Seven rounds have passed at the World Junior Championship in Tarvisio, Italy. Just past the halfway stage, Aryan Tari from Norway, with a score of 6.0/7, has emerged as the clear leader. However, the road to the title will not be an easy one for him as just a heartbeat away, at 5.5/7, are nine players waiting for their chance to bring down Tari and take the lead themselves. One of the names among these players is that of the 12-year-old R Praggnanandhaa.
He might be only 12-years-old but he is a force to be reckoned with. In May last year – at the age of 10 years, 10 months and 19 days – he became the youngest International Master in the history of chess. Today, he is chasing another world record – the record to become the youngest Grand Master. It is this very dream of earning the Grand Master title that has brought him to the World Junior Championship here.
The tournament is for players below 20 years of age. Of course, little Praggnanandhaa is much younger than most of his opponents. But if he could finish clear first here, he will be awarded the Grand Master title. According to the rules of the tournament, the winner, if he already isn't a Grand Master, will be conferred the title. This, however, does not apply if the first place is shared; in that case, only a Grand Master norm is granted.
Praggnanandhaa had a fantastic start to the event, scoring two wins and a draw in his first three rounds. In round four, he was paired against the top seed of the tournament, Jorden van Foreest. Van Foreest was a tough nut to crack. He is not only rated much higher than Praggnanandhaa, but is also a lot more experienced.
However, in the game, it was Praggnanandhaa who displayed great maturity and skill. With the white pieces, he went for the much-in-vogue Italian Opening. Soon the players reached a typical position where black had good centre control while white had attacking prospects on the kingside. But just because he had good attacking chances, Praggnanandhaa did not rush things like many other 12-year-olds would. He slowly manoeuvred his pieces and outplayed his opponent positionally.
Having beaten the top seed of the tournament, Praggnanandhaa was pitted against the highest-rated Indian in the tournament, SL Narayanan. Narayanan had come to the board with a clear aim. He wanted to checkmate the black king and was willing to go to any length to achieve that. With the white pieces in the Archangelsk variation of the Spanish Opening, Narayanan sacrificed his knight on g5 early in the game and went on to sack another piece. As compensation, the Kerela boy had a strong attack on Praggnanandhaa's king along with a seemingly unbreakable pin on the f6 knight. But again, Praggnanandhaa, despite being outprepared in the opening by his opponent, defended tenaciously and saved the position. In the end, his extra material made itself count and Narayanan resigned after the 53rd move.
He drew his next two games post his win against Narayanan and in both those games, his play was commendable. In round six, playing against Chinese Grand Master Xu Xiangyu, the Indian wonderkid ended up in a dull position which didn't offer many chances to either side. But even in such a bland position, Praggnanandhaa was able to generate complications – a quality the great Viswanathan Anand is known for. In response, however, the Chinese Grand Master came up with some ingenious moves and in the end the two signed truce.
In the seventh round, Praggnanandhaa had good winning chances against Grand Master Kirill Alekseenko towards the end of the game but decided to repeat the position and draw. It isn't clear why he did this. International Master Sagar Shah, in his post-game analysis, pointed out that Praggnanandhaa had been worse through the entire game and perhaps he decided to go for a draw to end the emotional turbulence that he was going through. Recalling the Garry Kasparov-Anatoly Karpov matches, Shah mentioned that this was something players did to keep their composure. But had Praggnanandhaa won this game, he would have been in joint lead with Tari.
In round eight, Praggnanandhaa will be playing against another young prodigy, Grand Master Awonder Liang of the US. In their previous encounter, the Chennai boy had beaten Liang with black pieces. This time around, he has white. It will be interesting to see how things pan out.
Three other Indians, Grand Masters Murali Karthikeyan, Aravindh Chithambaram and Shardul Gagare, share the third place with 5.0/7 with 12 other players. With five more rounds to go and so many players within striking distance from the leader, the tournament is wide open. And, if Praggnanandhaa could continue his great run in the last four rounds, he might just become the youngest Grand Master in the history of the game!
Standings after round seven
Aditya Pai is an editor at ChessBase India
Updated Date: Nov 21, 2017 18:26 PM