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Candidates Tournament: New Era Awaits Indian Chess as Young Stars Take the Lead

5 of the 16 participants at the 2024 Candidates Tournament are Indians – marking a new dawn for the sport in India.

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On the horizon of Indian chess, flickers of a new dawn are discernible for those who are eager to look. The renaissance, seeds of which were sown when Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa became the youngest-ever runner-up at the Chess World Cup, circa August 2023, is ushering into an uncharted utopia.

But wait, can this be explained in simpler terms?

Sure.

Among the sport’s more prestigious competitions – the Candidates Tournament – will commence on 4 April, with a record participation from the Indian contingent. Five of the 16 players – three men (R Praggnanandhaa, D Gukesh, Vidit Gujrathi) and two women (R Vaishali, Koneru Humpy) – are Indians.
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The number is significant because, since the tournament’s inception in 1950, only one Indian ever has had the distinction of being called a Candidates participant.

The tournament is significant because the winner earns the opportunity to compete against the defending world champion, currently China's Ding Liren, for the paramount crown.

Prior to turning our attention to the 64 squares, The Quint spoke with four Indian chess players – Grandmasters (GMs) Dibyendu Barua, Pravin Thipsay, Abhijeet Gupta and International Master (IM) V Saravanan – about the enormity of the occasion, realistic prospects of victory and the nascent burgeoning growth of chess in India.

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A Historic Occasion for Indian Chess

Viswanathan Anand, a five-time champion, made his debut in the Candidates Tournament during the 1991-93 cycle. Over the subsequent two decades, he became a familiar face in this coveted event.

According to Thipsay, winner of the 1985 Commonwealth Chess Championship, the upcoming 2024 edition heralds the end of stagnancy that persisted for three decades.

It is a historic occasion, because India has had a record of singular dominance in chess. Now, it has been changed completely, where we have three male and two female players at the Candidates. The stagnancy of over 30 years is finally over.
GM Pravin Thipsay

Echoing similar sentiments, Saravanan adds:

It is a landmark occasion for Indian chess. This marks the first occasion of the torch being passed by Viswanathan Anand to the younger batch. From that perspective, this is a significant achievement.
IM V Saravanan
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Who Is India’s Best Bet?

Each member of the Indian quintet has had to showcase exceptional skill to secure their place in the tournament, rendering the task of selecting a favourite quite challenging.

Thipsay, who previously favoured Vidit Gujrathi six months ago, has now altered his preference.

Six months ago, I told Vidit Gujrathi is our best bet despite not being the highest rated, because of his experience. But in the last few months, I have seen Praggnanandhaa play extremely well in many events, with impeccable accuracy. So, I have since reviewed my opinion and changed it, just because of Pragg’s ability to turn the tables even in bad situations.
GM Pravin Thipsay

GM Dibyendu Barua, a three-time national champion, is keeping tabs on both Praggnanandhaa and Gujrathi.

It is very difficult to pick a favourite, as all of them have done really well. But of course, all eyes will be on Praggnanandhaa after what he did at the World Cup. Vidit Gujrathi is the most experienced of the trio, which can come in handy.
GM Dibyendu Barua

Saravanan, on the contrary, feels the chances of triumph in the female section are considerably higher than that in the open section, courtesy of Koneru Humpy’s prowess.

Koneru Humpy might be our best bet because she is a fantastic player with experience, and no one has more technical expertise than her. Humpy’s constant problem has been time pressure, but if she can deal with it, she is the odds-on favourite to win in the women’s section. It is difficult to pick a favourite among Indians in the men’s section, because the likes of Caruano, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alireza Firouzja are much stronger. If I need to name our top horses, I would say either Praggnanandhaa or Gukesh.
IM V Saravanan
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What Does It Take to Be a Champion?

The competition, in case you have not received the memo yet, will be stern. The open section features former Candidates winners like Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana. Similarly, the women’s section will feature Lei Tingjie and Aleksandra Goryachkina, who knows what it takes to win.

According to Barua, it takes complete control over nerves.

Nerves will be playing a big role at the Candidates Tournament. Someone will be the top seed, but in a tournament like this, rankings go out of the window as it is not a one-on-one competition. You have to play against everyone in a round-robin format, where how you control your nerves and how you keep your mind cool will be of immense importance.
GM Dibyendu Barua

Thipsey feels, with the pack not being separated by much and matches likely to be long-drawn-out affairs, creativity will be the differentiating factor.

Controlling nerves is important, but the ability to be sharp and accurate will also be a major factor. Over 60% of classical matches between players with a rating of 2740 or above end in draws. This is simply because that they are at such a level that they don’t make mistakes. In such a scenario, players need to be creative, they need to innovate. I expect most of the games to get into a defining position only by move 35 or 40, so the mental and physical ability will determine who does well.
GM Pravin Thipsay
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Saravanan suggests besides dealing with pressure, Indian players should go beyond ‘logical’ chess.

Pressure will play a part. Players like Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh and Vaishali have not played in a tournament of this scale, so this pressure will be new to them. But besides that, dynamism over the chess board will also be a crucial factor. To win a round-robin tournament like this, just playing logical chess is not enough. They will need to take their chances.
IM V Saravanan
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Is It Realistic To Expect an Indian Champion?

Much has been discussed about the rise of young prodigies in Indian chess, and rightfully so. But is it realistic to expect an 18-year-old Praggnanandhaa, or a 17-year-old Gukesh to emerge victorious, among players who are considerably more experienced?

Opinions, on this matter, are divided.

I feel they can win it, because they have already made history. Just to qualify for the Candidates Tournament is a historic achievement – there is a reason why no Indian except Viswanathan Anand has been able to do this. Three of the eight male competitors are Indian. While that does not mean one of those three is guaranteed to win, we do have the numerical advantage.
GM Dibyendu Barua

Fellow Arjuna Awardee, GM Abhijeet Gupta treads the same path.

Our players are quite capable of winning the tournament. We have five Indians among the top 25 right now. The odds are in our favour as well. It is just about mental toughness.
GM Abhijeet Dutta
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Thipsay, however, feels it is too early to ask for a winner.

I consider this as a new beginning, where our players will gain experience and become more mature. But it will be a bit too much to expect a champion. In 2026 or 2028, we might even have four participants with Arjun Erigaisi coming in, so our chances will increase. 2024 is a bit too soon, to be honest. Anand and Carlsen have shared the same opinion. Saravanan emphasises the importance of age, which the likes of Caruana can use to their advantage.
GM Pravin Thipsay

Saravanan emphasises the importance of age, which the likes of Caruana can use to their advantage.

There is a famous saying that the beauty of sport lies in its glorious uncertainty. Similarly, there is nothing certain in chess. But at the same time, we need to understand that they (Indian players) are not the favourites. Age plays a major role in a high-stakes chess tournament like this, so I feel the likes of Caruana are in a much better position to win.
IM V Saravanan
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Can India Dominate Global Chess?

The mantle of domination in global chess has never remained in control of any particular nation for an extended period, barring the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR). The nation that numerous icons – Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, you name them – ruling the roost over the chess board concurrently.

With five of the sixteen participants in the 2024 Candidates Tournaments being Indians, can we expect a USSR-esque dominance from India soon?

Opinions, yet again, are split.

Continuing to side with the optimists, Barua says:

I have no doubt that India will dominate global chess in the upcoming years. Even the great Magnus Carlsen thinks so. Not only do we have five players at the Candidates, but there are plenty of other talented players in the pipeline. This is not the India of 1980s and 1990s anymore.
GM Dibyendu Barua
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Saravanan, however, believes lack of domestic structure might prevent the nation from dominating.

I feel we are still too far away from global domination. Whichever country has dominated the sport – like the former USSR – they were able to do it because of their strong domestic structure. On the contrary, ours is still poor, we still lack vision. Our talents are coming out not because of our structural growth, but because of individual brilliance and the efforts of their parents.
IM V Saravanan

Thipsay believes we will have an answer in the future, with a lot riding on youth development.

We can call this a dawn, but the sun has not risen yet. India is among the three strongest countries in chess currently, alongside China and Russia. And we are doing better than them when it comes to producing under-20 players. We have 3-4 phenomenal players, a lot depends on the younger crop now.
GM Pravin Thipsay
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Messages to the Players

Before the first round of action, the Grandmasters suggested India’s young stars to take one game at a time, without focusing on expectations.

“Pressure will be there, it is inevitable. Hopes of 140 crore people will be on their shoulders. But my only advice to them will be to eliminate this very thought – don’t think of what people back home are expecting. Just relax, have a calm mind and play your natural game,” Barua concludes.

Reminding this competition is more of a marathon than a sprint, Gupta adds “A good start does mean that you have won half the battle, but even if you don’t, just don’t lose hope. Remember how Ding Liren had a disastrous start in 2022 but still finished second. Anything is possible.”

Anything is possible. Onto the players now.

(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.)

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