Gukesh becomes World Championship challenger at 17!

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/22/2024 – Gukesh D, an incredibly level-headed 17-year-old from Chennai, became the World Chess Championship challenger by winning the very strong 2024 Candidates Tournament in Toronto. Gukesh entered the final round as the sole leader, and safely held a draw with black against direct contender Hikaru Nakamura. Either Fabiano Caruana or Ian Nepomniachtchi could have caught the youngster with a win, but their direct encounter saw Caruana failing to make the most of a number of winning chances before agreeing to a 109-move draw in what turned out to be a titanic struggle. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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Will he be the youngest world champion ever?

ChessBase co-founder Frederic Friedel warned us about five years ago (or even earlier): a generation of Indian prodigies was about to storm the chess world!

Gukesh D, a 12-year-old boy from Chennai had recently become the second-youngest GM in history — he is now the third-youngest after Abhimanyu Mishra broke Sergey Karjakin’s record — and he stood out for his maturity and in-depth understanding of the game.

In 2022, the youngster had a breakthrough year, as he went from a 2614 rating in January to a 2725 rating by the end of the year. On his way to entering the exclusive 2700-club, Gukesh won four open tournaments in a row in Spain, and shocked the chess world by scoring eight consecutive wins at the start of a historic Chess Olympiad in his hometown.

A year and a half later, the cool-headed prodigy gained the right to face Ding Liren in the upcoming match for the World Chess Championship — and he is still only 17 years old! If he manages to beat the current champion, he will become the youngest-ever world champion, a record currently held by Garry Kasparov, who gained the title at the age of 22 back in 1985.

Gukesh qualified for the most prestigious event in the world of chess by winning the Candidates Tournament in Toronto. His 9/14 score was enough to claim outright victory, which is rather surprising given how close the race for first place had been throughout the event.

The Indian prodigy outscored Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Ian Nepomniachthci by a half point — the three players who finished in shared second place were also the top three seeds at the double round-robin, not to mention the fact that Caruana and Nepo had already won previous editions of the event.

On his way to overall victory, Gukesh defeated Praggnanandhaa R, Vidit Gujrathi, Alireza Firouzja and Nijat Abasov (twice). He only suffered one loss, against Firouzja in round 7.

In fact, the cool-headed, serene youngster confessed in a press conference that he felt at his best in Toronto right after his round-7 loss. The confession was clipped by Olimpiu di Luppi:

Former women’s world champion Susan Polgar, who frequently comments on events in the chess world, had this to say about Gukesh to Indian media, as she shared on her X account:

I said long before the recent success of the new crop of talented young Indian players, Gukesh will go the furthest. He has the maturity beyond his years. He has the talent, motivation, fearless mentality, strong nerves, determination, and the X-factor…

Like Frederic Friedel, the oldest of the Polgar sisters was able to foresee a brilliant future for the young man from Chennai. Perhaps even Gukesh knew that he was destined for greatness. At least, he was confident enough to share his ambitions of becoming world champion in an interview conducted by the organizers of the traditional open tournament in Gibraltar — he was 12 at the time:

Gukesh’s dream might just come true earlier than expected, as he is set to face world champion Ding Liren — another low-key, humble grandmaster — in the upcoming match for the world title. According to FIDE, the match should take place at the end of the year.

Dommaraju Gukesh

Chess fans want a photo with the new challenger! | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Dommaraju Gukesh, Sagar Shah

Sharing a laugh with ChessBase India’s Sagar Shah — Sagar was instrumental in the incredible growth chess experienced in India! | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Fighting spirit to the bitter end

There was plenty of drama in the final round of the Candidates. Gukesh entered the round as the sole leader, so a draw was enough to secure at least shared first place (in case of a tie, the winner would be decided in a playoff). Since he had black against the ever-dangerous Nakamura, who would leapfrog him with a win, achieving a safe draw after getting a minimal edge in the early middlegame was surely a success.

Once the draw was agreed in the aforementioned encounter, it all came down to the game between Caruana and Nepomniachtchi. A win for either of the former World Championship challengers would get them into a playoff against Gukesh — and they gave it all in a hard-fought struggle that lasted no fewer than 109 moves!

Dommaraju Gukesh

Gukesh D ready for the fight at the start of round 14 | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Caruana got a clearly superior position in the middlegame, but made a questionable decision while trying to convert his advantage into a win — he traded his bishop (and a pawn) for his opponent’s rook, allowing Nepomniachtchi to show his resourcefulness in an endgame with queen and rook against queen and (tricky) knight.

The position was still winning for Caruana, but his clock was dangerously ticking down throughout the endgame.

The last clear winning sequence missed by Caruana was seen on move 66, but the contenders continued playing what was a clearly drawn queen endgame. Despite having escaped with a draw in this game, Nepomniachtchi reluctantly accepted Caruana’s draw offer after almost six hours of play. The Russian GM, who won the previous two editions of the event, was not happy with the result.

What a pair of fighters! Now two “veterans” (at 31 and 33), they will have to deal with the new generation of formidable talents to get another shot at the world title in the next cycles.

Results - Round 14

Fabiano Caruana, Ian Nepomniachtchi

Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi, two of the strongest chess players in the world during the 21st century | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Caruana ½ - ½ Nepomniachtchi

Analysis by André Schulz

Expert analysis by GM Daniel King

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

Final standings

All games

Vlog: The legend of Dommaraju Gukesh

Hikaru on fire!

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.
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