With Candidates Triumph, Gukesh Sets in Motion Indian Chess’ ‘After Anand’ Phase

For many years, the question of 'Who after Anand?' bothered Indian chess. Gukesh has triggered the After Anand phase

Hari Hara Nandanan
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Candidates Tournament 2024: Gukesh has set in motion the After Anand phase of Indian chess.</p></div>

Candidates Tournament 2024: Gukesh has set in motion the After Anand phase of Indian chess.

(Photo: FIDE/Altered by The Quint)


The Candidates Tournament in Canada has emphatically set in motion the two distinct phases in Indian chess – BA (Before Anand) AA (After Anand). With Dommaraju Gukesh bettering Viswanathan Anand’s elevation as the Challenger at a world record age of 17, to earn the right to meet Ding Liren of China in the world title clash, the After Anand period has taken a meaningful shape.

Gukesh has not just erased Anand’s Indian record for Challenger, but set a world record too in the process, as the youngest ever chess Challenger. It was roughly a decade ago that the Anand era came to an end when he lost to Magnus Carlsen for the second time. For the record, Anand was 28 when he first played a world title match against Anatoly Karpov in Lausanne in 1998.

It was all India at the Candidates on the final day in Canada. Three Indians secured wins – Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, Koneru Humpy and Vaishali – but the draw that Gukesh earned against Hikaru Nakamura of the United States of America will be etched in history as it opened the door for India to new heights.

After 71 moves and almost six hours with black, Gukesh’s king came face-to-face with Nakamura’s king, the rest of the pieces having been swept off the board. But that was not the end at that point. There was another marathon going on as Fabiano Caruana of the USA and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, battled it out in a must-win game to catch up with Gukesh on points and take the match to a tie-breaker. Finally, the marathon ended in a draw after 100 moves in a queen and pawn endgame.

It was more like Anand’s qualification to Candidates in 1993 at Biel when he had taken a draw in the last round and waited for other boards to finish, to know his fate. But let us forget Anand for a while and focus on the man of the moment, Gukesh, who is in line for another world record next year if he beats Ding Liren. He could then erase Carlsen’s record age of 22 when he became the youngest world champion in Chennai.

From Baby Steps to a Massive Sprint

Gukesh and Praggnaanandhaa were taking baby steps into chess when Anand’s world title-winning sequence came to an end as he lost to Carlsen in Chennai in 2013. And by the time Anand practically stopped fighting a year later, there was a vacuum in India and the After Anand question loomed large. But it did not last long. In five years, the two Chennai teenagers made rapid strides to announce their arrival on the world stage.

Of the two, Gukesh was the faster runner to fame as he had gone past some milestones in rating. Son of a doctor, Gukesh quickly stepped into the international tournament scene, bagging his International Master title before he reached 11. He sprinted to his Grandmaster title at the age of 12 years seven months and 17 days which was marginally short of a world record as Sergey Karjakin of Russia had done it at age 12 years and seven months.

But that was not a miss that would hurt him. Soon he began his longer journey by racing to the 2700 mark in Elo rating. He beat Fabiano Caruana, Ian Nepomniatchichi, Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen in tournaments. And then came the Olympiad in Chennai last year where he bagged a gold medal.

The Winner of the Most Excruciating Candidates Tournament in Chess History

The stage was set for the Candidates. Praggnanandhaa, who was lagging in ratings, did some catching up as he reached the World Cup final before losing to Carlsen in the final, but Gukesh was again faster in the Indian context. He overtook Anand as the number 1 for some time last year.

The Canada chapter was perhaps the most enthralling, and at times, excruciating Candidates in the history of world chess.

Of course, the traditional Candidates had been a multi-round, one-to-one meetings over a series of games, with the final having eight or more games. But the tournament format came to the fore in this century, the biggest beneficiary of which was Anand himself winning the tournament in Mexico in 2007.

What makes this Candidates special is the fact that until the last round, nothing was clear and all through the double round-robin tournament the lead kept changing hands.

The last two rest days out of a total of four had significantly contributed Gukesh’s progress. Not that he needed rest to play at his best, but he never came to the fore until the last four rounds. In fact, he scored more in the second half, logging five points from seven rounds to get what he needed – with three wins and four draws. It was important to keep the energy level throughout a long tournament. “ Perhaps, it could be my age,” said the 17-year-old.

In fact, Gukesh had the best chance to take the sole lead at the halfway mark. He was up against the same Alireza Firouzja in a winning position which he blundered.

“Yes, age is a big factor in such tournaments,” agrees International Master V Saravanan, also from Chennai. “I thought (Fabiano) Caruana was the favourite at the outset, but then I felt both Guki and Pragg could do something extra because of their age. They could create chances and breakthrough,” he observed.

The Prized Protégé of Viswanathan Anand

So what is it that makes Gukesh the strong player that he is? “He is steady and focused,” notes Viswanathan Anand, who has a special bond with his Chennai mate. Around 2021, the five-time world champion launched the WestBridge Chess Academy which had the likes of Boris Gelfand, Artur Yusupov and Gregorz Gajewski to work with promising Indian players. Anand himself was a tutor there too.

“Gregorz, the Polish GM, taught us opening ideas, Yusupov endgame practice and Gelfand-specific themes in the middle game,” Gukesh recalls. Finally, Gregorz, who had worked with Anand as his second towards the end of his career, started helping Gukesh too personally.

“The WACA (WestBridge academy) family is so proud of what you have done. I am personally proud of how you played and handled tough situations,” Anand said after Gukesh’s win.

Starting with Anand Vijay, spending some time with Karthikeyan and then working with GM Vishnu Prasanna for close to five years until he reached 2700, Gukesh could well get extra help from his mentor Viswanathan Anand when he reaches that stage when he has to play the world title. Insiders in chess reveal the former champion has already started working with Gukesh with that in mind.

(Hari Hara Nandanan was sports editor of The New Indian Express, sports editor of The Times of India (Chennai) and sports editor of DT Next. He was also the first professional chess journalist in India to cover an event abroad (Olympiad 1990). In the 35 years of his journalistic career, he has covered many chess events.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Published: 22 Apr 2024,08:29 AM IST