Praggnanandhaa vindicates ‘Big Boys Club’ credentials with impressive Norway Chess 2024 showing

After finishing fifth in the competitive eight-player field at Candidates 2024 in Canada, Norway Chess posed as a crucial litmus test for the young prodigy — one that he passed with flying colours.

Published : Jun 13, 2024 22:01 IST , CHENNAI - 9 MINS READ

| Video Credit: Mayank

For an 18-year-old to dominate a field in a foreign land that boasted the world’s top players is neither surprising nor shocking anymore.

India’s R. Praggnanandhaa had to contend with an invincible lot in Norway: the world’s top three players (Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana), the reigning world champion (Ding Liren), and a rival once hailed as ‘the strongest youngster’ (Alireza Firouzja).

For Praggnanandhaa, it was business as usual as the Chennai prodigy showcased his prowess with a creditable third-place finish, behind five-time former World Champion Carlsen and World No. 2 USA’s Nakamura in the recently-concluded Norway Chess.

Carlsen, known for his relentless pursuit of victories and titles, boldly declared himself the victor of the Super Grandmaster tournament even before it began in the official promo video.

His confidence was well-founded, as he clinched his 59th major career title with 17.5 points, a full two points ahead of Nakamura.

However, the Norwegian faced stiff competition from Praggnanandhaa, who proved to be his most formidable challenger on home turf. The Indian prodigy wielded his sword skillfully to achieve his first classical win against Carlsen, executing a tactical masterclass that led to victory in just 37 moves.

Rubbing shoulders with the best

Praggnanandhaa, now a regular in the ‘big boys club’, showcased his mettle once again. After finishing fifth in the competitive eight-player field at Candidates 2024 in Canada, Norway Chess posed as a crucial litmus test for the young prodigy — one that he passed with flying colours.

“The experience was good. I had pleasant positions in most of the games that I played. Overall, I played good quality chess, but in some games, I could have played better, like my both classical games against Ding (Liren). But it happens in a tournament that sometimes you have one or two bad results where you don’t show your best. That’s maybe because of one bad day, but otherwise, I was playing at a very good level,” said Praggnanandhaa in an exclusive interaction with  Sportstar.

The young grandmaster has been in top form since the start of the year, consistently playing high-quality chess.

“For the Candidates, we worked really hard. After Candidates, I didn’t really work too much on chess. I mean, I did work, but it was not very extensive. I was just trying to keep myself sharp. The work we did for Candidates is showing now, but apart from that, in terms of my performance, I think my game quality has always been good from the start of the year, from Vijk aan Zee to Prague, and then Candidates,” he said.

Despite his consistent performance, not all tournaments have gone in Praggnanandhaa’s favour. After fiercely competing for the top spot in the Tata Steel Masters and Prague Masters, and for the majority of Candidates 2024, the Chennai GM struggled to secure a strong finish, ultimately settling for a mid-table position.

Praggnanandhaa in action against Ding Liren.
Praggnanandhaa in action against Ding Liren. | Photo Credit: Norway Chess/Steve Bonhage

Praggnanandhaa in action against Ding Liren. | Photo Credit: Norway Chess/Steve Bonhage

“Even though my game quality was always at a very good level, things weren’t going my way in some of the games, which resulted in me finishing in the middle of the table always. Like in Prague, I suffered this unfortunate loss against (Richard) Rapport, and in Vijk (aan Zee), I didn’t really score many wins. In Candidates, I also had a few unfortunate losses, but otherwise, I felt I was outplaying all these top players and was scoring wins, so that was important,” he said.

Liren all at sea

While there were plenty of positives for Praggnanandhaa, the suffering of the current World Champion continued. The Chinese GM Ding found himself in a series of unfortunate events that cast a shadow over his performance.

During Round 6, Ding, with the black pieces, missed a mate-in-two against Carlsen in what should have been a dead-draw position — this missed opportunity left Ding in disbelief.

The heartbreak for Ding didn’t end there. In the following round, he found himself in a favourable position against Praggnanandhaa. However, in a puzzling decision, Ding offered a draw, pushing the match into a nerve-wracking Armageddon. The final twist came in the Armageddon game, where Ding, once again in a winning position, made yet another blunder against the Indian youngster, forcing him to resign on the spot.

Reflecting on his match with Ding, Praggnanandhaa said, “I don’t know Ding personally, but I feel like something is not going right with him. Maybe with his health or mentally after the match, but he’s spoken about it himself. In our match, I was more upset about my game than him blundering at the end. I was playing at a very low level against him in the first game. I was even lost at some point and then I was shocked that he offered a draw. We had just crossed the 30th move and that’s the first moment he could offer a draw and immediately offered one which was very shocking.”

As Praggnanandhaa continues to rise, Ding’s struggles serve as a reminder of the relentless challenges at the pinnacle of this sport, where even the greatest minds can falter under the weight of expectation and unforeseen pressure.

But for the 18-year-old Indian, things seem a bit different. His ability to handle the pressure of performance with remarkable poise puts him in a good place.

“I don’t take others’ expectations in general. At the same time, I do have my own expectations to perform well. But I never tried to put too much pressure on myself, especially in this tournament. All of them were top players and in a way, if you see rating-wise, I was one of the lowest-rated players.

“I just wanted to give my best and I knew if I played my best in all the games, I could potentially win the event. I even came close; I was in the fight till the last round. It was a good tournament and I needed to win one more classical game or score more points in the Armageddon, which I didn’t really do,” he added.

Ever-evolving formats

The Norway Chess had a 10-second increment starting from the first move, unlike Candidates 2024, where 30 additional moves alongside a 30-second increment were only given after the first 40 moves. With new formats being introduced in chess in order to promote the sport and bring variety to the players, the regular change in time format in classical chess has its own demerit.

Praggnanandhaa also has thoughts on the evolving formats in chess.

“I like new ideas coming, but I feel time control is one thing where they could have found one and tried to keep it fixed at least for some official events which are important because we are playing too many tournaments now, and with each tournament, the time control changes.

“You have to mentally adjust because, for example, we had no increment for the first 40 moves in Candidates but for the World Cup, it was there. It’s a big difference mentally because when you know that you’re getting an increment, you can plan differently. But you feel like you have to play a bit faster in matches without an increment. As we are playing a lot of tournaments back-to-back, it’s hard to adjust, and it’s something we have to learn to adjust,” he said.

Two wins in the classical format and seven draws in the cold city of Stavanger have earned Praggnanandhaa a 10.4 Elo rating boost, propelling him into the world’s top 10 list. With a current rating of 2757.4, Praggnanandhaa is now placed eighth in the FIDE live rating list, just below compatriot D. Gukesh.

Praggnanandhaa’s coach, Dronacharya Awardee R.B. Ramesh, believes that the young prodigy has yet to reach his true potential.

“It’s better to believe that he hasn’t reached his peak than to admit that this is his rating and that is his strength because that limits the scope for growth,” Ramesh had said to  Sportstar earlier.

Much like his coach and mentor, Praggnanandhaa is a firm believer in not making any predictions. When asked about the goal of reaching a 2,800 rating, he remained focused on improvement rather than milestones.

“I don’t want to make too many predictions, but I’m working towards that [2800 rating]. I feel like I’m improving and for me, the main thing is I am playing good quality chess and from here I just want to improve my game. I’ve lots of tournaments coming up, so I’m focusing on that. If you focus too much on the rating while you’re playing tournaments, it can be distracting. So, you have to focus on the game and just keep playing and continue giving your best.”

The landscape of Indian chess is witnessing a remarkable shift as young prodigies like Praggnanandhaa and Gukesh break into the world’s top 10. Joining them in this meteoric rise is Arjun Erigaisi, who has barged into the top four with consistent performances in open events.

Praggnanandhaa, whose maturity at 18 is uncanny, draws considerable inspiration from his peers.

“I’ve always said we give each other the inspiration and motivation to do well. Before every round in Norway, I used to see Arjun winning another game in the French league, then you also get this extra motivation. We are friends, but you also have this healthy competition and you also want to do well. All the young players inspire me and I’m very happy to see that there are three players (Indian youngsters) in the top 10 and I’m looking forward to the Olympiad which will be fun,” said Praggnanandhaa with a smile.

As Praggnanandhaa continues to make strides in the world of chess, his journey is a testament of his skill and the burgeoning Indian talent pool. With his focus on continuous improvement and his ability to thrive under pressure, the future looks even brighter for this young lad.

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