Chess World Cup: Calm Praggnanandhaa survives tense battle of nerves

The first game of the classical leg of the Chess World Cup semifinal between Fabiano Caruana and R Praggnanandhaa at Baku, Azerbaijan on Saturday went exactly as expected with one critical difference.

On the day Praggnanandhaa exhibited the precision that was required to hold the World No.2

The world No.2 from USA, playing white, forced a complex middle game from the Italian opening against the 18-year-old Indian. White could potentially create more threats while black’s position was somewhat passive. It demanded precision, and on the day Praggnanandhaa delivered exactly that to seal a well-earned draw.

The other semi-final between Magnus Carlsen and local star Nijat Abasov turned out to be a pretty wild game before the World No.1 eventually prevailed to take the lead. In comparison, Caruana versus Praggnanandhaa seemed tame, but that was only because of the manner in which the Indian GM withstood the pressure.

It was a fascinating battle to begin with because it gave us a glimpse of how deep preparation can go in modern chess. Right up to move 18, they were following previously played games, Then, with 22.Nc6 Nc5!, they finally moved away.

This level of preparation may seem normal to many, but just imagine the number of permutations and combinations they would have had to go through to arrive at these lines with ease. The process of elimination plays an important role but at the same, even though these players have gone through this multiple times, recalling it during match play isn’t always easy.

The other factor was that Caruana had an extra day to kick up his heels or to prepare more if he wanted to. While Praggnanandhaa would have needed some time to just get the adrenaline out of his system after the manic tie against Arjun Erigaisi in the quarterfinals.

If anything, that is where Praggnanandhaa’s calm on the board played a crucial role. Even though white seemed to always hold a slight advantage according to the engines, It never felt like Praggnanandhaa was out of depth. He wasn’t panicking at all — even when he was under a bit of time pressure — and that is a great sign ahead of the second game on Sunday.

This calm allowed him to spot the key move 25…Nd3! to keep the game even. From that point on, he didn’t put a foot wrong and eventually held out in a rook endgame. The 78-move draw would have taken a bit out of both players but perhaps this is where Praggnanandhaa’s youth with help him a bit.

His recovery should be better and as long as he can continue to focus on just the game on the board, he should be in a good space. There is so much happening around him and it is vital he keeps all of that at bay.

Just after he beat World No.2 Hikaru Nakamura in fourth round, Carlsen walked up to him and told him: “My chess club Offerspill, they have a camp right now for young talented players where Ramesh, Pragg’s coach, is the main coach. One of my friends who attended it told me that Ramesh was always telling them ‘be like Pragg, be like Pragg’. So, I told Pragg that we all want to be like him today.”

Indeed, Praggnanandhaa’s best chance is to simply ‘be like Pragg’ and trust in his own abilities.

Carlsen survives to win

Carlsen survived a rollercoaster ride in the other semi-final. The Norwegian made the wrong sacrifice and Abasov could have capitalised on it by going with 34…Qf1! and only then 35…Rg6, threatening Rg2 or Rg1. It would have given him a win almost on the spot.

But he missed it, and as it turned out, so did Carlsen. The world No.1 was so focussed on the attack on his rook that he simply turned a blind eye to the move.

“I didn’t see the idea at all!” said Magnus later.

But once he got past that, he took it home with some play — going up two pawns and then another as Abasov fell away.

“I thought the opening went really well for me, but at a certain point it was really hard to consolidate everything,” said Carlsen. “There were so many tactical shots everywhere and evidently I could not keep control… I’m just happy to have survived and got the win!

“I have to say today was just really, really nervy, so I didn’t particularly enjoy the game, but I do enjoy the result, and if I don’t lose tomorrow, if I get to the final, then I think some of the pressure will certainly be off.”

Draw in women’s final

The first game of the final between Aleksandra Goryachkina of Russia and Bulgaria’s Nurgyul Salimova ended in a draw by threefold repetition. The former was a pawn up when she had the opportunity to capture the pawn on c5 on the 13th move. But she went with a Queen exchange on d8 and then the game fizzled out.

“I saw 13.Qxc5, but I was like, no way a human plays like this because all her pieces are super strong,” said Salimova.

The computer gave Goryachkina a +2 if she had gone with the move. After thinking for about 10 minutes, she reckoned it was a risky line and the queen exchange made more sense.

Salimova has had a brilliant run in the tournament and for once she felt like she “was stressing the whole game” and she would certainly like to change that on Sunday.

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