World Juniors: Aravindh Chithambaram clinches bronze; impressive R Praggnanandhaa finishes 4th
Among the top ten finishers of the event, three were Indians: Chithambaram finished joint first (third on the final standings), Praggnanandhaa was fourth and Karthikeyan finished seventh.
What a spectacular finish it was to the World Junior Championship! After the storm of chess battles had calmed, it was the Norwegian Grand Master (GM) Aryan Tari who won the title. This was, by no means, an easy feat to achieve. In the final round, he was pitted against GM Jorden van Foreest, the top seed of the tournament, and was held to a draw. With this, a field of six players got the chance to catch up with the leader by winning their respective games. Of the six, however, only two were able to succeed – Manuel Petrosyan and Aravindh Chithambaram. The three were now tied for first. After the tiebreak was applied, Tari was declared first, Petrosyan second and Chithambaram third.
R Praggnanandhaa, who had been chasing not only the title but also the GM title, only managed to draw his game against German GM Rasmus Svane and finished fourth.
For Chithambaram, the tournament was quite a roller coaster ride. He had lost his very first game to a much lower rated player in the tournament. But then, he made a strong comeback by winning his next four games. In the next three rounds, though, his pace slowed down as the Chennai lad conceded three draws in a row. It seemed he might not even be one of the challengers for the top prize. But soon, he put all predictors to shame. Making his way to the top once again, Chithambaram began demolishing one opponent after another and joined the leaders in the last round beating strong contenders like Kirill Alekseenko and Xu Xiangyu on the way.
Chithambaram's tenth round game was a long struggle. Playing with the whites against the Russian GM Kirill Alekseenko, Chithambaram went for the Ruy Lopez. The game was fairly balanced post the opening. But soon afterwards, on move 27, Alekseenko faltered and Chithambaram got an edge. Continuing energetically, Chithambaram got a winning advantage within just three moves. Perhaps, the players were in time trouble at this time. Chithambaram blundered a piece in a complicated position on move 40, the last move of the first time control. He was still better after this but far from winning. Also, the position was razor sharp. At several points, both GMs faltered. Although Chithambaram was never in trouble during the game, he did miss opportunities to finish the game off sooner.
In his final round game, again Chithambaram totally dominated his Chinese opponent, Xu Xiangyu. With the hope of getting a non-theoretical position and also to a certain extent to surprise his opponent, Chithambaram went for the Knight's Tango with the black pieces against 1.d4. The position eventually transposed into a kind of a Queen's Gambit later. From the opening itself, Xu had been playing ambitiously. Perhaps, this was justified given that if he won, he would finish among the tournament toppers. In order to avoid allowing his opponent get counterplay, Xu gave up his castling right and recaptured a bishop with his king, thus leaving his king in the centre. Chithambaram was quick to take advantage of his opponent's misplay and soon began generating a menacing attack on the white king. A neat tactical stroke on the 37th move forced the Chinese GM to tap out.
Being merely 12-years old in a field of opponents under 20 years of age, Praggnanandhaa finished fourth with an unbeaten score of 8.0/11. Also, this was his chance to earn the GM title for himself as the sole winner of this tournament is awarded the title if the concerned player is not already a GM. In his final two games, Praggnanandhaa was only able to secure draws. Of course, for any player, this is a very good finish given the strength of the field. However, a closer look at his last two games gives the impression that maybe Praggnanandhaa could have bettered his score had he just been able to keep his nerves in control in the final moments.
Especially noteworthy was Praggnanandhaa's penultimate round game against the Russian International Master (IM) Semen Lomasov. With the whites in hand, Praggnanandhaa went for the non-committal 1.Nf3 and the game soon transposed into the Chigorin Defence. In the middle game, the Russian deployed some sneaky tricks and maneuvers to get a slightly better position. But Praggnanandhaa defended tenaciously and reached an endgame where both sides had a queen, a rook and a bunch of pawns. By now, Praggnanandhaa even seemed to be slightly better given that the Russian's king was exposed. And just then, Lomasov blundered horribly and allowed Praggnanandhaa to get his pieces into the black camp. From the very face of it, it looked busted. It seemed Praggnanandhaa will cruise to victory and join Tari in the lead.
Alas, that was not to be. Completely misjudging the position on the 57th move, Praggnandhaa repeated the position and signed the truce with his opponent when he had a winning attack. If only he had seen how easily he could have won, he would have led the tournament and kept decent chances of becoming the sole winner and the world's youngest Grand Master.
Despite this mishap, Praggnanandhaa kept excellent chances for himself to finish at least joint first. But for that to happen, he would have to win his last round game against the German GM Svane Rasmus. Rasmus went for a pawn sacrifice early in the opening to create chances. Praggnanandhaa also did not back down and took the pawn. But as things panned out, Praggnanandhaa ended up giving back his extra pawn and keeping equal chances. By the 24th move, the players had reached an endgame where neither side were able to generate any chances and by move 32, peace was signed.
Besides Praggnanandhaa and Chithambaram, GM Murali Karthikeyan also finished among the top 10. Winning his final round game against IM Evgeny Zanan, he scored 8.0/11 and was seventh in the final standings.
This meant that Praggnanandhaa had missed a great opportunity to get his GM title. But on the brighter side, he was able to match the wits of players much higher rated than him. In the fourth round, he even beat the top seed of the tournament, Jorden van Foreest and finished fourth on the leaderboard with an unbeaten score of 8.0/11. Besides, the boy made a GM norm with a round to spare. For a 12-year-old, that is a mighty high achievement.
Also, India's overall performance at this event just goes on to show the powerhouse of talent the country possesses. Among the top ten finishers of the event, three were Indians: Chithambaram finished joint first (third on the final standings), Praggnanandhaa was fourth and Karthikeyan finished seventh. The only other country to get these many players among the top ten was Russia – a country which has a rich chess legacy.
As for Praggnanandhaa's Grand Master title requirements are concerned, he still has around three and a half months to break Sergey Karjakin's world record. And even if Praggnanandhaa isn't able to break it, it doesn't change the fact that Praggnanandhaa is a world class player and will soon be seen locking horns with the creme-de-la-creme of the chess world.
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