favourite and Azerbaijan’s surprise packet Nijat Abasov.
Concurrently, the women’s title-clash will involve second seeded Russian Aleksandra Goryachkina playing Bulgarian dark-horse Nurgyul Salimova. For the third place, worth a spot in the next Candidates tournament, Ukraine’s Anna Muzychuk will face China’s Tan Zhongyi.
Without doubt, all eyes will be on the Caruana-Praggnanandhaa encounter. Though Caruana leads Praggnanandhaa 1-0 in their head-to-head clash after two classical games so far, the World No. 2 has every reason to take the Indian very seriously.
Unlike some of the other leading names, Caruana is not known to be very happy playing in shorter time-controls. As a result, it will be fair to assume that Caruana could go flat out in the two classical games to close the contest.
On the other hand, Praggnanandhaa will be happy to hold the Italian-turned-American citizen at 1-1 to take the contest into the tie-breaker games. It may be recalled that the Indian hit back against Arjun after losing the opening encounter and never trailed thereafter.
Psychologically, Praggnanandhaa is well-equipped to deal with the pressure of expectations from the new generation of chess-lovers from around the globe. Besides his exciting chess, Praggnanandhaa has also attracted an ever-increasing number of followers through his gentle ways with the fans and peers alike.
Considering Caruana’s solidity in classical games, Praggnanandhaa will have to play the waiting game for longer than he was required to do against his previous rivals. A positional warfare is expected on the first two days, when Praggnanandhaa will be looking for an opportunity to switch tactics.
Though Carlsen and Caruana will start as favourites, a surprise or two cannot be ruled out.
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