World champion Magnus Carlsen’s abdication of his crown, coupled with former title-challenger Fabiano Caruana’s dramatic exit from the top 10, that both came just days apart, officially marks the end of one era and the beginning of another, as witnessed at the recent 44th Chess Olympiad in Chennai, as a newer generation of teenage stars close the gap at the top by making their mark in the game.
The youthful Uzbek team, led by World Rapid champion Nodirbek Abdusattorov, 17, sensationally captured gold, while the even younger Indian II team, inspired by top board gold medalist Gukesh D, 16, captured the host nation’s heart – and the chess world’s too – by clinching bronze, India’s first official podium finish.
The backbone of that Indian teenage team performance was the redoubtable figure of Rameshbabu “Pragg” Praggnanandhaa, 17, who could well be on the cusp of cutting the generation gap between the world’s elite even further with another landmark breakthrough, as he matches Carlsen win-for-win so far in the FTX Crypto Cup in Miami, the second Major of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, with a hat-trick of impressive match victories.
With wins over Alireza Firouzja, Anish Giri and Hans Niemann respectively, Pragg and Carlsen – after beating Giri, Niemann and old foe Levon Aronian – are now neck-and-neck at the top with a perfect score of 9/9 (you score 3 points for a 4-game match win in the all-play-all Tour Majors) – and the race to the title and the richest prize in this hybrid esport contest in the USA could now come down to the scriptwriters’ dream final round generational clash between the top two!
The standout highlight for Pragg in round three turned out to be his game 3 win over Niemann, a game that chess24.com commentator Peter Leko described as being nothing short of a “fantastic positional masterpiece” – a game that further belied Pragg’s youthful age by more resembling a mature Anatoly Karpov or Carlsen at their positional squeeze best.
Round 4 of the round-robin event starts at 12:00 ET (18:00 CEST). Each match will be played over four rapid games, with blitz tiebreaks in case of a 2:2 draw.
All the action will be broadcast on chess24 with a choice of top commentary from the regular Tour Oslo studio team of David Howell, Jovanka Houska and Kaja Snare, or from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.
1-2. M. Carlsen (Norway), R. Praggnanandhaa (India) 9/9; 3-4. L. Aronian (USA), A. Firouzja (France) 5; 5. JK. Duda (Poland) 4; 6. Liem Le (Vietnam) 3; 7. A. Giri (Netherlands) 1. 8. H. Niemann (USA) 0.
GM R Praggnanandhaa – GM Hans Niemann
FTX Crypto Cup, (3.2)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Exchange variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 The Exchange variation is not a dynamic line you would normally associate with a young rising star of the game – but in truth, Pragg is developing into a fearsome positional player with a style that is very reminiscent of Anatoly Karpov, so very fitting for him to play this. 4…exd5 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 Bf5 7.Qf3 Bg6 8.Bxf6 Qxf6 9.Qxf6 gxf6 10.h4 With the queens off early doors, you might well think this game is destined for a draw – but what little bite Pragg has in the position with play against Black’s shattered kingside pawns, he ruthlessly grinds out a win with by turning in a free positional masterclass for all who watched this game live. 10…h5 11.Nh3 The knight is heading to f4 where it will put pressure on Black’s weak h5-pawn. 11…Bd6 12.g3 Nd7 13.Kd2 Ke7 14.Re1 f5 Quite a concession for Niemann to have to make, but the new young US star is clearly worried about Pragg bursting the game open with e4. And while …f5 stops the e4 break, it does come with long-term weaknesses for Niemann: his bishop is effectively cut out of the game, and his kingside pawns will be a headache to defend come the endgame. That said, it takes a positional masterclass from Pragg to ruthlessly exploit these weaknesses – but just sit back, watch and learn. 15.Nf4 Nf6 The easy answer looks like just trading on f4 with 15…Bxf4 but after 16.gxf4 Nf6 17.f3 Ne8 18.Rg1! this position is simply no fun for Black with his bishop on g6 increasingly looking more like a ‘big pawn’. 16.f3 Bh7 17.Ke2! Pragg shows a deft touch with his king more ideally placed on the kingside to defend both e3 and g3, thus freeing up his rooks to seek a queenside breakthrough as Black’s kingside remains in a state of stasis, all but virtually paralysed. 17…a5 18.Kf2 a4 19.Bd3 Notching up further pressure onBlack’s crippled kingside pawns, by targeting the f5-pawn – so now Niemann is tied down to defending both f5 and h5 pawns. 19…Kd7 20.Rc1 b5?! It all starts to go from bad to worse for Niemann after this further weakening of Black’s position – better to make non-committal moves such as 20…a3 21.b3 Bb4 22.Na4 Kc7 23.Nc5 and try to hold White here – its still a tough hold, but at least there’s no c6-pawn weakness to worry about. 21.Bb1 Rhg8 22.Nce2 Rge8 23.Nd3! Pragg has a clear plan and he executes it supremely! He’ll have added pressure with doubled rooks on the semi-open c-file, and there’s a bonus now of the knight coming into c5. 23…Kc7 24.Rc3 Kb6 25.Rhc1 Rac8 26.Nef4 Bg6 Niemann is effectively playing a piece down here, as his light-squared bishop is locked out of the game – and it will be hard to get it back into the game without having to worry about his f5-pawn. 27.Nc5 Re7 28.Bd3 Pragg is in no hurry to rush things, as Niemann is all but paralysed – but this is a high-class waiting move, as Pragg’s subtle follow-up retreat of Bf1 threatens a potential Bh3 to once again target the weak f5-pawn. 28…Bxf4 The pressure was becoming too much for Niemann, who didn’t fancy the idea of being slowly ground down by allowing Pragg to reposition his pieces for the inevitable breakthrough. 29.exf4 Ra7 30.Bf1 Ne8 31.Nd3 Nd6 32.Nb4 While Niemann thought he had eased his agony a little, Pragg soon finds new ways to further torture his opponent as the knight hits c6 and also d5 (stopping Black freeing his game with a timely …c5). 32…Rac7 33.b3! With Pragg having tied Niemann in knots, now comes the breakthrough with the a-file opening. 33…axb3 It’s easy to think that Black should have kept the a-file closed with 33…a3 but after 34.Re3! Rd7 35.Rce1 Rdd8 36.Re5 Re8 37.R1e2 White will play Nd3-c5 and then find another way to make a breakthrough. Such positions are just agony to have to be constantly defending in long endgame grinds. 34.axb3 f6 A frustrated Niemann tries in vain to finally get his bishop into the game – but it is too little too late now, as Pragg now moves in for the kill. 35.Ra1! Be8 36.Ra6+ Kb7 37.Rc2! When the rooks double on the a-file, death will soon be knocking on Niemann’s door – but it was simply a free masterclass lesson from Pragg on how to sit patiently on a superior position, probing at weaknesses, and then transitioning to making the game-winning breakthrough. 37…Rd8 38.Rca2 Kc8 39.Nd3! Heading to c5 and further headaches for Niemann to have to deal with – this position just had to be agony for him to have to defend. 39…Nb7 40.Bh3! The final winning manoeuvre was a long-time in the making, and started with Pragg playing 28.Bd3-f1, spotting that a future Bh3 could well prove decisive – which it is! 40…Bg6 A further humbling move for Niemann to have to make, but then again the alternative of 40…Bd7 allowed 41.Ra8# which might well have been a less painful death! 41.Rb6 The power chess from Pragg is breathtakingly relentless, as he piles the pressure on Black’s position – and something soon will have to give. 41…Kd7 42.Ra7 Rb8 43.Nb4! [see diagram] With Na6 threatened, Niemann’s position now implodes – but what a masterful masterclass of positional play by someone so young as Pragg! Ominously, as Carlsen starts the process of abdicating his crown, the young Indian seems to have picked up on the world champion’s mantle of squeezing an opponent to death at the board. 43…Na5 44.Rxc7+ Kxc7 45.Ra6! It’s now ‘game over’ as Pragg systematically picks off all of Niemann’s weak pawns that he’s desperately tried to shield throughout the game. 45…Nxb3 46.Rxc6+ Kb7 47.Rxf6 Niemann must have thought he was in September rather than August, as all of his pawns now drop off like leaves on a Fall tree. 47…Be8 48.Rxf5 Rd8 49.Ke3 Rc8 50.Nxd5 Rc1 51.Re5 Bc6 52.Be6 More in tune with the theme of the game would have been 52.Rxh5 but then again, when you simply have so many ways to win, sometimes the most ruthless can get lost in the wash. 52…Rc4 53.f5 Nxd4 54.Ne7 Nxf3 Take your pick of which way to go down in flames. If 54…Nxe6 55.Nxc6 Rc3+ 56.Kd2 Rxc6 57.fxe6 Rc8 58.Rxb5+ Kc6 59.Rxh5 and the four extra passed pawns should be enough! 55.Nxc6 Kxc6 Niemann could have delayed the inevitable by a few moves with 55…Rc3+ 56.Ke2 Kxc6 57.Rd5 and then push the f-pawn home – but what the difference of grimly hanging on for a few extra moves after being on the receiving end of such a positional pummelling? 56.Kxf3 1-0