Why the Candidates 2024 is a statement tournament for Indian chess

The World Candidates Chess Championship is one of the biggest tournaments, and India is looking to take it by storm with a record number of participating Grandmasters

In June last year, former world champion Magnus Carlsen noted that India was, “just at the beginning of a revolution that started with Viswanathan Anand becoming a Grandmaster.” Always a contender, India’s interest in chess exploded during the pandemic, as the world went into lockdown and online chess tournaments sprung to prominence. According to the pre-eminent chess website, chess.com, India has seen a 400 per cent growth in overall users of the site since 2019. The number of Indian grandmasters has increased from 55 to 84 in the period.

By 1 January 2024, Indian chess players had confirmed their status as a rising power as five of them qualified for the FIDE (International Chess Federation) World Candidates Chess Championship 2024. While R. Praggnanandhaa, D. Gukesh and Vidit Gujrathi made the cut in the Open category, Koneru Humpy and R. Vaishali earned a place at the FIDE Women’s Candidates tournament.

Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi.

Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi.
(Hindustan Times)

The elite event, which will be held in Toronto, Canada, from 3-23 April, will decide the challenger for the World Championship title; the winner of the Candidates Tournament event will take on reigning world champion Ding Liren, and the winner of the women’s tourney will face women’s world champion Ju Wenjun at the end of the year.

“This tournament is important for Indian chess,” says R.B. Ramesh, a grandmaster and a long-time coach of siblings Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali. “All these years we had just one player at the top, Anand. And now we have so many who are doing well.”

Before this year, Anand, who made his Candidates debut in 1991 was the only Indian to compete in the tournament. And now, in one edition, five Indians have made the cut. With three competitors in an eight-player field, India is the most represented country in the Open event. This includes Gukesh, who, at 17, is the third youngest player, after Bobby Fischer and Magnus Carlsen, to compete at the event.

Born and raised in Chennai, Gukesh has always been a breakout talent. He became a grandmaster at the age of 12 years, seven months and 17 days, and missed the record of becoming the youngest GM in history by a mere 12 days. It was an eventful 2023 for the youngster, as he surpassed Anand to become the India No. 1 in September, dethroning the five-time world champion as India’s premier player after 37 long years. Anand had first taken the top spot in India in 1986 and had since maintained a vice-like grip on it. Gukesh, the only Indian at the upcoming tournament to have cracked the 2750 rating, confirmed his Candidates spot as the 2023 FIDE Circuit winner.

World Candidates Chess Championship lineups.

World Candidates Chess Championship lineups.

The other Indian teenager in the fray, Praggnanandhaa qualified for the elite event as the 2023 World Cup runner-up. Even though the 18-year-old lost to Magnus Carlsen in the World Cup final, which was held in August, he notched up some pretty impressive wins through the tournament. Praggnanandhaa defeated World No. 2 Fabiano Caruana in the semi-final and World No. 3 Hikaru Nakamura. Those victories may stand him in good stead, considering that Caruana, who has won the tournament before, and Nakamura are the top favourites at Candidates 2024.

“Pragg has great nerves, a very flexible opening repertoire, and is so universal,” GM David Howell told chess.com while analysing this year’s field. “All key ingredients for a successful Candidates campaign. Overall victory feels like it would be too much to expect at this point in his career, but I could definitely see him in the top half.”

While Praggnanandhaa and Gukesh have garnered attention with their prodigious talent, Vidit Gujrathi is enjoying a career resurgence. He won the Grand Swiss in November 2023 to not only claim his first title since 2019 but also finally earn a place at the Candidates table after a few years in the chess wilderness.

The Nashik-based Gujrathi has no qualms in admitting that he feels the heat from his teenaged compatriots. But rather than throwing in the towel, it only made him work harder on his physical endurance, mental sharpness, body language, posture and attitude to emerge a much-improved player. Despite losing the first match at Grand Swiss, Gujrathi, who would have earlier let such a result fester, played more carefree chess to turn the tables on his opponents. At 29, he is the oldest of the first-time contestants at this year’s Candidates, but his experience and a more upbeat attitude could see him spring a few surprises.

Grandmaster Koneru Humpy.

Grandmaster Koneru Humpy.
(Getty Images)

For the first time, the Women’s Candidates event will be held alongside the Open one. Seasoned campaigner Koneru Humpy qualified as the best by rating. The Indian star was ranked No. 2 on 1 January 2024, on the world charts and made the cut as top-ranked player Hou Yifan of China pulled out of the event.

As Vaishali sealed her spot in the women’s event, by winning the 2023 Women’s Grand Swiss in November, she carved another piece of history for her family: Vaishali, 22, and Praggnanandhaa are the first ever siblings to compete at the Candidates.

“It is special,” Vaishali said during a press interaction in Chennai in November. “(Me and my brother) went to the Asian Youth Championship in the age-group. Now, together we are going for the big stage, so I am very happy.”

Even though the presence of five Indians at the Candidates event has generated a buzz in the country, the chess stars have a tough road ahead. Mikhail Tal, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov are part of select club who won the tournament on debut.

The Candidates was established in 1950, after reigning champion Alexander Alekhine was found dead in a Portuguese hotel room in 1946. Typical to the cloak and dagger, light and shade world of chess, there were various theories peddled about his death, from a heart-attack to murder by Soviet authorities. But the empty throne gave birth to the Candidates, where players have to vie for the right to challenge the incumbent champion.

The competition was distilled to eight of the best players in the Candidates cycle and adjusted to a two-year cycle since 2013. In this edition, the contestants have to play each of their rivals twice, which makes it a total of 14 rounds over 20 days.

Grandmaster R. Vaishali.

Grandmaster R. Vaishali.
(Hindustan Times)

“The Candidates is unusual in the sense that there are normally a lot of decisive games, because usually only first place counts,” Magnus Carlsen, who declined Candidates invitation and did not defend his world title last year, told the chess.com podcast last week. “Compared to other super-tournaments with similar strength of the field, you are going to see more fighting chess. The Candidates is psychologically, for me, almost as tough as the world championship, for sure.”

Though chess is typecast as a cerebral sport, it takes a lot of physical endurance as well to last a tournament like this. In an interview with ESPN in 2019, Stanford neuroendocrinology researcher Robert Sapolsky said that chess players can burn up to 6,000 calories a day during a competition. “Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,” he added.

Over the years, chess players have found their own ways to tackle the physical demands of the sport. Five-mile runs, squash and basketball have kept Caruana in the game, while Gujrathi took up boxing a couple of years ago, hoping to mimic the resilience on the chess board. In preparation for the Candidates Tournament, Praggnanandhaa gave beach volleyball a go.

Given the nature of the beast, the more experienced players like Caruana, Nakamura and Ian Nepomniachtchi, who won the last two Candidates tournaments, will start the favourites. Indian debutants, however, will be hoping to spring a surprise.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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