World Cup: Pragg stuns Caruana, will face Carlsen in eye-catching final

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
8/22/2023 – Praggnanandhaa reached the final of the FIDE World Cup after knocking out Fabiano Caruana in tiebreaks. An incredibly level-headed teenager, Pragg thus confirmed his qualification to the Candidates Tournament. In the final, the Indian prodigy is set to face Magnus Carlsen, who got the better of local hero Nijat Abasov by a 1½-½ score in the classical phase of their semifinal match. | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

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3, 2, 1 ­Pragg!

After knocking out Hikaru Nakamura (world number 2) in the fourth round and Fabiano Caruana (world number 3) in the semifinals, Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu reached the final of the FIDE World Cup, where he is set to face the strongest player in the world, Magnus Carlsen.

Pragg defeated both Naka and Caruana in tiebreaks, much like what happened in his extremely close match against compatriot and good friend Arjun Erigaisi in the quarterfinals.

While his reaching the semifinals all but secured him a spot in the 2024 Candidates Tournament — given Carlsen’s unwillingness to play himself — it is now fully guaranteed that he will get a ticket to the 8-player event in Toronto.

The winner of the match for third place between Caruana and Nijat Abasov will also secure a spot in the Candidates, while the loser of that confrontation will have to wait for Carlsen’s confirmed withdrawal. Due to this situation, Pragg was mostly relieved after beating Caruana, as he told Michael Rahal:

I really wanted to fix the [Candidates] spot. I didn’t want to get this fourth position and wait for Magnus’ decision.

The 18-year-old, who climbed to world number 23 in the live ratings list, will not get a rest day before his match against Carlsen, as the open tournament’s final kicks off on Tuesday.

Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu

As happy as can be — Pragg’s (and Vaishali’s) mother | Photo: / Maria Emelianova

After showing great defensive skills to draw both classical games against Caruana, Pragg once again saved a half point in the first 25-minute tiebreaker on Monday. This time around, it had more to do with an endgame inaccuracy by Caruana, though.

55.f4 was an unnecessary finesse, as the direct 55.a6 was completely winning for White. After the text, Black played 55...Kf5 and, despite sacrificing his rook for the a-pawn, managed to hold the resulting endgame with 3 vs. 2 (plus a bishop), thanks to his king’s activity.

Praggnanandhaa, Fabiano Caruana

Fierce competitors performing under pressure | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage

A rather quiet draw was signed next, which meant 10-minute games would follow. Pragg got white first and made the most of Caruana’s strategic mistake in a middlegame with bishops of opposite colours.

Engines evaluate the position as close to fully balanced, but from a human point of view, it is surely more comfortable to play with white here, as the light-squared bishop is a bit more active on b3 than its colleague on b6 — not to mention the fact that White is a pawn up.

Thus, it would make perfect sense for Black to force exchanges along the e-file with 29...Qe7, liquidating into a drawn position. Caruana, however, went for 29...Bc5, allowing White to get a comfortable edge with 30.Rxe3 dxe3 31.c3

White is now ready to play d3-d4, and eventually grab the weakened pawn on e3. Pragg patiently improved his position, transferring his king along the light squares all the way to b5. Caruana tried some tricks, but his young opponent once again demonstrated poise under pressure to get a memorable 63-move win that gave him the lead in the match.

In the 10-minute rematch, only Pragg got chances to claim a win. The prodigy, however, prioritized keeping things under control and succeeded in getting the draw he needed to set up an eye-catching showdown against none other than the highest-rated player in the world.

Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu

Congratulating the young finalist! | Photo: / Maria Emelianova 

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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.