Tenacious Praggnanandhaa emerges from Gukesh’s shadow at Chess Olympiad

For the second successive evening, R Praggnanandhaa emerged out of the hall, somehow still bouncy after a mind-churning tussle, as his team’s man for crisis, the man who led them from darkness to light. His defeat-staving victories against Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, have kept India’s thinning hopes of a gold medal alive as the Chess Olympiad staggers onto the final, decisive day.

Unlike D Gukesh, who has been on a red-hot streak, Praggnanandhaa grew erratic towards the middle of the tournament — he was winning most games, but there was an odd slip-up, a fortuitous win owing to his opponent’s streaky time management where he self-admittedly played terribly, last-ditch draws, form fluctuating between spectacular and ordinary.

But under the sprawling shadow that Gukesh had spread, Praggnanandhaa could hide. He had the shade of comfort to realign his game, sharpen his tools and wait for the right moment to step out of the shade and into the limelight. He always had a terrific sense of occasion and comes alive at the end games. Perhaps he was saving his best for the end of the tournament. Coach RB Ramesh’s words the other day seemed prophetic: “I am not worried about his form, it’s a long tournament and he will be at his best when it matters.”

The timing for producing his best performances could not have been timelier. It coincided with Gukesh’s inevitable slips. He stuttered on Sunday; Praggnanandhaa saved the day with a tenacious win, one for which he had to dig deep and summon all his experience and calculative skills. On Monday, Gukesh lost for the first time in the championship, blundering against the world rapid champion Nodirbek Abdusattorov in a manic endgame, a contest that the Indian had dominated until the dying moments. But worry not, Praggnanandhaa produced a win that keeps them still in hunt for a historic gold medal, though it’s not entirely in their hands.

This game, though, he was mostly in control against an opponent who was younger than he was. Javokhir Sindarov is only 16, and looks even younger. But he is a Grandmaster who has beaten the World No 2 Alireza Firouzja. A child prodigy himself, Praggnanandhaa would know the perils of underestimating a younger adversary.

The match began on the Kings Indian Defence; orthodox variation. Typically in this line, White creates a three-pawn centre and develops his kingside naturally. White will then create a pawn wedge with d4-d5, followed by queenside play. The opposing pawn chains create spheres of influence on opposite sides of the board. It’s a hypermodern aggressive opening for Black, allowing White to build a strong pawn centre to later counter-attack it.

But it’s a familiar opening for Praggnanandhaa and he knows the dangers the black could pose later in the game. He was also aware of Sindarov’s preference to take out his opponent’s pawns rather than higher value pieces. It’s a classical Central European method, where most try to weaken the opponent’s pawn structure. So Praggnanandhaa came out with a shrewd move to lock the frontline pawns of Sindarov with a strong bishop on e6, forcing his opponent to play with higher-value pieces. He lost a couple of pawns and a knight in the process, but for a larger cause. A sacrifice of sorts, an instance of his supreme calculative skills. The Uzbek was lost in deep contemplation. He felt trapped, twitching on his seat and fiddling with his hair. Bypassing the bishop would expose his queenside too early.

However, the endgame was still far away and Sindarov showed his tactical nous by pursuing defensive measures and temporarily slowing down the game, building a counter-impetus. The Indian played along, taking the chance to fortify some of his vulnerable squares. There was a hanging, isolated pawn at the centre — sometimes he does this intentionally, as a provocation, but in this instance, it was not a trap.

However, eventually Sindarov had to summon risks. He was forced into moving his rook to a2, which Praggnanandhaa’s rook ate up. But Sindarov’s bishop promptly snapped up the rook. The game opened up, and now it was a direct combat, the advantage exchanging hands after every other move. Suddenly, Praggnanandhaa’s face turned grim, as he sensed an ambush, a tricky line that could prove costly. He had a semi-brain-fade moment too, and perhaps got carried away by an irresistible invitation to pounce on Sindarov’s knight on f6 with his bishop, only for the black bishop to consume his. Sindarov had to remove that influential bishop to nurture any chance of a victory. Now, he found himself in a dominant position. His eyes were lit up with hope.

But Praggnanandhaa did not panic — in big games he rarely does. He has not against Magnus Carlsen; he did not against his fresh-faced foe either. He hung in, took out a couple of his pawns, forced his queen into slippery territory before slashing her on the 36th turn. From there, Sindarov had faint hopes of a comeback. And Praggnanandhaa emphatically sealed the game.

The last two games were not the biggest he has ever played, nor the biggest he will ever play. But these could yet be the biggest games he has ever played in his career in terms of how they would impact India’s campaign, wins on which hang his country’s thin medal hopes, two evenings he emerged from the shadows of Gukesh.

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