We’re witnessing history in the making in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, as Rameshbabu “Pragg” Praggnanandhaa storms the Chessable Masters. The 16-year-old Indian boy wonder not only becomes the youngest player to qualify into the Tour knockout stage, but he now also becomes its youngest-ever finalist, after going on to sensationally beat Wei Yi and Anish Giri!
First Pragg outwitted former China prodigy Wei Yi to face Giri in the semi-final. And far from it proving to be a daunting prospect, he showed his mettle by overpowering the Dutch world No 9 with a stunning sacrifice in game 2 to take first blood in the match – and then when it went into overtime, he held strong to win on tiebreak, 3½-2½, to reach the final of the fourth leg of the $1.6m Tour season.
The young pretender to Magnus Carlsen’s throne is on a roll and now visibly improving with each top tournament he plays in. Last month, he won the Reykjavik Open in Iceland, then crossed the Skagerrak strait to Norway with a Tour wildcard and a strong showing in the Oslo Esports Cup. The teenager also has two wins over Carlsen on the Tour, making him the youngest player to beat the World Champion in serious competitive competition.
By the end of his match with Giri – and with a considerable time-zone difference between the two combatants – while the Dutchman was visibly left in a daze, incredibly Pragg was more concerned about now rushing to bed as he had to tackle his 11th grade exams in the morning: “I have to be at school around 8:45am,” he said. “And now it’s 2am!”
But there’s no glamour showdown with Carlsen in the final, as Pragg now meets China’s Ding Liren, after the world No 2 beat the defending two-time Tour champion and current Tour leader Tour leader by a score of 2½-1½ after winning the decisive fourth and final game of the match – and with the victory over his Norwegian rating-rival will come as a big confidence-booster ahead of next month’s Candidates Tournament in Madrid.
Can Pragg now go on to claim further glory with a Tour victory? You can follow the Pragg-Ding Chessable Masters Final with full live Tour commentary coverage from 18:00 CEST on Wednesday, 25 May.
GM R Praggnanandhaa – GM Anish Giri
Chessable Masters KO | Semi-final (2)
Grünfeld Defence, Exchange Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 World Champions Boris Spassky and later Anatoly Karpov were the trailblazers for adopting this variation for White – and both with considerable success. 7…c5 The Grünfeld for Black allows White to build a big center, but the plan is to chip away at it, or force it to advance, and then continue to further chip away at it – but the onus is always on Black to find sufficient counter-play. 8.Ne2 0-0 9.0-0 Nc6 10.Be3 b6 In the last leg of the Meltwater Champions Tour, the Oslo Esports Cup, JK Duda played 10…e6 against Pragg and the Indian teen unwisely chose to release the tension in the center with 11.dxc5 and went on to lose badly. It’s obvious Pragg learned his lesson in that game, as against Giri now, he adopts a more dynamic strategy. 11.h4! There’s many lines in the Exchange Grünfeld where this aggressive approach is a more than useful move, either weakening Black’s kingside with hxg6 or pushing on with h6 and possible back-rank mating threats. 11…e6 12.h5 Qh4 13.Qc1 The “safe” line was 13.hxg6 hxg6 14.f3 Bb7 but Black is solid and can even further hit d4 and the x-ray attack down the long h8-a1 diagonal with the seemingly unlikely retreat …Qh8!? But here, instead White sacs the pawn just for the piece-play – Black should be OK, but it is all a little awkward, and certainly White is the one with free and easy game. 13…cxd4 14.cxd4 Qxe4 15.Rd1 Na5 More solid looks 15…Ne7 helping to prop up d5 – now after 16.Nc3 Qc6 17.Bb5 Qb7 18.Bg5 f6 19.Bf4 Bd7 it is still a little awkward for Black, but his pieces are developed and he better covers key squares, such as d5 – but White still has good piece-play for the pawn. 16.Nc3 Qb7 17.Be2 Bd7 18.h6 Black is just a little cramped and has difficulties watching out for any bank-rank possibilities – but if he plays cautiously, he should be OK. However, these sorts of positions are a lot easier for White to play than for Black to defend, as one little slip could prove disastrous, as Giri soon discovers to his cost. 18…Bh8 19.Bf3 Bc6 20.d5! Exactly what’s needed – Pragg has to handle this position as energetically as he can, otherwise he’ll just allow Giri to consolidate. 20…exd5 21.Bd4 Rad8 22.Bxh8 Kxh8 23.Nxd5! A critical sacrifice from Pragg, as the teen is quick to spot all the back-rank problems for Giri generated with his 18.h6. And with it, Black’s position is now on a knife-edge. 23…Bxd5 24.Qd2 Taking full advantage that the bishop can’t move out of the pin on the d-file, as Qxd8 will be a mate. 24…Qe7 If you want to be über-cautious, then 24…Qb8 is the move to play. 25.Qc3+ f6 26.Rxd5 Rc8 27.Re1! Both players are responding well to the demands of the position. 27…Qc7 28.Qa3 Understandably, giving the difficulties with Black’s back-rank weakness, Pragg keeps the queens on the board for now – but he also could have traded with 28.Qxc7 Rxc7 29.Rd6! f5 30.Rde6 Nc4 31.Re8 Rc8 32.R8e7 a5 33.Bb7 Rb8 34.R1e6 with a nice advantage, as it is not easy for Black to unravel here given White’s very active pieces and the inherent back-rank danger. 28…Nc4 29.Qe7 Pragg is now looking for a slightly more refined version of the above note – but somehow Giri is oblivious to the dangers. 29…Ne5?? It’s the famous Morecambe & Wise Grieg Piano Concerto sketch with Andre Previn scenario: Giri is playing all the right moves, but not necessarily in the right order! He had to accept that his only option was 29…Qxe7! 30.Rxe7 and only now 30…Ne5 31.Rxa7 Ra8! 32.Rxa8 Nxf3+ 33.gxf3 Rxa8 and, with careful play, Black should be able to draw the slightly tricky R+P ending, a R+P ending made all the more trickier because of the h6-pawn and the back-rank mate. That said, after 34.Rd6 f5 35.Rxb6 Kg8 36.f4! Rxa2 37.Rb8+ Kf7 38.Rh8 g5! should see the game petering out to a draw now with 39.Rxh7+ Kg6 40.Rg7+ Kxh6 41.Rxg5 Ra5 and although Black’s king is cut-off on the h-file, all he needs to do is keep his rook where it is defending the f5-pawn and White can’t make any progress. 30.Rexe5! [see diagram] I think the correct technical term for this sacrifice is ‘Splat!’ In his haste to get …Ne5 in, Giri has overlooked that he had to trade queens first, as it has now left the door open for the possibility of the sac, and now no stopping Rd7 next. 30…fxe5 31.Rd7 Qc1+ 32.Bd1 The retreating bishop serves a dual purpose here with the Bb3+ redirect now possible – and it begins to make me wonder that Giri, in a serious miscalculation, might have just simply missed this subtle fact. 32…Qxh6 33.Qxe5+ 1-0 And Giri resigns as 33…Kg8 34.Bb3+ will win the house.