Leon Masters: R Praggnanandhaa comes close to beating defending champion Wesley So in opening match
After the drawing of lots, R Praggnanandhaa was paired against the World No 2 (rapid), Wesley So in the first round.
The Leon Masters is known for pitting upcoming players with some of the very best players in the world. The defending champion, Wesley So, was back in Leon once again to defend his title. Anand, however, was not present. Instead, another young tiger from Chennai had arrived in Leon to prove his prowess – India's latest and youngest grandmaster, R Praggnanandhaa. The other two players in the field included Spaniards Francisco Vallejo Pons and Jaime Santos.
The tournament is a knock-out played in rapid time control with players required to win a four-game mini-match in order to progress to the next round. After the drawing of lots, Praggnanandhaa was paired against the World No 2 (rapid), Wesley So in the first round while compatriots Vallejo Pons and Jaime Santos battled against each other to progress to the final.
To play against a world class player like Wesley So was a big opportunity for India's recently crowned grandmaster and Praggnanandhaa looked ready for the challenge. One amusing detail, though, was that Praggnanandhaa's rapid rating was only 1736, more than 1100 points less than his American rival who was rated 2852. But this was only because the Chennai boy had been too busy trying to earn his grandmaster norms in his quest to become the world's youngest GM. He had therefore concentrated only on classical games, leaving his rapid rating where it was. He was clearly much stronger than what his rating suggested and this he proved in the very first game.
Wesley made it clear from the start that he meant business. Firstly, he opened with an unorthodox Queen's pawn opening to catch his young opponent off guard. When Praggnanandhaa reacted well, So stormed his pawns up the queenside, trying to generate an attack. But even this didn't make the Chennai lad budge. Praggnanandhaa sought counterplay in the centre and, as it turned out, it was So who made the first big mistake. Instead of recapturing in the centre on his 20th turn, So plunged in with his queen on the kingside. The resulting tactical tussle left So with a rook against Praggnanandhaa's two knights.
Praggnanandhaa struggled to convert with his material advantage and even missed a winning idea multiple times around his 52nd move. The good news was, however, that So had also missed it. Over the next ten moves, the game remained equal but complicated, when, on his 62nd turn, So missed the idea to hold on to a draw by sacrificing his rook. And once he had missed it, there was no way to save the game. Praggnanandhaa had won his very first game against a world class player like So!
In game two, Praggnanandhaa found himself in a winning position yet again. And this time, he was winning only 7 moves into the game. In a Rossolimo Sicilian, Wesley allowed a deadly bishop sacrifice that could have spelt doom instantaneously. But this time, Praggnanandhaa erred. Not only did he miss the sacrifice that could have won him the game, he also blundered on his 34th turn, letting his opponent win a full bishop with an elementary tactical shot.
Wesley put his faith in the unorthodox Queen's pawn opening that he had deployed in the first game once again in the third game of the match. And yet again, he found himself under pressure in the middle game. Praggnanandhaa had sacrificed a full piece on his 18th turn in order to roll his pawn down the c-file. To stop the advancing pawn, So had to return the piece in order to stop the pawn and accept an endgame where he was a pawn down. But with his immense experience and immaculate endgame technique, So succeeded in saving half a point.
Three games had concluded and the scores were still level. It was incredible how Praggnanandhaa had been able to hold ground against someone as strong as So, thus far. More importantly, if Praggnanandhaa hadn't missed his opportunities in the second game, he might as well have been leading at this point. And in the fouth and final round, it was Praggnanandhaa who had the white pieces.
Praggnanandhaa went for one of his favourite lines for the deciding game, the Italian. But Wesley, too, has a ton of experience in this currently topical opening. Praggnanandhaa did manage to come out with an equal position out of the opening. But once the queens were off the board, So outclassed his 12-year-old opponent in the ensuing manoeuvres. By the 57th move, Praggnanandhaa had to give up his rook to stop So's advancing pawn in a rook endgame with equal material. Just one move later, he resigned.
This win meant that So will be defending his title against the winner of the battle between the Spaniards, Vallejo Pons and Santos. For Praggnanandhaa, this is an inspiring result despite his loss. In fact, So himself mentioned after the match that the result could have easily tipped in Praggnanandhaa's favour given the way the match went.
So, however, wasn't the only one to shower praise on Praggnanandhaa. Talking about Praggnanandhaa's performance, former five-time world champion, Viswanathan Anand said, "I thought Praggnanandhaa showed very good form in this match playing someone like Wesley So, who is one of the highest rated rapid players in the world. He had good chances at some point. I think it's very impressive. Of course, he will need to get more experience. That is what he will feel after this match but I was very impressed with his play and this is a very good beginning for him."
Aditya Pai is an editor at ChessBase India.
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