Gukesh D spent the last five days in Samarkand, Uzbekistan away from the year-end tournament’s top standings, confetti and broadcast cameras but managed to quietly put to bed the gnawing, crushing pressure of the past few months. The 17-year-old confirmed his place in next year’s Candidates tournament after he retained his Fide circuit lead at the end of the World Rapid and Blitz Championships.
He becomes the third Indian to make the Candidates tournament, joining R Praggnanandhaa and Vidit Gujrathi. He is the third youngest male player – after Bobby Fischer and Magnus Carlsen – to qualify for the Candidates. The Women’s Candidates features two Indians – Koneru Humpy and R Vaishali, Praggnanandhaa’s sister.
It helped that Gukesh’s closest rival for the spot, Dutchman Anish Giri, didn’t have the sort of flawless tournament run he needed to surpass the Indian in the circuit standings.
It could be said that the Candidates tournament line-up is somewhat reflective of India’s current chess strength. Three Indians – two of them aged 18 or below – feature in a qualifying tournament for the World Championship. That’s 37.5 % Indians in an eight-player tournament, the highest ever from the country at the Candidates.
Midway through this year it appeared as though Gukesh was possibly the chosen one among Indians. Results were rolling in and his qualification prospects appeared sunny. His run at the World Cup ended in a quarterfinal loss to Magnus Carlsen. His performance saw him surpass five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in the published ratings to become the highest-ranked Indian player.
Praggnanandhaa, older than Gukesh by a year, went all the way to the final to secure an automatic Candidates berth. The first Indian through the starting stalls. It may have stung Gukesh, even if a twinge.
Pressure to make the Candidates grew in the months that followed. Gukesh’s confidence dipped and form turned fickle. The Grand Swiss tournament arrived at the fag end of October. The top two finishers were assured direct Candidates spots. Two wins in 11 rounds and a 5/11 score saw Gukesh finish 81st among 114 participants. Fellow Indian Vidit Gujrathi topped the tournament and walked away with a place at the Candidates table.
Distraught with his play and feeling miserable, Gukesh decided to give up the chase for a Candidates spot after the Grand Swiss. He wanted to take a break from tournaments and bury himself in chess training. A rejig of the daily routine followed. He began waking up early and taking tennis classes. From a teen who cherished his sleep at least 10 hours a day, Gukesh went to little or no sleep. His father Rajnikanth described it as “painful to watch”. “Those couple of months – October and November – were terrible. It seemed like he was punishing himself. Things were so bad that we almost wondered if quitting chess might be good for him. I just wanted the year to end (Fide circuit cut off) – whether he made the Candidates or not just so he’d put himself out of this misery.”
Gukesh then played two tournaments – London Chess Classic and Chennai Masters – that he wasn’t keen on initially. In London, he finished third and stayed back a couple of days, exploring the city with his uncle who resides there. Rajnikanth believes it may have flicked a switch in Gukesh. “He returned a somewhat changed guy. He looked like he was feeling better, slightly positive.”
His participation in the Chennai Masters came about after some diligent coaxing by Chessbase India, who were among the principal organisers of the event. The classical super tournament, sponsored by Gukesh’s home state Tamil Nadu, was put together to give him and Arjun Erigaisi a chance to make the Candidates before the qualification window closed. Going into the tournament Gukesh (79.5) was trailing Giri (84.3) and Wesley So (83.4) in the Fide circuit leaderboard. Gukesh won the Chennai Masters and overtook Giri by 3.05 points. Only a spectacular finish by Giri – top three in rapid or winning the blitz – at the World Rapid and Blitz tournament in Samarkand could rain on the Indian’s parade. Giri didn’t manage to go that far.
For Gukesh, the torment is finally over. He can exhale, crack a smile and leave the rest for next year.
The Indian representation in numbers at next year’s tournaments in Toronto is a testament to the players’ diligence, the existence of a functioning support system for the top names and the country’s rise as a global force in chess. Whether it’s a former world champion marshalling resources (three out of five of those who’ve qualified are members of Anand’s academy) or a motley group of stakeholders willing to organise and fund a last-ditch super tournament, Indian chess has a few things going right for it.
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