Fighting chess marks Indian campaign at Candidates: Sasikiran

Krishnan Sasikiran caught in the moment. Source (X)

“All three are in with a chance. That’s a good start,” GM Krishnan Sasikiran said of India’s performance in the open section of the Candidates chess competition. Koneru Humpy and R Vaishali are not in contention in the women’s section. But D Gukesh, R Praggnanandhaa and Vidit Gujrathi are at the halfway stage of the event which selects the challenger to take on the world champion.

After seven rounds, all three are part of the group of contenders. The gap between leader Ian Nepomniachtchi (4.5 points) and Vidit (3.5) at joint-third is one point. Gukesh and Pragg (4 each) can also wipe the deficit in one round. Through sustained periods of brilliance, perseverance and moments of despair, they have been among the influential figures in this elite tournament.

“All three have played fighting chess and that’s been the most standout feature of the campaign so far,” Sasikiran told RevSportz. Back from playing the Czech league, where he helped Novydor retain the title, the first internationally strong Indian GM after Viswanathan Anand noticed a change in approach. According to him, this lot has expanded its comfort zone.

“They don’t play any one particular side. They are open to and prepared for a lot of possibilities. Earlier, Vidit and Pragg were more inclined towards the technical side. Nowadays, they are leaning towards dynamic chess. They are ready to play all positions. The Candidates is a very strong tournament and these youngsters have done well to be there with a chance,” said Sasikiran.

A member of Anand’s support staff as a second in the 2013 and 2014 world championship matches against Magnus Carlsen, Sasikiran felt the rest day should help Gukesh recover from the unexpected defeat against Alireza Firouzja in the seventh round. He also thinks the Indian should have won against Nepomniachtchi in the third round when he had white pieces.

Gukesh can slow down at times

“Gukesh normally plays fighting chess. It’s about converting your technical advantage. I think he could have won against Nepo as well. Had he gone for more technical chess, it could have been different. But he went for a dynamic exchange of rooks. Maybe he should play a bit slowly when he is in a situation where only he can win or draw,” said the 43-year-old from Chennai.

Pragg and value of surprises

The first Indian after Anand to cross 2700 in Elo rating and break into the top-30, whose best ranking was World No. 21, Sasikiran is pleased to see the variations played by Pragg. “For him it seems natural. In this kind of a tournament, the value of surprises is higher. Among other things, such surprises can get the opposition under time pressure. Pragg has made this work to his advantage.”

Vidit willing to take risks

A member of the first Indian team to win a Chess Olympiad medal — bronze in 2014 — Sasikiran has also been impressed with Vidit’s attacking mindset. “I’m glad he has recovered after two successive losses. He has played with new kinds of ideas and tried to take risks with black. He rattled (Hikaru) Nakamura (second round) with black. It was not an easy position. Again, it’s about the value of surprises,” he said.

Women need more events

The performance has been discouraging in the women’s section, with Koneru Humpy and R Vaishali at the bottom of the table with 2.5 points each. Sasikiran is of the opinion that women need more closed tournaments. “At the moment, there are not many. It’s not easy without that experience. Humpy can regain her confidence with one win. Vaishali is still gaining experience.”

In general, Sasikiran is pleased with the situation in the open section. It’s delicately poised and toppling the two-time Candidates winner Nepomniachtchi once he has taken the lead won’t be easy. “The difference isn’t much. The last three-four rounds will be crucial. They all (Indians) have a chance,” he said.

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