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Chess Olympiad: Praggnanandhaa keeps India in title hunt as top teams prepare for final push


As the evening wore on, a sense of tedium crawled into the venue. The alleys and aisles were still crammed, the courtyard was full, but an eerie emptiness had draped the arena. Tired shoulders crashed into tired shoulders, sunken eyes met sunken eyes. The players, spectators, volunteers — the entire mass of people who had gathered here — seemed fatigued, bereft of their voice and spirit, wishing that the humid Sunday would end fast.

The ninth round had all the ingredients to be thrilling, more so after the India B team’s thrilling victory over the United States on Saturday. D Gukesh, the inarguable star of the tournament, could stretch his winning run to nine games, which would be an Olympiad record. Should Armenia end up losing or drawing to Uzbekistan, Gukesh and Co could parachute to the helm. There was the crowd favourite R Praggnanandhaa and perhaps a sight of chess-divine Magnus Carlsen.

But as it unfurled, as it often unfurls towards the end of long tournaments, teams and players suddenly embraced risk-free, gamble-reduced approaches, before they go full-throttle in the last two rounds – the recoil before the last leap. It’s like the lull just before a furious endgame, when players turn circumspect, even a fraction cagey.

When the day began, Armenia topped the chart with 15 points, trailed by India and Uzbekistan, both pegged at 14, with a 13-point pile of the Netherlands, Azerbaijan and Iran behind. The instant reaction would be to term this edition as one for the underdogs, a quicksand for the top rung — top seed USA, shackled by inhibitions, were languishing in ninth spot, India A were seventh, and Carlsen’s Norway not anywhere in the top 10.

When the day ended, the lead had changed hands. Uzbekistan had leapt to the top with 16 points, with India B and Armenia locked on 15. Azerbaijan, the Netherlands, India A and USA were all tagged at 14 points, keeping the finish hazy and open. All these teams could make a final push in what could be a chaotic last two days.

In the women’s section, four teams share the lead at 15 points apiece – Poland, India, Kazakhstan and Georgia. It’s like the pile before the last bend of a 1500 metre race.

The gap was tricky — neither too huge for the trailing teams to go all out nor for the leaders to sit back and relax. So, even the often-aggressive India B adopted a slightly defensive approach against a nuggety Azerbaijan, spearheaded by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. His father was a boxer and trained him to be a boxer too. But after he fell in love with chess, he swapped the gloves for the board and went onto become the country’s finest chess player yet. On the board, he is more of a counterpuncher, weaving and ducking away from the punches with his impregnable technique and waiting for the perfect opportunity to unleash his precise punches.

One would expect Gukesh to trade blows. But he was unusually watchful, playing a waiting game, building an impregnable fort around him. Mamedyarov too was hesitant to attack, even when an opportunity presented itself with a terrifically-placed bishop for a diagonal attack. But he hesitated, maybe he was slightly wary of Gukesh’s pawn on a4. Towards the endgame, both were left without any clear shot at glory. The match was more like arm-wrestling, the advantage tilting this was and that without a clear winner.

So was Nihal Sarin’s game against Rauf Mamedov, a turgid affair that never turned dynamic. Raunak Sadhwani’s game against Nijat Abasov too flowed at a similar tempo before the former dug deep and frustrated the Indian into a semi-blunder when he moved his pawn to b4 on the 45th turn, slitting an opening for Mamedov to launch a relatively straightforward attack. A dicey movement of Sadhwani’s rook to a2 left him with no alternatives to claw back and manage a draw.

A defeat would have practically ended their gold medal hopes, but the ever-smiling Praggnanandhaa spread smiles on the faces of his teammates and spectators with a tenacious win. Vasif Durarbayil had him staring at a defeat by the 56th turn, when he pocketed his pawn on f6, a move that could have potentially unlocked Praggnanandhaa’s defences at the end of another attritional game. But when pushed to a corner, Praggnanandhaa shed caution, reclaimed his vision and made a series of audacious moves. He took out a couple of pawns, destabilising the opponent’s pawn structure, at the expense of exposing his backline. A little scared, Durarbayil began to fret over the health of his king. He blundered by moving the king to h7, hiding it behind a pawn, without realising the heavy artillery at Praggnanandhaa’s disposal. He then serenely wrapped up the game to procure a vital point and ensure that his team remained in the hunt for the gold.

The top-three would have remained as it is but for Uzbekistan, seeded 14th, gunning down Armenia, in an instance of the Goliaths beaten by the hobbits. The top boards of heavyweights drew against each other, and those on the third and fourth seemed draw-bound but for Javokhir Sindarov and Jakhongir Vakhidov upsetting Ter-Sahakyan and Robert Hovhannisyan. There was late drama and the audience would believe that there would be some more drama in store for the last two days as the tournament curls into the final bend.

Table (Open): Uzbekistan 16; India, Armenia 15; Azerbaijan 14, the Netherlands 14, India A 14, USA 14

Women: Poland 15, India 15, Kazakhstan 15, Georgia 15.





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