Gukesh crushes Caruana, Raunak subdues Perez as India overpower USA 3-1 at Chess Olympiad

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Step by step, D Gukesh is leaping into chess stardom. Move by move, he is scalping one chess immortal after the other. Alexei Shirov first, Fabiano Caruana now. Round by round, he is racking up the records. He is now the India No 2 on live ratings, and is on the joint-longest unbeaten streak with Vladimir Kramnik for anyone on his Olympiad debut. Day by day, the world is congregating around the teenager who wears the undulating attention around him lightly, as though he has self-exiled from fame and success.

At the press conference table after spearheading India B’s 3-1 heist over the USA, he sits with stern eyes and a grim face, accentuated by the thickening stubble that could win him an audition in a campus romcom. He talks shyly — words trickle out of him, sentences punctuated with deep pauses. He smiles rarely — he forced a reluctant smile after incessant persuasion from the photographers. He was asked to do a thumbs-up — he made a feeble attempt. He wears success lightly. Probe him about any of the milestones he has racked up in the last few days and months, he would give an I-am-not-bothered look. He, simply, is not the average 16-year-old. Of course, he is a Grandmaster which only a handful are or have been at his age. But even among the teenaged-GM brethren, he is the most withdrawn of the lot.

Perhaps, he emotes through his pieces. The ever cool king. Caruana tried several straight as well as not-so-straight paths to topple Gukesh’s king. He miserably failed. The queen was a bit panicky. After Gukesh failed to decode the line of Caruana’s opening and found himself exposed too early in the game, his queen was on a square-hopping spree. Like the skipping game you play in school. There was an insane sequence—the queen on C2 was pushed to b5, and two moves later, she was relocated to d7, then to b7, back to d7, then b7, then back again to d7, and then to the base d8. Gukesh hardly does the theatre, but his queen certainly did and in the process managed to distract Caruana.

The American of Italian descent read more into the games than what was there on the board. He sensed a trap, or perhaps a novelty even, or the method behind the madness. Not enjoying his best form, he panicked. And then Gukesh’s angry, stifled knights took over, striding past every attempted piece of resistance. Gukesh’s presence of mind and the ability to not drift was staggering. He had the insight to realise his exact mistake and the foresight to come out of it. “I was caught in the opening as it went along unfamiliar lines for me. But did not panic.”

Watching his troops run his opponent ragged, Caruana rubbing his temple as though in the clutches of a skull-crushing headache, Gukesh’s powerful king smiled emphatically. The queen, after her manic run, could catch her breath and marvel at the battle-scene with a sense of satisfaction. Caruana could only curse himself and hope he reclaims the form that had deserted him. He had come prepared, as unfailingly as he does, but even the best of preparations could not save him from losing to an opponent almost half his age.

In chess, age is irrelevant. The chess-teens of India are making it look utterly trivial. So it is with numbers and stardom of the adversaries. The sparkle of USA’s chess galacticos did not overawe them. Rather, as Gukesh later admitted, he took this as an opportunity. Star-struck teens are bygones. For they are stars themselves. Gukesh certainly is. Magnus Carlsen stopped by a game to get a glimpse of his genius. Susan Polgar says the only reason she checks Twitter is to see how far Gukesh has progressed.

His coach RB Ramesh summed up his vaulting progress with one metaphor: “He has booked a ticket in an express train.” Bullet train rather.

But team events are seldom a one-man show — the fate of Magnus Carlsen in this tournament is an apt reminder — but a triumph of collectivism. Just like the king needs his pawns and knights to fulfil their roles to subdue the enemy’s fleet. Raunak Sadhwani was Gukesh’s trusted aide. The most unsung of the five, he seldom looked out of tune against Leinier Dominguez Perez, whose books on openings are gospel to up-and-coming chess players. But Sadhwani was calm and collected — not heeding to Perez’s provocations, weaving away from the carefully-laid traps and then making moves with pinpoint precision. His game is akin to a note-perfect tune, though his game was not music to his opponent’s ears.

While the two wins would amass all the attention, the two draws would assume a deeper meaning as the tournament hurtles into the climax. Nihal Sarin’s draw over Levon Aronian was straightforward, Praggnanandhaa’s game was less so.

The duel was an engrossing tussle between two players with supreme calculative skills. But Wesley So tore the cool and calculative face mask aside and unleashed the heavy artillery on him, in an attempt to attack him out of the game, before the Indian teenager launched one. But then Praggnanandhaa decided to wear that mask So had ripped apart. Unflustered by one of his chess idols sitting across him in one of the biggest games of his life, he would coolly plot his moves. He must have seen the attacking avenues So had at his disposal and the semi-exposed queen, but then he did not retreat. He embraced the highly dynamic accelerated dragon line, considered one of the sharpest of all chess openings. In this rare move, though the favourite of the Dutch Grandmaster Anish Giri, the white usually castles queenside, placing the white king on the semi-open c-file. The result is often both sides attacking the other’s king with all available resources.

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Thereby, he put the pressure back on So. The Philippines-born American was shocked and took time to regather his focus, though with a last-ditch scramble saved his king from an embarrassing capture. Match by match, this pack of teenagers are coming of age. The vanquishing of the US could be that precise moment.

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