Reports Jun 14, 2021 | 11:04 AMby Brian Jerauld

Gukesh books spot on Champions Chess Tour

Just after receiving an invitation to next month’s FIDE World Cup in Sochi, Indian junior star GM Gukesh D now has his warm-up plans booked: polishing up his skills with World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the globe’s best GMs in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. The second-youngest GM in history punched his ticket to the June 26 super event by winning the Gelfand Challenge with a 14/19 score, first beating rival GM Praggnanandhaa in a dramatic Round 17 game, then catching him at the finish line with a clutch 4/4 performance to close the tournament.

You can replay all the games and check out the pairings for the Gelfand Challenge using the selector below — click on a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results.

You can replay the full live commentary on the final day from David Howell and Jovanka Houska, with Judit Polgar joining for the first game.

The Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour coaching sessions are being recorded and edited and will be released weekly for the next three months, so that chess24 Premium members can join the young stars in learning from some of the world's best coaches. Sessions by Boris Gelfand, Ju Wenjun, Surya Ganguly, Arthur Kogan and Anna Muzychuk are ready to view now!

If you’re not yet Premium you can get 40% off all subscriptions by entering the voucher code CHALLENGEYOURSELF on the Go Premium page.

Gukesh played the second tournament of the Julius Baer Challengers Tour with strategic perfection, turning in his winning streak at the very end of a race where it proved dangerous to be in front. In fact, the Indian 15-year-old opened the event in the middle of the pack, playing the first six rounds to a 50-percent score, including losses to contenders American IM Christopher Yoo and German GM Vincent Keymer. 

Gukesh spent most of the tournament idling just outside of the top three on the leaderboard, while Pragg, Keymer and others took turns rotating through winning streaks to flash into, and then burn out of, the tournament lead.

But after the slow start, Gukesh quietly put together a decisive second half, scoring 11 wins and scattering just two respectable losses to Russian GM Volodar Murzin and compatriot GM Nihal Sarin, who finished fourth and fifth respectively. 

Gukesh finished the event on five straight wins, none bigger than the 17th round victory over then-leader Pragg that became the first-place tiebreaker at the end of the day. Trailing Pragg by 1.5 points in third place, Gukesh was in a must-win situation and blitzed into the Vienna variation of the Queen’s Gambit.

A rather sobering Gukesh fact revealed by his Challengers Tour coach Surya Ganguly, is that the young star had never used chess engines in his development, and had only just begun using them during lockdown. But their effects were on display in his pivotal game against Pragg on Sunday, showcasing an interesting 10.h4 and 15.Rh3-16.Rg3 maneuver that thwarted much of Black’s development effort.

With the black king stuck in the center, White’s queen and rook worked to open the queenside, clearing space with an elaborate queen trade: 28.Nxc4! Bxc4 29.Qxa4+ Nxa4 30.Bxc4 Nxc3 and 31.Bc1 had the bishop pair ready to inflict pain.

Pragg found a nice trick to break up the bishop pair by meeting 42.Bxe7 with 42...Nc8!, but Gukesh chose to give up the exchange instead.

43.Bc5 Nxa7 44.Bxa7 kept the duo on the board, and Gukesh showed their dominance over the rook with great endgame technique.

The win pulled Gukesh within a half-point of Pragg, whose grip on the lead was further spoiled in the following round by IM Olga Badelka, who despite struggling at 2/15 showed off fantastic technique in a rook-and-pawn endgame to hold the young Indian to a draw. The stutter allowed Gukesh to catch up in the penultimate round with the black pieces against GM Jonas Bjerre.

In the King’s Indian Defense, Gukesh seemed to deliberately walk into this knight fork, since after 21...Qg6 22.Nxa8 he'd simultaneously pulled the white knight out of position and begun a winning attack on the white king. First 22...f4 cut off the g5-knight, then 23.h4 Bf5 attacked the rook and recovered the other knight. 

After flushing the remaining white knight off its g5-post, Gukesh offered his second exchange sac of the game with 29...Rxd5!, following up with a pretty combination to see checkmate on the board.

Keymer had led the scoreboard after three days and 15 rounds, delivering his own five-win streak on Saturday. But he fell from the leader’s pace with a 1.5/4 score on Sunday, finishing clear third with 13.5/19 after losing a winning position in the day’s opening 16th round against impressive Russian 14-year-old IM Volodar Murzin, who finished fourth on 13/19.

The leader entering the final day, Pragg’s 2.5/4 on Sunday left him outside looking in by the final round, tied in score with Gukesh but behind on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Pragg won his last round with a King’s Indian Defense against Bulgarian IM Nurgyul Salimova, with all attention focused on Gukesh’s nerves in a race on the increment with the white pieces against Chinese GM Lei Tingjie.

With his fate in his hands, Gukesh chose the London System and showed off another 9.h4 in the clutch, this time as a post for 11.Ng5

11...Nxe5 12.dxe5 Bxe5 13.Qh5! and the forced 13...h6 14.Nxe6! wins back the pawn with the bishop double-attacked. 

Gukesh traded off the queens early and pushed into a middlegame with a bishop pair that had little effect, temporarily losing the thread in a dramatic moment of pressure. Black was afforded time to reorganize her pieces and even grabbed a temporary pawn lead with 30...Bxa2, but Gukesh’s minor piece trade of the knight with 36.Bxf6 created a dangerous g-pawn passer that was the key factor in the endgame.

Soon Black’s rook was passive in defense of the c-pawn and the white king was swift up the board to escort its g-passer. White won a pawn with 51.Bxd3 cxd3 52.Rxd3, and though Black would earn it back, one final fork at 62.Rg5+, and two extra pawns, was too much. There was sheer relief at the end!

For the Gelfand Challenge win, Gukesh earned $3,000 and perhaps more importantly a seat in the next Meltwater Champions Chess Tour event in less than two weeks' time, starting June 26th.

Gukesh deserved all the praise he received.

It had also been another great performance from Praggnanandhaa, who missed out by the narrowest of margins, and Vincent Keymer, who went into the final day as the favourite.

Gukesh also helped lead Team Polgar to a convincing 101-89 win over Team Kramnik in the Challengers Chess Tour and edged his team closer to winning a trip to Dubai this November to witness the FIDE World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi.

The $100,000 Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour continues with the Hou Yifan Challenge on July 15th, but before that we'll have the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour starting on June 26th. More details soon!

See also: 

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