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R Praggnanandhaa first Indian after Viswanathan Anand to enter World Cup semis

Aug 18, 2023

Erigaisi Arjun and R Praggnanandhaa - two teenage friends - went toe-to-toe and braincell-to-braincell before the latter emerged winner in their World Cup chess quarterfinal in Baku on Thursday.

The reward for the 18-year-old is a date with Fabiano Caruana in the semis - he is the first Indian after Vishy Anand in the WC last four - and at least $50,000 in prize money. But importantly, he secures a spot in the Candidates tournament in 2024, the winner of which will play China's Ding Liren for the world crown.

The intense tiebreak drama between the two Indians exploded from the 10-min games after a set of the first two rapid games ended in draws.

Praggu prevails after heart-stopping drama

Veteran GM Peter Leko said during the webcast, "Sensational match...there were mistakes but the players showed incredible will to fight till the end." 

"Happy," reacted Praggu after reaching the semis. "I don't think it was easy at all.... we were just fighting and not playing well with white. Maybe it's hard to find ideas with white. For me at least. Arjun is strong with both colours, especially with black. I was just trying to calm down and play my best. Was not thinking of Candidates but was concentrating only on the games. To lose 30 seconds without doing anything was upsetting but I managed to recover."

The player with black pieces won four games in a row. Arjun triumphed in a must-win contest in the fourth tiebreak game (both 10-minute games) after losing the third one. Then, Praggu did the same in the sixth game after losing the fifth (both five-minute games). 

The tiebreak then moved to no-opportunity-to-bounce-back zone as the regulations stated the first decisive game (three minutes plus two second increment) would end the contest.

The topsy-turvy nature of the contest reached its zenith as a player with white pieces - Praggu - finally struck with a supposedly favourable colour to end Arjun's gallant effort with a 5-4 scoreline. The drama had begun even before this game had started as Praggu reached the table after his clock was started and he almost lost half a minute in the three-minute game. He also displayed no nerve as he removed his player accreditation and jacket when saving time was of great essence.

The tiebreak games of shorter time controls were warranted after both had won a game each with black pieces in the classical phase too on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

American 31-year-old Caruana (Elo 2782), Praggu's rival in semis, had finished off Leinier Dominguez in the classical phase itself by winning with white pieces. 

In the women's semifinal, 29th seed Nurguyl Salimova of Bulgaria, who is not even a WGM, defeated GM Anna Muzhychuk of Ukraine, overall 3.5-2.5 and 2.5-1.5 in tiebreak. They too started with rapid wins for each player with black pieces. Salimova (Elo 2403) then won the 15-minute game with white pieces before drawing the next with black to clinch the deal. 

She will play second seed Aleksandra Goryachkina in the two-game title clash starting on Saturday. The men will start their semis on the day with Friday being the rest day.

World No. 97 Nijat Abasov creates candidates history

The story of the World Cup chess so far is that of local boy Nijat Abasov. With Magnus Carlsen clarifying that he won’t play the Candidates, the other three semifinalists at the ongoing FIDE knockout event in Baku, Azerbaijan, will advance to the eight-player tournament that spots a challenger to take on reigning world champion Ding Liren early next year. Otherwise, only the topthree were set to make it from the World Cup. 

Abasov’s story is the reverse of the Indians — he had lost rating points post pandemic, from 2668 in Jan 2021 to 2646 at the start of this month. At world No. 97, the 28-year-old will be the lowest-rated player to have qualified for the modern Candidates cycle.

Before knocking out Vidit Gujrathi in the second game of the quarterfinals, he survived a slightly minus position for 109 moves in the opening game. He also had upset wins over stalwarts Anish Giri and former champion Peter Svidler during this campaign. Abasov will face top seed Magnus Carlsen for a place in the final. 

“I only saw the opening (in the second game against Vidit) which was fairly innocuous and then Abasov won. I don’t know how,” Carlsen said, his wit intact. “The confidence that he plays with is astounding. The level of opponents that he has knocked out is very impressive.” 

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