Gelfand Challenge: Gritty Gukesh pulls off sensational title-win

Placed two points behind leader Vincent Keymer and 1.5 points from second-placed R. Praggnanandhaa at the start of the final day, Gukesh scripted the improbable in the field that featured world’s 20 handpicked talents.

Grandmaster D. Gukesh sensationally won the $15,000 Gelfand Challenge chess title on Sunday.   -  m. vedhan

Exceeding all expectations, world's second youngest Grandmaster D. Gukesh sensationally won the $15,000 Gelfand Challenge chess title on Sunday and with it, a ‘wild card’ for the elite Meltwaters Champions Chess Tour.

Placed two points behind leader Vincent Keymer and 1.5 points from second-placed R. Praggnanandhaa at the start of the final day, Gukesh scripted the improbable in the field that featured world’s 20 handpicked talents.

Gukesh, 15, won all four rounds, including the key battle against Praggnanandhaa, and emerged on top after a series of favourable results from the games involving other title-contenders.

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In what was a global advertisement for the chess talent in India, Gukesh and Praggnanandhaa aggregated 14 points from 19 rounds. Gukesh took the title due to his 17th-round win over Praggnanandhaa.

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“Coming into the final day, I didn’t expect to win after how I was placed in the standings. It’s just a great honour to play in the Champions Chess Tour. I haven’t thought about it and I don't have many expectations. I just want to enjoy playing the top players and learn something from them,” said Gukesh.

Gukesh joins compatriots P. Iniyan and B. Adhiban as ‘wild cards’ for the Champions Tour.

Meanwhile, it was heartbreak for Praggnanandhaa, who won the Polgar Challenge in April and played impressively in the New in Chess Classic involving the world’s elite players. Notwithstanding his loss to Gukesh, the draw in the 18th round against last-placed Olga Badelka (Belarus) was surely going to hurt Praggnanandhaa.

One of the factors that played a major role in Gukesh’s title-triumph was his handling of the pressure, unlike Keymer, Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin.

Keymer lost twice and added only 1.5 points from the other two rounds, as against Praggnanandhaa’s 2.5/4 and Nihal’s 2/4.

It came down to the final round, with Gukesh needing a win against Lei Tingjie to keep Praggnanandhaa and Keymer at bay. The Chinese girl had stunned Gukesh in the Polgar Challenge so he was eager to get a good
position out of the opening phase.

Gukesh got into a dominant position, then let Lei back into the game, regained his grip and eventually came out stronger. “I was very nervous before the start of the game because I realised I could win the title. Even though I got closer to a win, I was more nervous. In fact, there was a time during the game when I thought I had let my chance slip. But then, Lei committed a blunder and I capitalised on it to win,” was the candid admission from the champion.

The results (involving Indians):

19th round: D. Gukesh bt Lei Tingjie (Chn); Nurgyul Salimova (Bul) lost to R. Praggnanandhaa; Volodar Murzin (Rus) bt Nihal Sarin; Awonder Liang (USA) drew with Leon Mendonca.

18th round: Jonas Buhl Bjerre (Den) lost to Gukesh; Praggnanandhaa drew with Olga Badelka (Blr); Nihal bt Sarasadat Khademalsharieh (Iri); Mendonca bt Nurgyul Salimova (Bul).

17th round: Gukesh bt Praggnanandhaa; Awonder lost to Nihal; Olga drew with Mendonca.

16th round: Mendonca lost to Gukesh; Praggnanandhaa bt Christopher Yoo (USA); Nihal lost to Nurgyul.

Final standings (leading finishers, including Indians): 1-2. D. Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa (14 points each); 3. Vincent Keymer (Ger, 13.5); 4. Volodar Murzin (Rus, 13), 5. Nihal Sarin (12); 9. Leon Mendonca (10).

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