Praggnanandhaa in Wijk aan Zee: Analyses and reflections

by Thorsten Cmiel
2/19/2022 – The organizers of the Tata Steel Tournament in Wijk aan Zee are known for inviting promising talents. Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu made his debut in the Masters this year. Thorsten Cmiel analyses Pragg’s games and shares some reflexions about the youngster’s performance. | Photos: Lennart Ootes, Jurriaan Hoefsmit - Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2022

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Pragg in the Masters

Playing a tournament like the Masters at the traditional venue in Wijk aan Zee for the first time should be something special for every grandmaster. For Pragg (born in 2005), the 84th edition was not his first outing in Wijk: in 2019 the Indian had played together with Vincent Keymer (2004) and Andrey Esipenko (2002) in the B group. The youngster is only 16 years old.

In 2022 Pragg travelled to the Netherlands with his long-time coach Ramesh. He was mainly responsible for the opening preparations. The two Indians shared a hotel room, as is customary in larger Indian travel groups. The shock was great when Ramesh received a positive Covid-19 test result in the third round. Ramesh showed typical symptoms, the organizers reacted immediately and got Pragg his own room. He was also tested daily, and fortunately his PCR tests were all negative.

Pragg decided to play with a mask during all rounds. On the day of the ninth round, he was given the all-clear — his coach tested negative and later even took part in the award ceremony. One should not underestimate these circumstances. Whether Pragg’s play was significantly affected cannot be judged well from the outside. In any case, a rather unfortunate phase followed round 4 for Pragg, in which he only picked up half a point from five games. If you look at the games in detail, it becomes clear that there was much more to it.

The tournament

The tournament began with two rather unspectacular games against Anish Giri and Jan-Krzystof Duda. In the third round, Pragg played against the defending champion Jorden van Foreest. The latter played a rather rare continuation already in the third move. Pragg responded excellently.

 

Snapshot #1 - Position before 13…Be6

Up to this point, White had given a pawn quite quickly and in compensation had a half-open f-file with indirect pressure against the f7-pawn. However, it is not obvious that the f7-pawn could ever be captured. An understandable black move here could be 13...Kh8, in order to simply move the knight back to g8 against 14.Bg5. If White then captures on f7, the development of the bishop to e6 follows, and White must give up the piece.

The engine, instead of developing the bishop to g5, wants to place it on d2. Then Black could use his king position on h8 and give back the pawn with 14...e4!?. After 15.Nxe4 comes the intermediate move 15...Bg4 and then Black captures on e4 and brings the a-rook into play via e8. It should be noted that this manoeuvre would have failed with a king on g8 due to Nxf6+.

The move played was probably a shock not only for the spectators but also for his coach: the young Indian obviously could not solve the problem posed to him and moved his bishop to e6 in the diagrammed position, getting four isolated pawns after the exchange. The Dutchman then returned the favour, and Pragg came close to equalizing. Instead of restoring the balance though, he sacrificed a pawn and quickly found himself in an inferior position. An unsuccessful game on an unlucky day.

In the next round, Pragg played the Swede Nils Grandelius. The Indian played the opening aggressively and opened the h-file. Grandelius did not cope well with his opponent’s style of play and was losing on both sides of the board: on one side positionally because of the light squares, while on the other flank the a-file was entirely in the Indian’s hands. On move 40, things got dramatic for a moment, and it seemed as if the Swede could still generate some counterplay. However, after the smoke cleared and both players were given another hour for the next twenty moves, Pragg quickly found a convincing solution.

 

Snapshot #2 - Before 42.Rxc7

In the diagrammed position, 42.Rxc7 followed, after which the black position quickly collapsed.

In the fifth round, with two points from four games to his name, Pragg played what would turn out to be a key game for his tournament. In Wijk the tournament is well distributed in terms of time. Rest days are scheduled after rounds four and eight, as well as after round ten. In any case, Pragg was well-prepared, and it was his move in the following position.

 

Snapshot #3 - Before 14...Kf8

Here Black could crown his courageous opening game with the constricting move 14...e4. White must somehow complete his development afterwards, and it is difficult to see how he will manage to do that. His queen on g3 is only apparently a dangerous piece, as above all it hinders the development of his own kingside.

It should perhaps be noted that Bg5-h6 is not a serious threat because of the response Nh5. In the diagrammed position, Pragg made the mysterious move 14....Kf8. One can only speculate about the reasons for this move. The move seems to be a bit too prophylactic. Pragg also wants to attack the opponent’s bishop with his h-pawn and force his opponent to make a decision (to capture the knight on f6 or not). But White had a good answer.

Richard Rapport could have taken advantage of the concrete situation after his opponent’s inaccuracy and played 15.e4 himself. That was what Klaus Bischoff suggested in his live commentaries. Instead, the Hungarian moved his queen to b3. So with a 2-move delay, Pragg prevailed after all. In the next position, the Indian was faced with another important decision.

 

Snapshot #4 - Before 17...d3

He should continue to treat the position dynamically and place his knight on e5. The following variations are not at all complicated to calculate. That should not have been the problem. Pragg, however, probably channelled his thoughts wrongly at this point and relied too much on constricting the opponent’s position with the move 17....d3. A pity. That was the second chance for clearly advantageous prospects in this game.

Richard Rapport then managed to consolidate his position decisively and, after conquering the a-file, to seize the initiative. Then, however, the Hungarian didn’t find the best way to exploit his advantage. Pragg had his last chance in this game in the next position.

 

Snapshot #5 - Before 31...Rf6

Should Pragg exchange the rook on d2 here and trust that White will never be able to capture the pawn with both pieces afterwards, and lastly with the king on e4, since then the pawn on d3 promotes? In a practical game, this is a tough decision to make. However, the move played in the game, 31....Tf6, is extremely ugly and subsequently led to a defeat after some accurate moves by Rapport.

In the sixth game, a less than spectacular draw against Sam Shankland in the Sveshnikov Variation was played. Pragg was again excellently prepared.

Then came the youngster’s first-ever classical game against a reigning World Champion. After Pragg once again showed good preparation, Magnus Carlsen was rather worse off with black. In the following position, the Indian had a free move to either strengthen his position or exchange the right pieces.

 

Snapshot #6 - Before 19.Qd2

The exciting move 19.Ba8 catches the eye. Black “threatened” to question the white knight on c3 with his b-pawn and White needed a good answer. By moving the bishop to a8, White clears the square d5. Pragg came up with a different idea and instead transferred his queen to a slightly better square, f4, via 19.Qd2. However, this costs valuable time in a dynamic position. Perhaps he was dreaming of a capture on f7. And then play e4-e5. There was still a chance for Pragg to fight back a bit more, but that did not change the result.

In the next round, Pragg lost to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who had prepared a sideline variation. Pragg decided to play very aggressively, but he fell behind early on after a careless move, and the Azerbaijani showed how strong two connected pawns are in the centre.

In the ninth round, Pragg played a stirring game against Sergey Karjakin. After some good chances and finally a not very good phase, in which the Russian showed all his skills to fight for a win, Pragg had to make an important decision with White on move 40 under considerable time pressure.

 

Snapshot #7 - Before 40.c6

A position with a crucial question. Should White play 40.c6? Or should White move the other pawn to h6? In both cases, it’s about throwing the pawns forward as quickly as possible, but also about supporting the c-pawn with the knight. Even a quick calculator like the young Indian might have made the decision here following his intuition. Pragg played 40.c6, and after 40...Kxf4 the game would even have ended in White's favour. But Karjakin instead found the brilliant move 40...e5! to uncork the intermediate 41...Rc8 after any capture on e5. This development shows the disadvantage of White’s pawn push: the c6-pawn threatens to be captured with check. Tragically for Pragg, after the other pawn move, 40.h6, the game would probably have ended in a draw.

On India’s Republic Day, he met his compatriot Vidit Gujrathi, who had been very successful up to that point. At first there was a small theoretical duel in which Pragg failed to pay attention to a small detail in the move sequence and ended up at a big disadvantage. Vidit later retaliated, and the evaluation went back and forth several times. Eventually, the younger Indian won the game after a great fight from both sides.

After only grabbing a half point from five games, the negative trend had stopped for Pragg and tragically a negative streak had begun for Vidit. Coach Ramesh’s PCR test came back negative for the first time that day. The final rest day followed.

On the next day of play, it was announced that Daniil Dubov — in whose entourage there had also been a coronavirus case earlier in the tournament — would now pull out of the tournament himself because of a positive test. So for Pragg there were only two games left. After six black games in ten rounds, at least he was left with a balanced colour account.

The decision in the game against Fabiano Caruana came down to what went on in the following complex position. White had played very obligingly up to this point. Pragg now decided to force his opponent to move his knight to f8. The moves 21.Dc2 and 21.Dd3 are suitable for this purpose. In both cases, 21...Nf8 would follows.

 

Snapshot #8

The queen would be better on d3, since Black’s lack of piece opposition (Qc2-Rc8) later in the game makes it difficult for him to play b6-b5. Pragg played 21.Qc2, and also failed to find a good piece manoeuvre for his knight in the next two moves, which meant he had a worse position. The US grandmaster subsequently won convincingly.

After another day of rest, Pragg probably surprised Andrey Esipenko by playing the aggressive Sämisch Variation against the Nimzo-Indian. This choice turned out to be excellent, and Pragg won the final game. What was the next move for White here?

 

Snapshot #9 - Before 56.Ba4

All games

 

Conclusion

Pragg scored four and a half points from the twelve games he played. He won three games. His performance gained him almost seven rating points. It should not go unmentioned that the youngster was by far the lowest-rated player in the field. Before the tournament, Pragg was therefore certainly targetted by his strong opponents.

Pragg’s games were sufficiently complex to create extremely interesting positions and chances to fight for a win. It certainly plays a role that presumably every opponent wanted to win against Pragg. Unlike in his earlier tournaments, time trouble was rarely decisive. The Indian was mostly well-prepared and thus rarely came under time pressure. Not unexpectedly, the manoeuvring skills of the young Indian are less developed than those of his world-class opponents. In some situations, Pragg’s play seemed hesitant. It showed that Pragg employed an aggressive approach, especially with White.

At the awards ceremony

Compared to other players in Pragg’s rating class, he did not get off to a rocket start after the pandemic. His rating has therefore been stagnating for a while. Hopefully, his participation as a regular player in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour will help him to move closer to the top of the world ranking.

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Thorsten Cmiel is FIDE Master, lives in Cologne and Milano and works as a freelance finance journalist.

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lajosarpad lajosarpad 2/20/2022 03:26
Pragg's decision to wear a mask to protect others is a sensible, goodwilling approach to a potential infection.
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