12-year-old Praggnanandhaa’s win over Awonder Liang in Round 8 of the World Junior Championship in Tarvisio took his performance rating to 2749 and guaranteed him his first grandmaster norm. He might not stop there, though, since with only three rounds to go he’s just half a point behind the leader, Aryan Tari. If he did win the tournament he’d gain the grandmaster title immediately without the need to score two more norms and in the process smash Sergey Karjakin’s record to become the youngest grandmaster in history.
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Praggnanandhaa may be only 12 years and 3 months old, but he's already been the youngest international master in history and it’s been obvious for some time now that he was ready to perform at a grandmaster level. He hit the 2500 rating requirement on his birthday in August, but just missed out on a first grandmaster norm when he lost in the last round of the HZ Tournament to Eduardo Iturrizaga.
He then fell short in the Sants Open, the Isle of Man International and the Chigorin Memorial, casting doubt on whether he would go on to beat Sergey Karjakin’s record of gaining the grandmaster title at the age of 12 years and 7 months. Now though, despite starting as only the 26th seed in a tournament where players up to the age of 20 are eligible, he’s scored his first grandmaster norm with three rounds still to spare:
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for his many fans, with Praggnanandhaa borrowing something from Alexander Grischuk and Wei Yi in his time management. We last caught up with the tournament after Round 4, when he’d beaten top seed Jorden van Foreest. In the next game he had Black against his compatriot Sunilduth, who sacrificed a piece on move 13 in what became a razor-sharp Ruy Lopez. The game was following known theory for 18 moves, but by that stage Praggnanandhaa had spent an hour on his clock while his opponent was blitzing out moves. It looked like a bad situation for the kid, but then Sunilduth spent 18 minutes on 18.Ra3, which diverged from 18.Qf3 in the previous games such as Sutovsky-Bosiocic. When 20.e5? (20.Qf3!) took almost 40 minutes it was clear something had gone badly wrong for White:
Praggnanandhaa sensed the importance of the moment and spent 10 minutes himself before unleashing the winning 20…Bxf2+! 21.Kxf2 Qb6+ 22.Kf1 dxe5 and the f6-knight is covered and free to move. Black was on top, but the question was whether he’d spoil anything while trying to reach the time control on the 30-second increment per move. He didn’t, and when Praggnanandhaa made it he went on to win the game with remarkable ease.
The next game against China’s Xu Xiangyu saw a seemingly quiet position flare into life, with a lack of time again making Praggnanandhaa’s position seem perilous for a while. He held things together, though, and took the wise decision to agree a draw on move 34.
The decision to take a draw in the next game was far from obvious, though. Praggnanandhaa’s opponent was 20-year-old Russian Grandmaster Kirill Alekseenko, whose greatest claim to fame is pulling off the remarkable feat of winning the Chigorin Memorial for the last three years in a row. In the middlegame it seemed as though Kirill was comprehensively outplaying his young opponent and was about to pick up the black a-pawn at any moment. That never happened, though, and Praggnanandhaa’s counterplay on the kingside meant that by the time he reached the time control (in time trouble, of course!), he was better. That assessment never changed until a draw was reached in the following position:
The player’s had repeated the position with the black knight switching between c5 and d3 and the white rook from f1 to e1. Praggnanandhaa was perhaps simply relieved to have survived a tough middlegame, or couldn’t see a way through, but there was every reason for Black to play on and test his opponent.
Nevertheless, a draw with Black against a strong grandmaster was nothing to be upset about, and in the next game it was the Indian player who was pressing for the whole game against 14-year-old US Grandmaster Awonder Liang. White broke through in the run-up to the time control and then seemed to be cruising to victory until hugely complicating his task with one rushed move:
Here 45.Ne5! was a nuance that might have provoked immediate resignation, since it would have prevented 45.b7 Nc6 and Awonder giving up his knight for the new queen. It was still won for White, but there was always the looming threat that if Black could exchange pawns the Rook + Knight vs. Rook ending is a relatively easy theoretical draw. In the end Awonder did manage to eliminate the white pawns, but going for the line he’d overlooked that some positions are definitely not drawn!
Here Black resigned, with mate unavoidable.
Praggnanandhaa therefore has his 1st GM norm, but he can make it his 1st and last if he
actually wins the tournament and the prize of an automatic grandmaster title.
There are just three rounds to go, but it’s not going to be easy, since he
trails 18-year-old Aryan Tari by half a point and will play him with Black in
Aryan Tari has had to grow up with the pressure of being a “young talent” in Norway, a country that produced perhaps the greatest young talent the chess world has ever seen. He seems to have taken it in his stride, though, and has developed into a strong and mature grandmaster. He knocked David Howell out of the World Cup and scored draws against Short, Adams, Leko, Vallejo and Fressinet on the Isle of Man, while in the World Junior Championship he’s been showing another gear.
In Round 5 he brilliantly beat Russia’s Alexey Sarana in a Najdorf and then in Round 6 he was the first and so far only player to overcome Kirill Alekseenko. The Russian had a good position but missed a trick:
28...Bh6! puts White on the defensive, since 29.Bxh6 loses to 29...Qb6+. There was nothing too much wrong with Kirill’s 28…Nh5, but soon afterwards he lost his way and ended up getting crushed:
Aryan is threatening to take on g7 and then d8, or simply to bring his knight into the action.
In Round 8 Tari beat 20-year-old 2nd seed Grigoriy Oparin in a spectacular Caro-Kann where Oparin went for the kill with an early g4 and e6 only to be hit by aggression in return:
9…g5!!? 10.fxg5 Ne4 ensured White would have no time for consolidation. Grigoriy later went for an exchange sacrifice and might have lived happily ever after if not for another striking blow on g5:
21…Qxg5! eliminated the dangerous connected pawns, since 22.Qxg5 would of course run into 22…Nf3+, forking the white king and queen. Things went downhill rapidly for Oparin with Tari clinically finishing the job: 22.Nf4 Rae8 23.Qe2 Ng6! 24.Ne6 Nf4! 25.Qg4 Nxh3+! 26.Qxh3 Qxf5 White resigns
That left Tari in the lead on 7/8 with a 2825 rating performance, but Kirill Alekseenko bounced back to tie Praggnanandhaa for 2nd place. It’s notable that the group of eight on 6/8 includes three Chinese players:
17-year-old Zhansaya Abdumalik has already won silver and bronze medals in the World Junior Championship, and with 6.5/7 after 7 rounds, including victory over no. 3 seed Bibisara Assaubayeva, she was well on course finally to make it gold. She may still do so, but she was surprisingly caught in Round 8 by 19-year-old 2123-rated Russian Anastasya Paramzina. One careless move, 15…f6?, led to a world of hurt:
The light squares around the black king have been weakened and Anastasya gave up a pawn to exploit that with 16.d4! exd4 17.Qd3! In fact it was already possible to play 17.Bxh6, but that blow soon followed and it was just a question of whether White would convert. Paramzina did, and was just a move from mate when Abdumalik resigned. The two players are now joint leaders on 6.5/8.
Abdumalik surveys the competition
17-year-old Greek player Stavroula Tsolakidou is among the chasing pack on 6/8, and was given a nice gift when Nomin-Erdene Davaademberel played 15…h6? in Round 7:
16.Bxf7+! Kxf7 17.Qb3+ won a pawn and eventually the game.
The standings at the top in the women’s section after 8 rounds are as follows (note 44th seed Paramzina has gained 77 rating points so far!):