It’s a 24-letter name that can twist even the best of tongues. There’s even an over-abundance of seemingly random syllables that could confuse the best of the Scripps National Spelling Bee contestants. We are of course talking about the 15-year-old Indian wunderkind Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, the little man with the big name in chess – literally! – who turned in a stunning winning performance in the Polgar Challenge.
“Pragg”, as he thankfully prefers to be know as, from Chennai, dominated the first online title in the new Julius Bär Challenge Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group, besting the field by a full 1½-point margin to capture the $3,000 top prize with a round to spare.
And not only that, he also now receives his golden ticket entry into the next leg of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour on 24 April, where with his wildcard entry he’s set to test his mettle by going head to head for the first time against World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the rest of the world’s elite stars.
Chess legend Judit Polgar, said the youngster’s win was “fully deserved and extremely convincing.” Pragg’s coach for the tour, former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, said it’s not unrealistic to predict he will play a match for the World Championship someday: “His talent is on the scale of the guys who we all know!”
Going into Sunday’s final day, the hotly-anticipated match-up that looked on the cards at one stage looked to be the title-deciding final round pairing between top seed Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Pragg – but that clash between the overnight two title-chasers became academic with Pragg winning his first three games of the day to take what proved to be an unassailable lead going down the homestretch.
In truth, despite getting off to a bad start by losing his opening round game to Russia’s IM Volodar Murzin, and a round 15 loss to another favourite, Germany’s GM Vincent Keymer – his only two losses of the tournament – one of Pragg’s early wins was against fellow compatriot and second seed Nihal Sarin, that kickstarted his comeback following his early setback.
1. GM R. Praggnanandhaa (India), 15½/19; 2-5. GM N. Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan), GM D. Gukesh (India), GM N. Sarin (India), IM V. Murzin (Russia) 14; 6. GM V. Keymer (Germany) 13½; 7. GM A. Liang (USA) 12½; 8-9. IM C. Yoo (USA), GM L. Mendonca (India) 12; 10. GM JB Bjerre (Denmark) 10½; 11-12. GM T. Lie (China) 10; 13. IM N. Salimova (Bulgaria) 7; 14-15. IM P. Shuvalova (Russia), IM Z. Adbumalik (Kazakhstan) 6½; 16-17. IM S. Khademalsharieh (Iran), IM G. Mammadzada (Azerbaijan) 5½; 18. IM C. Yip (USA) 4; 19. IM O. Badelka (Belarus) 3; 20. IM D. Sasuakassova* (Kazakhstan) 0 – *had to withdraw due to connection issues.
GM R Praggnanandhaa – GM Nihal Sarin
Polgar Challenge, (3)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Nbd7 5.Bf4 More common in the QGD is 5.Bg5; but this line is not as innocent as it looks. It has an English pedigree, being first-played in 1887 by Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-19248), who spanned both the Victorian and early Edwardian periods as the leading English player of his era. However the player who brought it to prominence was the Hungary’s Lajos Portisch, who in the late 1970s and 1980s won many wonderful endgames using this system. The cudgels were then taken up in the noughties by Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov – and now, championed by Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian. 5…dxc4 6.e3 b5!? The more ‘adventurous’ approach. The solid and more pragmatic choice often seen here is 6…Nb6 7.Bxc4 Nxc4 8.Qa4+ Bd7 9.Qxc4 Bd6 or 6…Nd5 7.Bxc4 Nxf4 8.exf4 Bd6 9.Ne5 with both offering white a little edge. 7.Nxb5 The only option. 7…Bb4+ 8.Nc3 Nd5 9.a3 Nxc3?! Either Sarin got confused or he simply missed Pragg’s next move. If he did miss it, then it’s strange, as Pragg’s reply is a common motif in such pin positions. Better instead was 9…Bxc3+ 10.bxc3 Nxf4 11.exf4 Qf6 12.g3 c5 13.Bxc4 cxd4 14.Nxd4 0-0 15.0-0 and take the struggle from here. White still has the better position, but Black is not without dynamic chances with play down the long a8-h1 diagonal. 10.Qd2! Bxa3?! As ever, hindsight is always 20/20, and opening the a-file only helps White. Better was 10…Nd5 11.axb4 Nxf4 12.exf4 Nb6 13.Be2 0-0 14.0-0 Bb7 15.Ne5 Qd6! with chances for both sides; and note how White can’t capture on c4 due to a potential …Qc6 winning a piece with the little matter of the mate on g2! 11.bxc3 Bd6 12.Bxd6 cxd6 13.Bxc4 The engine tells you that White has a little edge, but nothing to worry about – but the human instinct here is that all of White’s problems have been solved with his pawn structure intact and now as one unit, and in the long-term there will be prolonged pressure on Black’s now weak a-pawn going into any endgame. 13…0-0 14.0-0 Bb7 15.Be2 Qc7 16.c4 a5 17.Rfc1 h6 18.Qc3 Rfc8 19.Nd2! Pragg has a little ‘something’ to bite on, with the a-pawn being weak – and it really is not easy for Sarin to defend the pawn without conceding other concessions. 19…e5 20.Bg4! The pressure mounts on the stranded a-pawn, and rather than just faffing around, Pragg cuts straight to the chase – and with it, inexplicably Sarin collapses. 20…exd4 21.exd4 Re8 22.Bxd7 Qxd7 23.Rxa5 Bxg2? Sarin has obviously miscalculated something, going for the speculative solution to his inherent problems. Things were bad, but he really had to try 23…Rxa5 24.Qxa5 Qg4 25.d5 Qf4 26.Qc3 but with his bishop now effectively locked out of play, his opponent will be looking to quickly regroup with Nd2-f1-e3 in order to push the c-pawn to create a big passed d-pawn. 24.Kxg2 Rxa5 25.Qxa5 Qg4+ 26.Kh1 Qxd4 27.Qd5! Pragg’s pieces quickly mobilise – but he also comes up with a very creative solution to trade down to a winning endgame, despite few pawns remaining on the board. 27…Qxf2 28.Rf1 Re1 29.Qa8+ Kh7 30.Qe4+! [see diagram] Simplifying down to a won endgame – but Pragg still has a lot of work to do in order to convert his material advantage. 30…Rxe4 31.Rxf2 Rd4 32.Kg2! The king dashes across to the queenside, where the c-pawn becomes crucial to securing the full-point. 32…f5 33.Kf3 f4? It looks good, but in fact it only helps White to win, as Black has basically marooned his own rook. A better try in an attempt to salvage a draw was 33…Kg6 34.Ke3 Rh4 35.Kd3 Kf6 keeping the Black rook active. 34.Ke2 g5 35.Kd1 Kg6?? Under pressure, Sarin totally loses the plot, missing the big danger as he goes down without a fight. His last chance was 35…Rd3! 36.Kc2 Ra3 and it is by no means clear White can win with Black’s rook very actively placed, and his kingside pawns threatening chaos by rushing up the board. 36.Kc2 With the rook chronically short of squares, and Kc3 threatened, Sarin now has to voluntarily give up his f-pawn in order to save his rook. 36…f3 37.Rxf3 With the ‘gift’ of the f-pawn, Pragg now easily converts his material advantage. 37…Rh4 38.h3 g4 39.hxg4 Rxg4 40.Rd3 h5 41.Rxd6+ The rest of the game is just a technicality, as Pragg quickly corrals Black’s remaining pawn. 41…Kf7 42.Kd3 h4 43.Nf3 Rg3 44.Ke3 h3 45.Rh6 Kg7 46.Rh4 Kf6 47.Kf4 Rg8 48.Rxh3 Ke6 49.Ke4 Kd6 50.Kd3 Kc5 51.Rh5+ Kb4 52.Rb5+ Ka4 53.Rb1 Rd8+ 54.Nd4 Rc8 55.Kc3 Ka5 56.Rb5+ Ka6 57.c5 Rh8 58.Kc4 Rh6 59.Rb1 Rg6 60.Re1 Rh6 61.Re6+ 1-0