FIDE World Cup 2017: From Viswanathan Anand's struggle to SP Sethuraman's rise, a look at how Indians fared
A single loss was sufficient for Anand to be knocked out of the World Cup. Such is the unforgiving nature of this format.
When World Cup 2017 began we had expected at least two of of the Indian players to make it beyond round two. They were Viswanathan Anand and Pentala Harikrishna. Anand needs no introduction while Harikrishna has been over 2,750 in the past and had once even grazed the top-10 chess players in the world rankings. As it turned out, both of them got knocked out in round two. The two players who did move ahead to round three were Vidit Gujrathi and SP Sethuraman. And they were very close to reaching round four as well, before disaster struck.
Both Gujrathi and Sethuraman deserved to advance to the next round, but it was not to be. The Indian campaign at World Cup 2017 ended at the third round. Let's analyse the performance of each of the seven Indians at the event:
Anand describes his journey at the World Cup in one line, "Nc5 was a ridiculous decision in this format." And yes, I think this makes complete sense. Anand was not his solid self in round one against Yeoh Li Tian as well, but he somehow made it to the second round. Against Anton Kovalyov, he had a very pleasant position with a slight edge. He could have pressed his opponent in various ways, but instead went for a piece sacrifice which turned out to be incorrect. "Sometimes your brain is not screwed to your head and you do strange things. Afterwards you don't know why!"
This single loss was sufficient for Anand to be knocked out of the World Cup. Such is the unforgiving nature of this format. He fought hard in the second game with the black pieces against Kovalyov, but the Canadian Grand Master was just too strong. Many say that Anand getting knocked out so comprehensively is an end of an era. With Anand we know that he can make a comeback at just about any time, but Anand not being in the Candidates and not fighting for the highest title is a 'first' in nearly a decade. Anand will next play in the Isle of Man International starting from 23 September and it will be interesting to see how he fares, as the reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen and former world champion Vladimir Kramnik would be playing in the super strong event.
Sometime at the start of 2016 Harikrishna had reached a rating of 2,768 and was World No 10 at that point. The last year-and-a-half has been not so great for him. He has a live rating of 2,732 right now and is ranked 25th in the world. Harikrishna had shown his class against many of the top players, beating the likes of Anish Giri, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Michael Adams and many others. But World Cup is a tournament where he has not been able to sustain the pressure. Just like 2015, he lost to Sethuraman in 2017 in the second round. Harikrishna was also far from being impressive in the first round against Yuri Gonzalez Vidal and made it to the second round only after prolonged struggle.
Harikrishna had played this year in the FIDE Grand Prix. He has been invited to many super tournaments. He is gaining valuable experience in becoming one of the best Grand Masters in the world. Although something is still lacking, we are sure that he will bridge the gap pretty soon. Experiences like that in World Cup 2017 will help Harikrishna find the flaws in his game and fix them.
He is currently the rising star in India's chess horizon. Not only did Gujrathi break into 2,700 a few days ago, he has been able to improve his Elo graph and has moved to 2,712. He is now ranked 37th in the world. At the World Cup, he hardly seemed to be in any difficulty against elite players like Le Quang Liem or Ding Liren. This is partly because of his work with Giri. His opening preparation is so well mapped out that it is literally impossible to surprise him or trap him in a position which he is unaware of.
His loss to Ding was pretty unfortunate. He was winning the first classical game and if he would have done that it would have been him instead of Ding in the semi-final. Gujrathi is just 22-years-old and clearly has the talent to take his game to the next level. What he lacks is the killer instinct and self-belief. The sooner he starts believing that he belongs right up there, let's say, in the 2,750-plus zone, the faster he will be able to reach there.
If attitude was the only thing you required to gain Elo, then Adhiban would already have been world number one! He oozes confidence. He can come back from losses as if nothing had happened and he is intimidated by absolutely no one. What he lacks sometimes is the objectivity in his play. But this is something that he will gain in due time, this is for sure. Working with experienced coaches like Elizbar Ubilava will go a long way in removing the cobwebs that mar his game.
Chess is a psychological game. While you battle your opponents, many of the wars are often waged within your mind. And confidence helps you to win many of these struggles. You do not doubt yourself, nor your ability. This is the reason why I feel Adhiban can become one of the best players in the world and within a few months cross the 2,700 barrier.
It wouldn't be inappropriate to say that Sethuraman was the hero of the World Cup for India. He not only beat a former FIDE world champion, Ruslan Ponomariov, he also managed to eliminate Harikrishna and had Giri on the ropes. On the first day, while we were going to the opening ceremony, I sat next to Sethuraman on the bus and we spoke about various topics. One of them was about him indulging in yoga and pranayam to keep his mind cool. "I used to have very strong nerves earlier," said Sethuraman. "But recently I am facing huge difficulties in converting winning positions." And this was exactly the problem that stopped him from beating Giri.
Sethuraman was clearly the better prepared player as compared to Giri. He was even playing better chess, but what made the difference was his poor conversion of winning positions. So he was outplaying a 2,784-rated opponent at will. He was completely outmanoeuvring him in an opening (Najdorf) where he is one of the world's leading expert. You can only imagine what will happen to Sethuraman's chess if he gains control on his nerves. Can he touch an Elo rating of 2,700 within a year? That would mean nearly 70 Elo points, but I think this is highly possible.
India's two-time national champion, Murali was knocked out by Francesco Vallejo Pons in the first round of the World Cup. However, he didn't bow out without a fight. After losing the first classical game, he came back and beat Pons in the second. He bowed out in the tie-breakers, but what a great learning experience it was for the 17-year-old! When Pons was knocked out in the third round, I caught up with him and asked him about Karthikeyan. "The boy needs to work on his openings," Pons said. Yes, Karthikeyan is a player who has almost reached 2,600 on the basis of his middlegame strength. His openings are still at a very basic and unpolished stage. Some work put in that direction will go a long way in making him join the ranks of the Gujrathis, Adhibans and Sethuramans.
This was Sengupta's first appearance in the World Cup. He played against the super solid Chinese Grand Master Wang Hao. Such opponents are always difficult to face. Sengupta showed good preparation and also managed to draw the first game with white pieces, but in the second one, he gave his Chinese opponent just the kind of position he loved. In the end, Sengupta had to pay the price and was knocked out.
For me the reason why Sengupta has never crossed 2,600 is still unclear. He works really hard on chess, he has a good understanding of the game and in general, has strong nerves - this is seen in ample measure from his good last round results in many tournaments that he has won. Perhaps he just needs to get Adhiban's positive attitude and confidence flowing. This should enable him to first break the 2,600 barrier and then move to the higher reaches.
Sagar Shah is an International Master and CEO of ChessBase India.
He remained unbeaten through nine rounds and accumulated 6.5 points to finish half a point ahead of Icelandic GM Hannes Stefansson, the runner-up.
Gujrathi shared honours with Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) to take his tally to four points while Praggnanandhaa (2.5 points) held Sam Shankland (USA) to a draw late on Friday
Azerbaijan's Mamedyarov's win over Praggnanandhaa helped him join world no.1 Magnus Carlsen in the lead. The 16-year old Indian GM now has 2.5 points after eight rounds having suffered four defeats so far