Chess, Candidates 2024: Indian Grandmasters start as dark horses in Toronto

For a sport played over a board by players dressed in formal attire, with no words exchanged, chess is a fiercely competitive battleground with secrets closely guarded. At the highest level, in prestigious tournaments, it is as much a battle of wits outside the playing hall as much as it is over the board.

The chess world is currently abuzz with speculations regarding players, their trainers and predictions, with the focus on the 2024 Candidates. Top players, including former world champions, experts, and fans alike have their eyes set on the 20-day long, gruelling event which will start in Toronto, Canada from Thursday.

The Candidates is one of the most important tournaments in the sport. It is a draining, make or break tournament for those competing. It is rare in a way that only the title win matters – only the victor gets to compete in the World Championship match.

Naturally, there is a lot at stake.

“The Candidates is psychologically, for me, almost as tough as the World Championships,” said former world champion Magnus Carlsen in a podcast recently.

Come April 4, a total of 16 players – eight each in open and women’s section – will start their Candidates campaign. This edition marks the first time the women’s event is held simultaneously alongside the open competition.

The tournament will be held in a double round robin format, with each player facing the other twice – once with the white pieces and once with the black. The player with the most points at the end of the round robin wins the title.

The winner of the open section will challenge the reigning world champion Ding Liren of China for the World Championships, while the winner of the women’s event will go up against Ju Wenjun.

The Candidates this year holds great significance for Indian chess.

Since the inaugural Candidates took place in 1950, following the death of then world champion Alexander Alekhine, Viswanathan Anand had been the only Indian to compete in the open event – he last featured in the 2016 edition.

This year, there are three Indians competing – Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu, Gukesh Dommaraju and Vidit Gujrathi. The country also has Koneru Humpy and Vaishali Rameshbabu competing in the women’s event.

While Humpy has played at the Candidates before, it will be a debut appearance for the 22-year-old Vaishali, who recently earned the Grandmaster title.

“It is a very good development for Indian chess that now we have so many players playing in Candidates,” said Grandmaster RB Ramesh, a former player-turned-coach, in a conversation with Scroll.

“Not just that they are playing for the first time, but they are expected to do well.”

How they qualified

Player Section Qualification method
Ian Nepomniachtchi Open 2023 World Championships runner-up
R Praggnanandhaa Open 2023 Chess World Cup, runner-up
Fabiano Caruana Open 2023 Chess World Cup, third place
Nijat Abasov Open 2023 Chess World Cup, fourth place
Vidit Gujrathi Open 2023 Grand Swiss Winner
Hikaru Nakamura Open 2023 Grand Swiss runner-up
Dommaraju Gukesh Open 2023 FIDE Circuit runner-up
Alireza Firouzja Open 2024 January highest rating
Lei Tingjie Women 2023 Women’s World Championship runner-up
Kateryna Lagno Women 2022-23 FIDE Grand Prix Winner
Aleksandra Goryachkina Women 2022-23 FIDE Grand Prix, runner-up
Nurgyul Salimova Women 2023 Chess World Cup, runner-up
Anna Muzychuk Women 2023 Chess World Cup, third place
R Vaishali Women 2023 Grand Swiss Winner
Tan Zhongyi Women 2023 Grand Swiss, runner-up
Koneru Humpy Women 2024 January highest rating

The sudden increase in Indian representation at the Candidates is also a direct result of the rise in the number of Grandmasters in country. A Grandmaster, or GM, is a player who has a 2500+ FIDE classical rating and has three achieved three GM norms.

At the end of 2010, India had 22 GMs – the first of which was Anand in 1988. In the 14 years since, the number has catapulted to 84 with Vaishali being the latest player to the title in December.

This has led to a fierce upsurge in competition, especially post the Covid-19 pandemic. Gujrathi vouched for it in a conversation with this publication back in January.

The 2024 Candidates is, in a way, the passing of the baton in Indian chess from Anand to the younger generation. The tournament in itself is a clash of generations.

The two favourites in the open section – Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, are 36 and 31 respectively. Ian Nepomniachtchi, who is the winner of the previous two editions, is 33.

On the other side is the young brigade of Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh, and Alireza Firouzja – all 20 and under. Gukesh, 17, will be the youngest player to compete at the Candidates since the legendary Bobby Fischer, who was 16, when he played in the event in 1959.

Then there are Gujrathi and Nijat Abasov – both of whom have emerged from mid-career slumps to qualify for the tournament, aged 29 and 28 respectively.

The lack of playing experience in such a high pressure tournament suggests that the Indian troika will have their task cut out in Toronto.

Carlsen, who relinquished his world champion title last year, said it “would be a shock” if Abasov or any of the Indians win. The Indians and Abasov are the bottom four ranked players in the competition.

Anand, from his end, termed the chances of an Indian win a “long shot.”

“The Indians are a long shot,” the 54-year-old GM said in a YouTube live stream last week. “If they can keep the tournament going, that’s good enough. If a late opportunity presents itself, they can grab it.”

Ramesh, who has worked closely with Praggnanandhaa over the years, agrees. He underlines the need for a good start to have any chance of winning.

“I am expecting a top-three finish for Pragg,” he said to this publication. “On paper Fabiano and Hikaru are the favourites and are expected to win.

“If everything goes well and they [Indians] get off to a good start, there could be a surprise. We will have to see how the first couple of games go. That will be a very good indication,” he added.

Player Trivia

R Praggnanandhaa: First-time participant. Strongest Indian in fray. Finished runner-up to Magnus Carlsen in 2023 Chess World Cup. Younger brother of R Vaishali, who will compete in women’s event. Once the youngest International Master, and second youngest Grandmaster.

D Gukesh: First-time participant. Youngest player to compete at the Candidates since Bobby Fischer. Master calculator, known to out-think opponents on board in complex positions.

Vidit Gujrathi: First-time participant in the middle of a mid-career resurgence. 2023 Grand Swiss winner. Enters the tournament on the back of a poor outing at 2024 Prague Masters. Positional player.

Koneru Humpy: The veteran among Indian participants. 2011 World Championships runner-up, 2019 World Champion. Second woman to cross 2600 rating barrier. An old-school workhorse.

R Vaishali: First-time participant. 2023 Grand Swiss Winner. India’s latest Grandmaster – third from the country to earn title after Humpy, Harika Dronavalli.

A good start, though, won’t be easy.

They start off with all-India clashes, right from the first round. Gukesh and Gujrathi will face off in the opening round of the open section, while Humpy and Vaishali, will face off in the women’s event. Praggnanandhaa will start his campaign against a higher-rated Firouzja.

The players from same countries face off in the early rounds because otherwise towards the final rounds, there remains a possibility of them pre-arranging quick draws to help each other out depending on the tournament situations.

Despite the lack of experience and evident difference in rating points, a lot of the tournament is about handling the nerves. At the highest level, players are usually evenly matched and it is about your mental, physical fitness and attitude.

This is why Praggnanandhaa incorporated beach volleyball to his training sessions and Gujrathi tried his hand at boxing.

“It is 50% psychological since there’s not a lot of difference between the players at this level and it will mostly come down to the nerves and handling the pressure,” said Ramesh. “Are the players able to recover from a bad position? How will they bounce back from losses?”

India’s best bet to win the Candidates, however, lies in the women’s section. Humpy has the experience and is the third seed. She also has a favourable record against the top two seeds – Aleksandra Goryachkina and Lei Tingjie. The only player with a better record against Humpy is Anna Muzychuk.

Vaishali, on the other hand, is an underdog. She is the second lowest ranked player, but has produced some good results against the Grandmasters, including a Grand Swiss title win in November which booked her ticket to Canada.

Anand was the last Indian to win the Candidates a decade back in 2014 and with five players in the fray, India has a chance to reclaim some of its former glory. But as the five-time world champion said, it is a long shot.

The 2024 Candidates will be LIVE streamed on FIDE’s YouTube channel.

Indian Schedule

April 04: Round 1

Alireza Firouzja vs R Praggnanandhaa

D Gukesh vs Vidit Gujrathi

R Vaishali vs Humpy Koneru

April 05: Round 2

Hikaru Nakamura vs Vidit Gujrathi

R Praggnanandhaa vs D Gukesh

Kateryna Lagno vs Humpy Koneru

Tan Zhongyi vs Vaishali Rameshbabu

April 06: Round 3

Gukesh D vs Ian Nepomniachtchi

Vidit Santosh Gujrathi vs Praggnanandhaa R

Vaishali Rameshbabu vs Nurgyul Salimova

Humpy Koneru vs Tan Zhongyi

April 07: Round 4

Hikaru Nakamura vs Praggnanandhaa R

Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Vidit Santosh Gujrathi

Fabiano Caruana vs Gukesh D

Nurgyul Salimova vs Humpy Koneru

Aleksandra Goryachkina vs Vaishali Rameshbabu

April 08: Rest day

April 09: Round 5

Gukesh D vs Nijat Abasov

Vidit Santosh Gujrathi vs Fabiano Caruana

Praggnanandhaa R vs Ian Nepomniachtchi

Vaishali Rameshbabu vs Anna Muzychuk

Humpy Koneru vs Aleksandra Goryachkina

April 10: Round 6

Gukesh D vs Hikaru Nakamura

Vidit Santosh Gujrathi vs Alireza Firouzja

Praggnanandhaa R vs Nijat Abasov

Vaishali Rameshbabu vs Kateryna Lagno

Humpy Koneru vs Lei Tingjie

April 11: Round 7

Fabiano Caruana vs Praggnanandhaa R

Nijat Abasov vs Vidit Santosh Gujrathi

Alireza Firouzja vs Gukesh D

Anna Muzychuk vs Humpy Koneru

Lei Tingjie vs Vaishali Rameshbabu

April 12: Rest day

April 13: Round 8

Praggnanandhaa R vs Alireza Firouzja

Vidit Santosh Gujrathi vs Gukesh D

Humpy Koneru vs Vaishali Rameshbabu

April 14: Round 9

Vidit Santosh Gujrathi vs Hikaru Nakamura

Gukesh D vs Praggnanandhaa R

Humpy Koneru vs Kateryna Lagno

Vaishali Rameshbabu vs Tan Zhongyi

April 15: Round 10

Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Gukesh D

Praggnanandhaa R vs Vidit Santosh Gujrathi

Nurgyul Salimova vs Vaishali Rameshbabu

Tan Zhongyi vs Humpy Koneru

April 16: Rest day

April 17: Round 11

Praggnanandhaa R vs Hikaru Nakamura

Vidit Santosh Gujrathi vs Ian Nepomniachtchi

Gukesh D vs Fabiano Caruana

Humpy Koneru vs Nurgyul Salimova

Vaishali Rameshbabu vs Aleksandra Goryachkina

April 18: Round 12

Nijat Abasov vs Gukesh D

Fabiano Caruana vs Vidit Santosh Gujrathi

Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Praggnanandhaa R

Anna Muzychuk vs Vaishali Rameshbabu

Aleksandra Goryachkina vs Humpy Koneru

April 19: Rest day

April 20: Round 13

Praggnanandhaa R vs Fabiano Caruana

Vidit Santosh Gujrathi vs Nijat Abasov

Gukesh D vs Alireza Firouzja

Humpy Koneru vs Anna Muzychuk

Vaishali Rameshbabu vs Lei Tingjie

April 21: Round 14

Hikaru Nakamura vs Gukesh D

Alireza Firouzja vs Vidit Santosh Gujrathi

Nijat Abasov vs Praggnanandhaa R

Kateryna Lagno vs Vaishali Rameshbabu

Lei Tingjie vs Humpy Koneru

— All matches at 14.30 Toronto time, or 12 am IST

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