India’s teenagers are currently on the rampage right now following their recent Olympiad podium performance, and 17-year-old prodigy Rameshbabu “Pragg” Praggnanandhaa almost pulled off another memorable high for his nation on its 75th Anniversary of Independence month, as he made Magnus Carlsen work all the way to a final round shootout before the Norwegian top dog could retain a second successive FTX Crypto Cup title in Miami.
Pragg and Carlsen went neck-and-neck through the first four rounds of the $210,000 elite esports all-play-all tournament, held at Florida’s Eden Roc Miami Beach – but with both losing in round five (to Liam Le and Jan-Krzysztof Duda respectively), and then the teenager losing a playoff to Duda in the penultimate round, the Norwegian – who conversely beat Alireza Firouzja in a playoff – crucially put a little daylight between himself and the rising Indian star, which proved all the difference between the two frontrunners when it came to their eagerly awaited final round seven clash.
But Carlsen didn’t have it all his own way in the intergenerational showdown! Pragg fought valiantly in an all-out effort to win the match to snatch the title. However, after the teenager lost game 3, Carlsen was by this time already guaranteed the title, and the best Pragg could hope for was to win the fourth game to force a playoff and perhaps bragging rights of possibly beating the world champion in their intergenerational head-to-head encounter.
A visibly more relaxed Carlsen, with the title already won, and the draw looking almost certain to win the match, blundered away the game to force such a scenario. Pragg then ended the intriguing contest on a personal high by beating Carlsen, 2-0, in the blitz playoff to win the match; and not only that, but with those crucial three victories over the world champion, he snatched the runner-up spot just ahead of Firouzja.
Although admitting he didn’t play at his best, Carlsen hailed his FTX Crypto Cup win a “great result” and he was very happy and relieved to have notched up a third win of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour season and clinch his first Major title of the Tour, to now stretch his lead at the top of the $1.6m Tour leaderboard.
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 16/21; 2-3. R. Praggnanandhaa (India), A. Firouzja (France) 15; 4. Le Liam (Vietnam) 12; 5. JK. Duda (Poland) 11; 6. L. Aronian (USA) 8; 7. A. Giri (Netherlands) 7; 8. H. Niemann (USA) 0.
GM Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa – GM Magnus Carlsen
FTX Crypto Cup, (7.4)
1.d4 e6 2.c4 Bb4+ A line popularised by the great Estonian Paul Keres, one of the unluckiest players never to have challenged for the world title; first denied by the outbreak of WWII, and, according to disputed conspiracy theories, Soviet pressures after the war. 3.Bd2 Bxd2+ 4.Qxd2 f5 This is the usual path for the Keres Defence, as Black adopts a sort of Dutch Defence set-up with the dark-squared bishops being traded, which makes it easier to play for Black. 5.Nc3 Nf6 6.e3 d6 7.Bd3 e5 8.Nge2 c5 9.d5 e4 10.Bc2 Nbd7 11.Ba4 0-0 12.Bxd7 Forced, otherwise Black will play …Nde5 and his two knights will have a total grip on the position. 12…Nxd7 13.h4 At least stopping the awkward …Qg5 – but Carlsen had to be happy here with his knight bossing from the wonderful e5 outpost. 13…Ne5 14.b3 Nd3+ It’s the obvious move admittedly – but as Pragg couldn’t castle kingside as the h4-pawn will be hanging, it would have been better to leave this move hanging in the air for now and go first for 14…a6 with the idea of …Bd7 and looking to blow the game open with …b5 – it just all looks difficult for White to prevent the game being dramatically opened up. 15.Kf1 Qf6 16.Nf4 b5 17.Nxd3 exd3 18.cxb5! The d3-pawn looks impressive, but this gives Pragg time to better organise the coordination of his pieces. 18…a6 19.Rd1 axb5 20.Nxb5 f4 21.exf4 Bg4 22.f3 Bf5 23.Kf2 Rfe8 24.Nc3 Admittedly, Carlsen does have a lot of pressure here but, conversely, he’s also sans two pawns! 24…h5 25.Rde1! With rooks being traded down the e-file, suddenly all the pressure begins to lift from White’s position. 25…Rxe1 26.Rxe1 Qxh4+ 27.Kg1 Qf6 Black can’t “hold” the position, as White will quickly play Re3 (if …Qxf4 then Rxd3!) and Ne4 to pick-off the d3-pawn. Besides, on f6, the threat is …Qd4+. 28.Nb5 The engine shows no nerves whatsoever here, and will tell you that the first choice is 28.Ne4 and going for 28…Qd4+ 29.Kh2 Bxe4 30.Rxe4 (Slightly safer than 30.fxe4 Re8! 31.Re3 Rxe4) 30…Qxd5 31.Re3 Qf5 32.Qxd3 (If 32.Rxd3? Rxa2!) 32…Qxf4+ 33.Kh3 Qg5! 34.Qxd6 Qxe3 35.Qd5+ Kh7 36.Qxa8 Qe6+ and a draw. But the human gut reaction will be first and foremost to stop …Qd4+, which Pragg does. 28…h4 29.a4 c4 Carlsen, being Carlsen, rolls the dice to activate his rook to try to press for the win. 30.bxc4 Rxa4 31.Rc1 Kh7 32.Kh2 Bg6 The game is on a knife-edge – just one slip from either player and it could be lost. In this scenario, a bail-out is not uncommon. 33.Rc3 Ra2?! The way to draw was being more proactive with 33…Ra1! forcing 34.Rxd3 Bxd3 35.Qxd3+ g6 36.Qe3 Ra4! leaving White to play 37.Nc3 Rxc4 38.Ne4 Qf8 39.Kh3 and with Ng5+ hanging in the air, White has more than enough to hold the draw. 34.Qxa2 Qxf4+ 35.Kh1 d2 36.Qa1! Making Carlsen work to win the match – and this determined mindset from Pragg begins to work in his favour big-time! 36…Qe5 37.Rc1! dxc1Q+ 38.Qxc1 Bd3? Carlsen blows the draw and the easy match-win with this error – but to save the game requires the ability to spot a difficult engine move with the sequence 38…h3! 39.gxh3 Qg3! 40.Qf1 Bf5 41.Nd4 Bxh3 42.Qe2 and Black can force the draw with the clever 42…Kg8! that was perhaps missed by Carlsen; the point being that Black wants to retreat the bishop with …Bd7 to go for …Qh3+ and …Qf1+ and a perpetual, but without the interjection of 42…Kg8!, there’s the very annoying Qh2 forcing the trade of queens and a won endgame for White. Now after 43.Nc2 Kf7! 44.Nd4 Qh4! White can’t prevent the draw by either of a perpetual or a repetition. 39.Qd2 Bf5 40.Qg5! [see diagram] Suddenly it has all gone pear-shaped for Carlsen, as this prevents the saving resource …Qe1+ and …Qg3+ and a draw – but not only does it prevent this, it also puts Carlsen into a quandary with the awkward pin on his bishop. 40…h3 41.Nxd6! I believe “Splat!” is the correct terminology for such moves. 41…hxg2+ 42.Kg1 Qe1+ 43.Kxg2 Qe2+ 44.Kg3 Qe5+ If 44…Qe1+ 45.Kf4! and the king escapes the checks as it attack the bishop. 45.Kf2 Qb2+ 46.Kg1 Qd4+ 47.Kg2 Qb2+ 48.Kh1! Bd3 Black has officially run out of saving check moves now. After 48…Qb1+ 49.Qg1 Qd3 50.Nxf5 Qxf3+ 51.Kh2 Qxf5 52.Qd4 Qc2+ 53.Kg3 and all that Black is achieving is to chase the White king over to shelter on the queenside with the queen and two pawns. 49.Qe3 Bf1 50.Qg1 Qc1 51.Nf5 1-0