His shock of wavy hair bouncing in the pace of his quick strides, Nihal Sarin swaggered into the hall. He had drawn the last two games and had looked the weakest of the quintet in this tournament, but his icy face smacked of purpose. A few steps behind, R Praggnanandhaa waltzed in; a ruthless grin had displaced his usual beatific smile. D Gukesh breezed into his seat with the coldness of a sniper taking his vantage point, while B Adhiban wore the vengeful grimace of a wounded boxer.
The India B had stuttered for the first time in this tournament, losing to Armenia on Wednesday. Now, they had to ensure they didn’t free-fall, and also drag themselves back onto their feet soon enough to reclaim their gold-ward march. They came bounding out to face Cuba.
They betrayed no hangovers of the defeat — but no one really should be surprised. Defeats do not devastate them; setbacks don’t daunt them; they are the fearless generation of Indian chess. As Adhiban reflected the other day, the raft of youngsters are pressure-proof. “They are confident of facing any opponent, dealing with any opening, or any situation. They don’t feel any pressure,” he had said.
Gukesh has 7/7 now! He wins yet another game, this time against Carlos Daniel Albornoz Cabrera, and in style! In the diagram position he played 45…Bf4; White replied 46.gxf4 and resigned. #ChessOlympiad pic.twitter.com/y5c7kSsk2c
— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess) August 5, 2022
So they were. All four began at a rampantly high tempo that rattled their more seasoned opponents. If three of the quartet were teenagers, the average age of their opponents was 35. But the teenagers handed them out a schooling in aggressive chess, demolishing the best-laid defensive plans of their petrified rivals.
The Praggnanandhaa-Ortiz Suarez game began with a dynamic Gluoco Plano Game, where both white and black pieces are quickly aimed to develop and unleash an attack. But it has a central flaw – though the white can build a pawn centre, it cannot assure stability. Praggnanandhaa readily latched onto that vulnerability of Suarez — he immediately thrust his knights upfront, planting them in proactive squares, from where he could launch a tirade of attacks.
As early as the fifth move, he took out his opponent’s pawn on the d4, destabilising his centre and exposing the king prematurely. Praggnanandhaa smirked, rarely as he smirks. He was unusually unsmiling and business-like, as if he had suddenly developed a ruthless streak. Much of his game hinges on the manoeuvres of the knight. Give his knights the freedom to roam, they would trample you. The Cuban let them on the loose, and Praggnanandhaa unleashed pure havoc, quickly transforming the middle-game to the end-game. As early as the 20th move, he was marching towards victory and had prised out three pawns and a bishop of the Cuban’s. In another 20 moves, his troops had not only outnumbered his rival’s but also surrounded Suarez’s king. The latter did not wait for the ignominy of an imprisonment.
Shortly, Gukesh would take the lead to 2-0 and extend his unbeaten run to seven games, taking only six more moves than Praggnanandhaa. He made his moves so fast that he spent more time watching the boards of his teammates than his own. The usually inexpressive Gukesh was more energetic than usual, but his game was typically precise against Daniel Cabrera. Though he is the youngest of the five, his is the most dependable of games, seldom fluctuating between the extremes. His game has the perfect balance between attack and defence, and he can make quick attack-to-defence and defence-to-attack transitions. Cabrera misconstrued the placing of some of his knights as a defensive step, only to rue soon after as he ended up losing his queen on the seventh turn. Recoveries are difficult from such vulnerable junctures and Cabrera could only prolong his agony throughout the match. Gukesh preferred soft kill, almost barbecuing him. After the victory, he even fist-pumped with his coach RB Ramesh in a rare show of emotion.
For the match meant so much for him as well as the team. The Armenia defeat had critics questioning their aggressive approach and proneness to embracing gambles. Some wondered whether they had the maturity to sustain the tempo throughout the tournament, whether the sudden attention was ratcheting up the pressure. Some others deemed they were overhyped, their favourite tag ‘media-spun.’ All those assumptions were ruthlessly swept aside in thrilling fashion.
Soon, they were 3-0, with Nihal running amok on his adversary Luis Perez’s board, hardly affording him any breathing space to repel a tirade of attacks. Again, the knights were his wreckers-in-chief, though facilitated by a fool-proof pawn structure. Often, Nihal lags in the middle-game, as he looks to fortify his king and wait for his combatant to slip. Maybe, Perez too assumed that Nihal would stonewall. On the contrary, he upped the ante during the phase, and before Perez could even realise, most of his pieces were in Nihal’s custody. On the 15th move, he devoured Perez’s queen. Though it turned out to be a sacrifice, momentarily giving Perez an advantage, Nihal quickly hatched a counterattack so ferocious that Perez wilted. Nihal reviving his form is perhaps the biggest positive of the game.
It could have been clean-sweep but for the diligence of Adhiban’s counterpart Omar Almeida Quintana – the oldest among the Cuba contingent – who pursued the austere Philidor Defense (Hanham variation), indicating that he would be chuffed with a draw. Adhiban tried all his wares to breach the rigid, centrally-crammed defensive structure but could not. Nonetheless, they would take this draw after the Armenia ambush.
When they exited the hall, they were a relaxed bunch. The 1000-watt smile dwelled again on Praggnanandhaa’s face, Gukesh and Nihal were laughing over a joke while Adhiban was quietly obliging a couple of autograph-seekers. Pressure, scars of defeat, burden, hype — they don’t see the world through ordinary lens.