Seldom has a global chess tournament caught the imagination of Indians as the 2023 World Cup did.
Even when India hosted the Chess Olympiad in August and claimed a historic bronze in each section for the first time, not to forget the number of Indian medallists, there was no such euphoria.
Looking back, when Viswanathan Anand won five classical world titles between 2000 and 2012, there was no hysterical media response, while the term “social media” was yet to gain familiarity. But what happened between the quarterfinals and the final was unprecedented.
FOLLOW HIGHLIGHTS | PRAGGNANANDHAA VS CARLSEN CHESS WORLD CUP 2023 FINAL TIEBREAKS
But once four Indians—and surprisingly, no Russians—made it to the quarterfinals in Baku, Azerbaijan, the entire nation seemed to have woken up to follow the progress of these talented Indians.
R. Praggnanandhaa, seeded at 31, became a household name. The 18-year-old, with his modest ways, gained the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the title. On his way, he took out World No. 2 Hikaru Nakamura and third-ranked Fabiano Caruana. In between, in what will be remembered as the match of the World Cup, Praggnanandhaa and good friend Arjun Erigaisi battled over nine games in the quarterfinals. This would go down as the most memorable clash involving Indians in a global event.
In the title match, Carlsen’s poor health affected the two draws in the classical time control games. Recovering from a bout of food poisoning suffered two days before the final, Carlsen looked drained out, played for draws, and got them rather easily.
Going into the tie-breaker games played over lower time control, Praggnanandhaa could gain strength from the fact that, during his campaign, he played three tie-breakers to Carlsen’s lone test against young Vincent Keymer, who came close to eliminating the eventual champion.
But on the day that mattered, Carlsen raised the bar and nailed Praggnanandhaa in the first rapid game (with a time control of 25 minutes plus a 10-second increment for every move) and easily drew the second to win 2.5-1.5.
Carlsen was generous in his praise for the youngster and said, “Praggnanandhaa had an exceptional tournament. But today, it was the experience that won.”
Carlsen’s first World Cup win was worth $110,000, and Praggnanandhaa’s maiden final fetched him $80,000 (approximately Rs. 66,10,724).
Indeed, it was Praggnanandhaa’s run that made the nation sit up. But others too punched above their weight to make it India’s most successful campaign.
Vidit Gujrathi, the fourth strongest Indian behind D. Gukesh, Viswanathan Anand, and Praggnanandhaa, accounted for the last Russian, fourth seed Ian Nepomniachtchi, in the pre-quarterfinals with a display of brilliance.
The surprise victory for Vidit saw him join Gukesh, Arjun, and Praggnanandhaa in the quarterfinal. With Praggnanandhaa meeting Arjun, an Indian in the semifinal became a certainty. Since the competition offered three spots for the Candidates Tournament, due in April 2024, the prospects of an Indian making the eight-man field brightened.
It appeared tough for Gukesh since he ran into Carlsen, but the 20th seed Vidit held hopes of advancing to the semifinals since he faced a lower-rated local rival, Nijat Abasov, seeded 69th.
But Abasov had performed way over his rating of 2632 by knocking out 60th seed Laurent Fressinet (France, 2652), fifth seed Anish Giri (Netherlands, 2775), 37th seed Peter Svidler (Russia, 2688), and 53rd seed Salem Saleh (UAE, 2661). Therefore, Vidit knew he was up against a rival in the form of his life.
As it turned out, one error of judgement from Vidit in the second game was enough to bring a sudden end to the contest that promised much.
Gukesh, playing like a top-10 player, made his way to the quarterfinals with some solid play. When he played Carlsen, everyone knew a motivated World No. 1 would be tough to crack. He won the first game by citing a misjudgement by Gukesh, which was considered impossible for a human to find. No wonder; this game was later rated by Carlsen as his best of the competition. Carlsen went on to say, “Gukesh is extremely strong, and he was sort of unlucky to have faced me that one day when I really showed my best.”
The Praggnanandhaa-Arjun clash was the best of the quarterfinals. Praggnanandhaa clinched the must-win second game to force the tiebreaker. Thereafter, Arjun won twice on demand to stay in the match. Finally, it was the sudden-death ninth game (with a time control of three minutes per player plus a two-second increment per move) that saw Praggnanandhaa win this nerve-wracking battle.
The trio of Gukesh, Arjun, and Vidit collected $35,000 each.
Nihal Sarin, the teenager seeded 36, made a mark by playing to his strength before running into Nepomniachtchi in the fourth round. S. L. Narayanan made way for Gukesh in the third round after Karthik Venkatraman tested Nakamura, and B. Adhiban fought against Daniil Dubov in the second round before falling to the favourites. The far less experienced Harsha Bharathakoti and Abhimanyu Puranik couldn’t get past the first hurdle.
Nihal collected $16,000, Narayanan ensured $10,000, and Karthik and Adhiban were richer by $6,000 after Harsha and Puranik received $3,000.
In the women’s section, played concurrently, D. Harika emerged as the best performer from the seven-member Indian team.
Tenth seed Harika made it to the quarterfinals, where she battled Russian second seed and eventual champion Aleksandra Goryachkina over eight games before falling 3.5-4.5. Though she was not required to play any higher-rated player before the quarterfinals, she played the tiebreakers in the two previous rounds. However, against Goryachkina, Harika could not raise her level. Her defeat also ended India’s campaign in the women’s section.
Third seed Humpy’s exit following her 1-3 defeat to 14th seed Georgian Bella Khotenashvili was the surprise of the fourth round. In the second round, Humpy expectedly ended the campaign of N. Priyanka.
In the third round, Mary Ann Gomes fell to the eventual runner-up, Bulgaria’s Nurgyul Salimova, 0-2 in the tiebreaker. But Mary had her moments in the competition when she knocked out Russian fourth seed Kateryna Lagno 2.5–1.5 to cause the biggest upset of the round.
Before Harika, rising talent and 34th seed Divya Deshmukh couldn’t get past Goryachkina, who prevailed 1.5–0.5 in the third round. On the same day, R. Vaishali fell to another pre-match favourite, Ukrainian Mariya Muzychuk, 0-2.
The only Indian to lose in the first round was former Asian women’s champion P. V. Nandhidhaa, who failed to get past China’s Yan Tianqi 0.5–1.5.
Strangely, the women’s section offered a prize fund of $676,250, as compared to the Open section’s $1,834,000.
Harika ($14,000), Humpy ($9,500), Vaishali, Mary, Divya ($6,750 each), Priyanka ($5,000), and Nandhidhaa ($3,750) collected a fair share for their showings.
Looking back, though Anand won the 24-player World Cup in 2000 and 2002, the 2023 edition will go down as the most memorable and impactful individual event that showcased the growing depth of Indian chess like never before on a global stage.
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