IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO SIGN UP FOR FALL 2019!

John Henderson
By John Henderson

In the digital era, you fear for the future talents of Chess who could well be lost to the inexorable rise of esports with the lure of its mega-million prize funds. Only last week at the inaugural Fortnite World Cup – staged inside a sold-out Arthur Ashe tennis stadium in New York, the home of the US Open at Flushing Meadows – the media splashed on the instant success story of 16-year-old Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, who won the $3 million first-place solo prize and a guest appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

No such rich rewards or fanfare for a chess prodigy, but in the past, Chess would have been the obvious strategic game for a teenager set on instant stardom: Bobby Fischer, Judit Polgar and Magnus Carlsen, to name but a few prodigies. Now the latest to join that illustrious list is the Indian wunderkind Rameshbabu “Pragg” Praggnanandhaa, the little man with the big name in chess – literally! – who recently became the youngest player to win a major international tournament.

This column has written previously about Pragg becoming the world’s youngest international master at 11 and missing out on Sergey Karjakin’s age-record in becoming the youngest grandmaster at 12 – but now he has set his own milestone record by winning the marquee event of the Copenhagen Chess Festival at Helsingor, Denmark, the Xtracon Open, at the age of 13 years and 11 months. The Chennai teen was the 21st seed, but he scored a career-best unbeaten 8½/10 (with a performance rating of 2741) to finish in clear first ahead of the all-grandmaster chasing pack.

While age records for chess titles are official, major tournament victories are regarded as being unofficial, but some standout prodigy results include: Judit Polgar winning in London in 1988 at 12, Henrique Mecking the Brazilian champion at 13, while Magnus Carlsen, by comparison, was an “oldie” at 15 when he became the Norwegian champion – but those were all regarded as being weaker events.

The historic keeper of age records in chess is Leonard Barden of the Guardian, and the legendary chess correspondent places Pragg’s victory on a par with Bobby Fischer winning both the US Open and US championship, at 14, so therefore establishing a new record for the Indian teen.

Yes, but just how good is he at Fortnite?

Final top-10 standings:
1. R. Praggnanandhaa (India) 8½/10; 2-6. A. Tari (Norway), G. Sargissian (Armenia), E. Postny (Israel), S. Sevian (USA), A. Stig Rasmussen (Denmark) 8; 7-10. D. Kryakvin (Russia), R. Svane (Germany), A. Korobov (Ukraine), N. Grandelius (Sweden) 7½.

Photo: Pragg en route to victory against Italian #1 Vocaturo | © Xtracon Open

GM Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa – GM Daniele Vocaturo
Xtracon Open, (7)
Sicilian Accelerated Dragon, Maroczy Bind
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.c4 Whenever possible, the Maroczy Bind – with a big clamp on the d5-square – is the best ways to meet the Sicilian, such as here with the Accelerated Dragon. However, most Sicilians are designed to prevent the Maroczy. 5…Nf6 6.Nc3 d6 7.Be2 Nxd4 8.Qxd4 Bg7 9.Be3 0-0 10.Qd2 a5 11.f3 a4 12.Kf2!? The most obvious move to connect the rooks and getting the king to safety was 12.0-0 – but Pragg “borrows” on a similar plan he saw being executed by Fabiano Caruana during the 2017 Gibraltar Masters. The idea is that White wants to keep his options open for a possible kingside assault with h4, and also for an endgame with his king a little closer to the centre – but as we will also soon see, there is another reason for wanting to deflect the king from the e1 square. 12…Qa5 13.Rac1 Be6 14.Nd5! And this is the reason; a typical trick in such positions. If the king were still on e1, then Black could play …Qxd2+ first – but now, if …Qxd2, crucially there’s no check, and White has the zwischenzug of Nxe7+ winning a pawn before recapturing the queen. 14…Bxd5 15.Qxa5 Rxa5 16.cxd5 With the trade of queens and a set of minor pieces, Pragg has a nice long-term endgame advantage with the bishop-pair and his rook(s) quickly getting to the seventh rank. 16…Nd7 17.Rc7 Nc5 18.Rb1 Bf6 19.b4! The …Nc5 is the lynchpin holding Black’s position together – if it moves, White has excellent winning chances. 19…axb3 20.axb3 Ra2 21.b4 Na4 22.Rbc1 White can’t be too hasty to start grabbing pawns, as 22.Rxb7?? loses to the knight fork after 22…Rxe2+ 23.Kxe2 Nc3+ winning a piece. 22…Rb2 23.Bh6 This should just force an easy win, as the e-pawn must certainly fall to leave Black’s queenside pawns split and vulnerable. 23…Bg7 24.Bxg7 Kxg7 25.Rxe7 Rxb4 26.Rcc7 Also possible was 26.Rd7 Rb6 27.e5!? dxe5 28.Rc4 Nb2 29.Rcc7 which is very uncomfortable for Black; and note how the knight has a lack of squares. 26…g5 27.e5 Pragg goes for the difficult when easier was the obvious 27.Rxb7! Rxb7 28.Rxb7 leaving Black with a terrible position to defend. In his defence, the teenager believed his opponent might be able to spring a blockade in this position – but any Black defence here is going to be very passive, and I doubt very much if the position can be held in the long-term. 27…dxe5 28.d6 Rd4 29.Bc4?! We can see what Pragg is trying to do, but much better was 29.Bb5! Nb6 30.Rxe5 Rxd6 (Forced, as 30…Kf6 31.Re8! Rxe8 32.Bxe8 Rxd6 33.Rxf7+ Ke5 34.Re7+! (An important little endgame nuance. If 34.Rxb7 Rd2+ 35.Kf1 Nd5 and Black has excellent saving chances.) 34…Re6 35.Rxb7 h6 36.Kg3 and White is clearly winning.) 31.Rxg5+ Kf6 32.h4 again with excellent winning chances with White’s rooks being so active and Black’s remaining pawns all weak and vulnerable. 29…Rxd6 30.Bxf7 Kf6 31.Bh5 Rc6 Not the losing move, but not the most accurate either. An active rook can make all the difference in saving a difficult ending, and Black missed a trick that would have simplified the ending for him with 31…Rd2+ 32.Kf1 Rd1+ 33.Ke2 Rc1! 34.Rf7+ (If 34.Rxc1 Kxe7 35.Rc7+ Kd6! 36.Rxb7 Nc3+ 37.Kd3 Nd5 38.Rxh7 Nf4+ 39.Ke4 Nxg2 and the draw more likely than not.) 34…Rxf7 35.Rxf7+ Ke6 36.Rxb7 Rc2+ 37.Kf1 Nc3 38.Bg4+ Kf6 39.Rxh7 Nd5 and the threat of …Ne3+ and …Nf4, in conjunction with Black’s superbly-placed rook on the seventh, is easily holding the draw. 32.Rxb7 Nc5? But this is a big mistake, and Black collapses after this error. It wasn’t too late to save the game, as per the note above, with 32…Rc2+! 33.Kg3 Nc3! 34.Rf7+ (If 34.Rxh7 Ne2+ 35.Kf2 Nf4+ is a draw.) 34…Rxf7 35.Rxf7+ Ke6 36.Rxh7 e4! 37.Bg6 Ne2+ 38.Kg4 Nd4! White has to defend g2 and after 39.g3 Nxf3 40.Bxe4 Nxh2+ 41.Kxg5 Rf2 in the worst-case scenario, Black can always sacrifice the knight for the pawn to leave a technically drawn ending of R+B v R. 33.Rf7+ Rxf7 34.Rxf7+ Ke6 35.Rxh7 Nd3+ 36.Ke3! [see diagram] The difference here is that the White king is not only more centralised and removed from the g-file, it also gains a vital tempo by attacking the knight while also threatening Rh6+ trading rooks. 36…Rc3 37.Rh6+ Ke7 38.Ke4 Nf4 39.g3 Nxh5 40.Rxh5 Kf6 Black is now forced into this ending to avoid quickly losing either the e- or g-pawns – but with the correct technique, it doesn’t take long for Pragg to find a way to win them anyway. 41.Rh6+ Kf7 If 41…Ke7 42.Rg6 Rc2 43.Rxg5 Re2+ 44.Kd5 Kf6 45.h4 easily wins. 42.Rd6! Threatening to track-back with Rd3 winning. 42…Rc2 Black can’t keep up the sixth rank defence with the attack on f3. After 42…Rb3 43.Rd3 Rb5 44.Rd5! Rb3 45.Kxe5 or 45.Rxe5 will also get you to the ending of rook and two pawns v lone rook. 43.Kxe5 Rxh2 44.Kf5 Rh3 45.Kg4 1-0

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