White edge and momentum with co-leader Gukesh in Candidates penultimate round

D Gukesh
D Gukesh (PC: FIDE_chess/X)

The Candidates chess competition is heading towards an end no engine foresaw! It has been one of the most exciting contests in recent years in the open section. Two rounds to go and there is no favourite. Viswanathan Anand praised the youngsters for “adding a spark” to the tournament. On official commentary, he lauded their keenness to hang in till the end and make things happen.

There are three youngsters in this section of the competition in Toronto. D Gukesh is 18, R Praggnanandhaa 19 and Alireza Firouzja 21. The youngest of the remaining five is 29. Gukesh, Pragg and Firouzja have played some brilliant games which went on for a long time. Some of those produced unexpected results and added thrill to the drama.

Considering that Pragg is fifth with six points and Firouzja seventh on 4.5, it has to be said the brightest ‘spark’ has been provided by Gukesh, who is in a three-way lead on 7.5 points. Ian Nepomniachthci is the winner of the last two Candidates and World No. 7. Hikaru Nakamura is World No. 3. By keeping pace with two experienced and heavyweight campaigners, the rookie ranked 16th has not only punched above his weight. He landed those punches.

“These players are putting pressure on each other,” said GM Irina Krush on official commentary after the 12th round. “The big three (Caruana, Nakamura, Nepomniachtchi) are in with a chance. Everything is going to plan, except for Gukesh is there. The pre-tournament predictions didn’t say this. He is disrupting things. His presence in the leading group makes it super exciting.”

Gukesh’s composure defies age. Against tough opponents in tight games, he looked unruffled until the end of some marathon affairs. Barring a few seconds against Firouzja in the seventh round, he has calculated immaculately. He faced must-win situations after losing that game and drawing in the 11th round. On both occasions, Gukesh carved out hard-fought wins with black.


The Chennai player has actually been one of the better performers with black. In the open section, he has most wins — three — with those pieces. In the other 45 games so far, black has won just five games. In comparison, white has won 14 of the 48 games in all. Gukesh faces Firouzja with white pieces in the 13th round and Nakamura with black in the final game.

Unlike Pragg or Vidit, Gukesh has been unspectacular. But he has been among the steadiest and most consistent of the eight players. In the last two rounds, he may not have to do anything new in terms of his game. But, the pressure of sharing the lead and protecting it at this stage of an elite event is something he has not handled in his life.

“There will be pressure and Gukesh has to deal with it,” his coach Vishnu Prasanna V had told RevSportz after the 10th round. “It’s an individual game where you play solid and wait for the opponent to make a mistake. Gukesh has to maintain stability on his part and see how it goes. He may also have to alter plans depending on what’s happening on some other boards.”

Of the four contenders, Gukesh has perhaps the better of pairings. Nakamura faces Nepomniachtchi and Gukesh. Nepomniachtchi takes on top-seed Fabiano Caruana in his last game. Caruana’s other rival is Pragg. The previous game between these two was drawn. Rated higher than the Indians, Firouzja has had brilliant days, with more flat ones. He is seventh with 4.5 points. If Gukesh avenges his only loss of the tournament, it will set up a final day nobody anticipated.