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Looking back at 2017: Top achievements of the year

by Aditya Pai - 04/01/2018

2017 was a year full of achievements for Indian chess. It was this year that Adhiban made his first appearance at Tata Steel Masters, an elite event at the championship. Both R Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin reached 2500 Elo, this year. 2017 also saw India get its 50th GM. But the best was saved for the last: Anand won the world rapid title for the 12th time in his career! In this report, we will take a look at 10 of the biggest feats Indians have achieved in the field of chess.

In the last two decades, Indian chess has seen a meteoric rise. Gone are the days when Viswanathan Anand was the only chess player India could boast of. The number of grandmasters in the country has more than quadrupled since Anand won the world championship title at the turn of the millennium. Today, India has a stellar trove of 50 Grandmasters out of whom seven are among the world’s top 100. Moreover, young talents like R Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin, D Gukesh etc. have made it clear with their prowess that they are soon to become a force to be reckoned with for the world’s chess elite.

 

This year was no different than most of its predecessors. Indian chess players proved their mettle reaching new milestones, winning medals and title prizes in various prestigious events across the globe. Below are some highlights of the achievements of the Indian chess contingent.

Indians except Anand in world’s top 100 (clockwise from top left: Sasikiran, Harikrishna, Adhiban, Negi, Vidit, Ganguly)

10. Abhijeet Gupta’s Commonwealth hat-trick

Lately, the Delhi based GM Abhijeet Gupta is frequently dubbed as Mr Commonwealth. The reason is quite simple: he has won the event four times in five years! In fact, this year, he won it for the third consecutive time scoring an unbeaten 7.5/9.

 

But Gupta’s performance wasn’t the only feat for India at the Commonwealth. In fact, the event was dominated by Indians all around. While another Delhiite, GM Vaibhav Suri, took the second place, Maharashtrian GM Tejas Bakre bagged the third prize.

Commonwealth chess champions WGM Swati Ghate and GM Abhijeet Gupta

In the Women’s category, WGM Swati Ghate took the title prize while Bengal’s Mary Ann Gomes and Delhi’s Tania Sachdev clinched second and third spots respectively. Furthermore, in all the age categories from U-8 to U-20, all three podium finishers were Indians.

9. GM Lalith Babu and WGM Padmini Rout won the National Championships

While team India has been a tough contender at the international level their competitive spirit is seen quite starkly even at the National level while the stars play among themselves. In the open section of the National Premier Championships this year, it looked like the 18-year-old Chennai lad, GM Aravindh Chithambaram will cruise to the title. Eight rounds into the tournament, Chithambaram had taken a full point lead over the rest of the field. But in the very next round, when Chithambaram was paired against Lalith Babu, the latter made the most of the opportunity by winning the game and joining Chithambaram in the lead. The two led jointly until the very final round when, in the heat of the struggle, Chithambaram lost. Lalith Babu, on the other hand, managed to split the point in his final round game and thus win the event by a half-point margin.

The Indian National Champs | Photos: Amruta Mokal

The women’s national was an equally tense affair. Going into the final round, four players – Bhakti Kulkarni, Meenakshi Subbaraman, Saumya Swaminathan and Padmini Rout – were in contention for the title. Meenakshi had the best chance of winning the title had she won her game. But she suffered a surprising loss to Shrishti Pandey. Kulkarni and Swaminathan both had good chances in their games but failed to convert. This gave Rout a clear shot at the title. A win was all she needed. The pressure made her fumble during the game. What was a clearly better position, turned into a tough one to crack. But showing great determination, Rout managed to win and take home the title.

8. India got its 50th GM and Karnataka its first

On September 6, 2017, the only player from the state of Karnataka to win the National B Championship (now called the National Challengers) became India’s 50th Grandmaster. To achieve the feat, he had to win both of his last two games at the Formento all-India FIDE-rated chess tournament which he did successfully.

With these two wins, he was able to cross the required rating threshold of 2500 and complete all the requirements for the Grand Master title.

As for the norm requirement, Thejkumar had already one grandmaster norm more than the required three quite early in his career, the last one scored at the National Premier Championship in 2013.

7. Aravindh Chithambaram’s bronze at the World Junior Championship

At the World Junior Championship this year, all eyes were on the 12-year-old Indian chess prodigy, R Praggnanandhaa. After all, if the wunderkind had managed to win the title, he would have become the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game. But amid all talks about Praggna, another Chennai lad, who has once been a prodigy himself, made his way to the top. By the time the final round had come to a close, Chithambaram had caught the tournament leader, Aryan Tari, at 8.5/11 but a lower tie-break placed him third on the leaderboard behind Tari and the Armenian GM Manuel Petrosyan.

Aravindh Chithambaram at the Sunway Sitges 2017 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

The road to the top was not an easy one for Chithambaram. In the very first round of the event, the 18-year-old had suffered a shocking loss to the Serbian FM Pavle Dimic who was rated more than 200 points below him. But Chithambaram leapt forward undeterred. He did not lose a single game after this and conceded only three draws on the way.

6. Nihal Sarin and R Praggnanandhaa reached Elo 2500

2500 is a magical number of sorts when it comes to chess ratings. After all, every chess player who desires to become a grandmaster must at least once in their career touch the 2500 rating mark. Some have even spent their lifetimes trying to reach this milestone. But such for such bright Indian stars as Nihal Sarin and R Praggnanandhaa, this was just another grain of sand they had to pass in their quest for the world championship. As of today, Praggnanandhaa is merely 12 years old while Sarin is only 13.

Rising stars of India: Nihal Sarin and Praggnanddhaa | Photo: Amruta Mokal

R Praggnanandhaa has been in the news ever since he became the world’s youngest International Master at the age of 10 years, 10 months and 19 days in May last year. It was now to be seen if he could break Sergey Karjakin’s record of 12 years and 7 months to become the world’s youngest Grand Master. Hopes rose to the brim when Praggna crossed the 2500 rating threshold in August this year. To top it all, he even scored a GM norm with a round to spare at the recently concluded World Junior Championship. Had he won the event, he would have become a GM then and there since the title is conferred to the title winner if he/she isn’t a GM yet. But he fell short by half-a-point and finished fourth. Nevertheless, he still has three months to score his remaining two norms. And whether or not he breaks the record, the kid has a bright career ahead of him for sure.

 

Nihal Sarin, the 13-year-old from Thrissur, is another exceptional chess talent. He has been the World U-10 champion and has been in top form this year. At the Isle of Man Open in late September this year, Sarin proved his mettle against strong grandmasters like Emil Sutovsky and Varuzhan Akobian holding them both to draws. At the Runavik Open last month, Sarin breached the 2500 rating mark finishing sixth in the final standings with an unbeaten score of 6.5/9.

5. Anand’s second place finish at the Isle of Man Open

The Isle of Man Open held in September this year was one of the biggest open chess tournaments of this year. The field here included some of the biggest players like Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand and so forth. In fact, as many as 13 grandmasters in the fray were rated above 2700!

Anand | Photo: Spectrum Studios

Despite such stiff competition, Anand scored an undefeated 7.0/9 and finished second, ahead of world-class players like Nakamura, Kramnik, Adams and Caruana. The only player with a better score than Anand was the reigning world champion, GM Magnus Carlsen.

4. Dronavalli Harika clinched bronze at the World Women’s Chess Championship

A lot of controversy surrounded the Women’s World Chess Championship this year. The epicentre of it all was the venue for the event – Iran. Iran had made it mandatory for all the participants to wear a ‘hijab’ during the event and was subjected to a huge backlash from players around the world. Harika Dronavalli, however, chose not to get involved in all of this and just play chess. She not only accepted the hijab but also put in several laborious months into preparation for the event. As the event kicked off, Harika outclassed her opponents to reach the semi-finals. On her way, she ousted some of the best players in the world like Dinara Saduakassova, Sopiko Guramishvili and Nana Dzagnidze.

Harika at the World Women’s Chess Championship | Photo: Amruta Mokal

In the semi-finals, however, she wasn’t able to hold her nerves. Playing against the eventual winner of the event, Tan Zhongyi, Harika had lost the first game badly, bounced back in the second and forced a tie-break eventually. But at a crucial moment, Harika faltered and lost. But despite the last minute debacle, Harika’s performance was a commendable one.

3. Adhiban’s astounding run at Tata Steel Chess

Last year, Adhiban played extraordinarily well in the Challengers section of Tata Steel Chess Tournament and made his way into the Masters’ segment this year. The event, which was previously called Corus Chess Tournament, has been one of the most prestigious events in chess since several years. The Masters’ section of the event pits 14 of the best players in the world against each other in a round-robin format.

The ever-optimistic and cheerful Adhiban | Photo: Lennart Ootes

For Adhiban, who was a debutant at the event, just playing here against the likes of players like Magnus Carlsen, Welsey So, Levon Aronian etc. was a huge opportunity. But when play kicked off, Adhiban proved to be more than a mere debutant at the event. Deploying offbeat openings like the King’s Gambit and Vienna Opening, the Chennai lad not only managed to beat strong GMs like Wojtaszek, Rapport, Andreikin etc. but also came extremely close to winning against the very elites of the chess world like Magnus Carlsen. With this herculean effort, Adhiban managed to finish third in the Masters’ section ahead of world class players like Levon Aronian, Sergey Karjakin, Wei Yi and so forth.

2. Vidit Gujrathi crossed 2700!

After winning the bronze medal at the Asian Championship this year, Vidit Gujrathi not only booked a spot for himself at the Chess World Cup but also came extremely close to breaching the coveted 2700 rating mark. His rating after the Asian Juniors was 2692. He was only 8 points away from his goal. He began his next tournament with a bang. At the World Team Championship in June this year Vidit scored a win against Radoslaw Wojtaszek in the very first round and then drew Ding Liren in round two. Both of his opponents were much higher rated than him. His rating catapulted to 2698.7! One win was all he needed to break into 2700. But in the later rounds, he slowed down and missed his chance.

Vidit Gujrathi at the Isle of Man, 2017 | Photo: Chess. com /Maria Emelianova

Gujrathi, however, has always been a fighter. He has suffered several setbacks in the past and knows well how to overcome them. In his next tournament, which was the Spanish Higher League in Linares, he finished with an unblemished 4.5/7. In the last round, he beat GM Alexander Areschenko and finally broke into the Elo 2700 club. This was indeed a big feat. Only three Indians – Anand, Sasikiran and Harikrishna – have been able to make it to this level so far.

Now that he has achieved what he had been dreaming of since the last couple of years, Vidit is taking huge strides towards his next goal – of winning the world championship title. Barely a month after breaking into 2700, Vidit played at the Isle of Man Open and matched his wits against the very best in the world. In round seven, he was pitted against none other than Magnus Carlsen. In this game too, Vidit was able to maintain his fantastic form and hold the world champion to a draw. As for his overall tournament result, he finished joint fourth (eight on tie-break). Today, Vidit’s rating has risen to 2715. He is currently ranked 34th in the world and 3rd in India. Given that he is only 23 years old, it won’t be wrong to assume that he might just be the one after Anand to take the chess world by storm.

1. Anand clinched the World Rapid Championship for the 12th time in his career!

After his last-place finish at the London Chess Classic, it seemed the former five-time world champion was going to have a tough time at the World Rapid and Blitz Championships, especially since the time control was faster. But as we know, time and again, Anand has proved that he can come back with a bang better than the "Scorpions".

 

At the rapid leg of the event, the tiger from Madras remained undefeated and convincingly won the title of "the World Rapid Champion" for the twelfth time in his career. Along the way, he defeated several strong players including his nemesis, Magnus Carlsen.Also important to note was the fact that Anand risked very little and took draws at important junctures. The best example of this, perhaps, was his draw against Bu Xiangzhi in the final round of the event.

Anand on the podium in Riyadh | Photo: Official website of the event

Going into the final round, Anand had caught up with Magnus Carlsen for the top place on the leaderboard. While Carlsen had white against Alex Grischuk, Anand had black against Xiangzhi. It seemed Carlsen was sure to go out all guns blazing to win his game and if Anand had to keep his chances alive, he would have to beat Xiangzhi with black. But counter-intuitively, Anand shook hands with the Chinese GM in merely 12 moves. The idea was to put the onus on Carlsen to try and win his game if he wanted to win the title so badly. But Carlsen cracked and lost this crucial game leaving Anand at the top with Nepomnniachtchi and Fedoseev.

As per the tournament rules, the top two were to play for the title. This left Nepo out of contention while Anand and Fedoseev battled it out in the playoffs.

Anand won the first game quite comfortably and was now only a draw away from the title prize. In a must-win situation, Fedoseev threw all but the kitchen sink at the former five-time world champion and generated some wild complications. Here again, Anand, with stone cold nerves, found all the right moves to keep the balance. After the dust had settled, Fedoseev was left with no choice other than forcing a repetition and accepting his fate.

 

Having won the title prize in the rapid leg, Anand could have laid back and celebrated. But in the Blitz again, when the storm called Anand hit the blitz event, it wreaked havoc. Scoring 14.5/21, Anand tied for second and took the third place due to lower tiebreak. Out of his 38 games at the event, Anand lost only one game and this was in the blitz. If he could continue his great run, he's going to be a player to watch out for in 2018!

Before signing off, we'd like to wish all readers a very happy new year from the entire ChessBase India team

About the Author

Aditya Pai is an ardent chess fan, avid reader, and a film lover. He has been an advertising copywriter and is currently pursuing a Master's in English Literature at the University of Mumbai. He loves all things German and is learning the language. He has also written scripts for experimental films.