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How Gukesh D. announced himself to the chess world with Candidates win

After his win at the Candidates, 17-year-old Indian Grandmaster Gukesh D. is now just one win away from becoming the world’s youngest chess champion

Gukesh D. won the prestigious Candidates Tournament.(PTI)

By Arun Janardhan

LAST PUBLISHED 24.04.2024  |  07:30 AM IST

When Dommaraju Gukesh lost to Alireza Firouzja in the seventh round of the FIDE Candidates 2024 chess less than two weeks ago, he started to believe that he could win the tournament.

The irony is not lost on Gukesh, of how a defeat could inflate confidence instead of having the opposite effect. The day after that loss was a rest day and Gukesh woke up with “energy and positivity, fully fired up". 

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“If I had to pinpoint where I felt this could be my moment, it was probably after the seventh game, after I lost to Firouzja," the champion said at a press conference in Toronto on Sunday. “I was upset after that but during the rest day I felt so good. Maybe this loss gave me so much motivation…" 

The 17-year-old Gukesh topped the table with nine points, becoming the youngest ever to win the Candidates tournament and only the second Indian after Viswanathan Anand to do so. The win allows him to challenge Ding Liren of China for the world title later this year. Should the Indian triumph there as well, he would be the sport’s youngest ever world champion. 

Gukesh’s title came after 14 gruelling rounds of chess over 18 days between eight top contenders in the open category, which included two other Indians, R. Praggnanandhaa and Vidit Gujrathi, making this the best Candidates tournament from an Indian perspective.

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“It was unbelievable—what he did and how he did it. I don’t think anyone thought (he would win), especially since Gukesh is the youngest and the others have so much experience… But it was consistency. He was never worse off in any of the games. He was the best player in Toronto," says Woman Grandmaster (WGM) and commentator Tania Sachdev.

“I thought that throughout the tournament he looked comfortable," says grandmaster Dibyendu Barua, who runs the Dhanuka Dhunseri Dibyendu Barua Chess Academy in Kolkata. “He lost one game, which was an upset because he was not in a losing position. He made a mistake and he came back, which is fantastic and shows his temperament. For me, he was always the favourite among the Indians."  

The tournament result was poised on a razor’s edge going into the last round on Sunday with four players shooting for the top spot. Gukesh, ranked 16th in the world, needed to not lose to world Mo. 3 Hikaru Nakamura, which he did. But the Indian was distracted by another match, which was to impact his fate. 

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World No. 2 Fabiano Caruana and No. 7 Ian Nepomniachtchi needed wins, as the winner would take on Gukesh in a tie-breaker on Monday. But they drew, leaving Gukesh alone at the top on the table.

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The whole situation left Gukesh so frazzled that he went back to his hotel with coach and second, Polish grandmaster Grzegorz Gajewski, while the other match was still on. “Those 15 minutes were probably the most stressful of the entire tournament," Gukesh told reporters, laughing.

He tried to follow the Caruana-Nepomniachtchi game on commentary but could not. He then went for a walk with Gajewski, before his father Rajnikanth, a doctor, came running over to them to announce that it was over. “The walk was (emotionally) the turning point," Gukesh said later.

“In this tournament, what set him apart was his nerves. He had so much composure, maturity in his play, in practical decisions," says Sachdev over a call. “The way he handled everything around—the fans, the tension… he was an ice man in that tournament. He feared no one. He was so cool headed when everything around him was burning."

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“Finally, there is one player from India who could be compared to our own Anand," says Arvind Aaron, who runs the Aaron Chess Academy in Chennai, over email. “Winning the Candidates with 9/14 is a tall score. Experts did not give any title chances to any of the three Indians at Toronto. This stellar show reconfirms that his (Gukesh’s) 2022 Chennai Olympiad performance was no fluke and that he is progressing to the next level."

Gukesh’s title win comes as an unexpected outcome with all the trappings of an underdog’s story. The Chennai resident became the highest ranked Indian player, dethroning Anand after 37 years at the top, last year. He was expected to be the leader of the young, upcoming Indian brigade, but through several twists of fate, looked in the danger of missing the Candidates. Praggnanandhaa and Gujrathi qualified before him and Gukesh just about squeezed in, by retaining his International Chess Federation (FIDE) circuit lead after the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in the final week of December.

“Even the way he got in—FIDE circuit, London classic—that was tough for him. He hustled and made it in the last minute. Over the last year, he had some great games against (world No. 1) Magnus Carlsen. What he showed (in Toronto) exceeded any expectation," says Sachdev, referring to the fact that Gukesh won the Candidates without any prior major international titles.

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“Champion Ding Liren has not had a great year and could falter in the title match later this year," believes Aaron. “This performance by Gukesh is significant as Anand became world champion in 2000 at age 31. In a generation that is achieving success earlier than before, Gukesh’s success is coming more quickly." 

The Candidates tournament is a statement on India’s prowess in the sport. The field of eight had three Indians, two of them under the age of 18. And it didn’t even include the highest rated current player, 21-year-old Arjun Erigaisi, who is ninth in FIDE’s published world rating list for April. Praggnanandhaa and Gujrathi finished fifth and sixth respectively in Toronto.

It also validates a six-year-old prophecy, when an 11-year-old Gukesh was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he’d said with complete confidence: I want to become the youngest world chess champion. 

He is one contest short of achieving that.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle

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