A champion is rising in Chennai, and the entire chess fraternity is wowed by his stellar performance at the 44th Chess Olympiad. At the half-way stage, local boy Dommaraju Gukesh has registered six consecutive victories in as many games, scoring a staggering 6/6, to take his side, India 2, to the third position after six rounds.
D. Gukesh is only 16, and experts are already comparing him to some of the greatest chess players the world has ever produced such as Vladimir Kramnik. Particularly striking in his killer run was his victory in the fifth round over Alexei Shirov of Spain, a former world title contender.
Gukesh lured the more experienced and higher rated Shirov, a contemporary of Viswanathan Anand, to play in his natural aggressive style and walk straight into a well-laid trap. After the game, Gukesh said in media interviews that his “strategy was to provoke” Shirov into playing aggressively.
Anand, who has been coaching Gukesh at his academy, wasn’t taken by surprise by his meteoric rise—he was rated 2684 at the start of the Olympiad, and after his last six wins, his live rating has shot up to 2719 points. Such a sharp jump is almost unthinkable at this level of intense competition.
Gukesh, who became a Grandmaster in 2019 at the age of 12, is only the sixth Indian to cross 2700 in international rating, and the third highest rated in India at present. He said, in his eyes his live rating is only a number, but to put that number in perspective, world champion Magnus Carlsen was rated 2864 at the start of the Olympiad, and Anand, who isn’t playing, is rated 2756.
After his win against Shirov, Anand described Gukesh as a player who is extremely focused and “plays with raw ambition and no fear”. Gukesh has established himself in the international circuit as the next prodigy to watch out for, and being such a young achiever, he will have to bear on his shoulders a huge burden of expectations.
Interestingly, Gukesh isn’t the only player to have registered six straight wins so far. He shares the honour with Kazakhstan’s Nogerbek Kazybek, the reigning world under-18 champion in the shorter rapid format of the sport, but the Indian star has had to overcome much stronger opponents.
Thanks to Gukesh’s stellar run, India 2 had won all its matches and held the pole position up until the fifth round, jointly with Armenia. But in the sixth round, even as Gukesh extended his winning streak, India 2 lost to Armenia on aggregate score of 1.5-2.5, to drop to the third position with a match point of 10/12. (Win in a match on aggregate score yields two points, and one if it ends in a 2-2 draw.)
Going into the last five rounds—the decider phase of the tournament—Armenia leads the field with a match point of 12/12, followed by the US, the favourites, which have 11/12. India 2, however, still have the highest game point of 19/24 (based on outcomes of individual games; one for a win and half for a draw) jointly with Uzbekistan, compared with Armenia’s 17.5/24 and the US’s 16/24.
India 2’s game point of 19/24 shows the overall strength of the team, which is made up of relatively younger and inexperienced players. Not surprisingly, Carlsen had described India 2 at the beginning of the tournament as potential giant killers.
Though the top-rated Americans such as Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian and Wesley So got off to underwhelming starts, squandering a series of draws against relatively weaker opponents, as a team, the US have managed to win five of the six matches and were held to draw on aggregate score only by Uzbekistan in the fourth round.
Even as Gukesh stole the limelight in the first half of the Olympiad, several other Indian players, mostly the younger ones in both the open and women’s section, have produced impressive performances. As hosts, India have fielded three sides each. Here are highlights of some of India’s best performing players so far:
Nihal Sarin: Another child prodigy from Kerala, currently aged 18, Sarin has so far appeared in five games for India 2, and remains unbeaten with an individual score of 4/5 points (three wins and two draws). He, too, is performing above his billing, and, together with Gukesh, has made up for the three losses, one each, conceded by the three other players on the team.
Arjun Erigaisi: Turning out for India 1, 19-year old Erigaisi, who has played all six games in the first half of the Olympiad, has scored 4.5/6 points (three wins and as many draws). He has turned out to be the key driver, along with Pentala Harikrishna—India’s second highest rated player after Anand—in his team scoring 10/12 match points and game point of 17/24.
Pentala Harikrishna: Aged 36, Harikrishna is among the more experienced Indians in the fray. He remains unbeaten and is leading India 1’s campaign with an individual score of 4/5 points (three wins and two draws). His win in round 6 against Uzbekistan’s Abdusattarov Nobirdek was key to India 1 levelling the aggregate score after the experienced Krishnan Sasikiran conceded the team’s only loss in 24 games. Incidentally, Nobirdek had also started round 6 with an all win streak of 5/5 points.
S.P. Sethuraman: Playing for India 3, 30-year-old Sethuraman has notched up an individual score of 5/6 points, conceding only two draws while winning four games. Along with veteran Surya Sekhar Ganguly, who has drawn all his five games, Sethuraman has made sure India 3 also remain in contention for a podium finish with match point of 10/12 and game point of 17/24.Tania Sachdev and R. Vaishali: Vaishali Rameshbabu, 21, and Tania Sachdev, 35, are the top picks among the Indian women. They have both scored 5/6 points (coming from four wins and two draws) and are the key to India 1, the favourites, staying at the top of the league with a perfect match score of 12/12 at the half-way stage. Vaishali and Sachdev, ranked, respectively third and fourth by international rating in the five-member squad, have far outperformed the stronger players in the side such as Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli. Whereas Dronavalli has drawn all her four games, top-rated Humpy has scored 3.5/5 points with two wins and three draws. Most importantly, everyone in India 1 team remains unbeaten and they have collectively gathered a healthy game point of 18.5/24.