Chess, Candidates 2024

Top (from left): India's R Praggnanandhaa, Vidit Gujrathi, D Gukesh will compete in the Open category at the Candidates 2024. Bottom (from left): Vaishali Rameshbabu, Koneru Humpy are in the fray in the women's section.

Candidates Chess 2024: India all set to to make the right moves

Praggnanandhaa made a big leap in 2023, reaching the World Cup finals, which resulted in him becoming the first Indian after Viswanathan Anand to earn a place in the Candidates.

Indian chess fans will be waiting with bated breath as the Candidates gets underway in Toronto, Canada on Thursday (April 4). Three Indians – R Praggnanandhaa, D Gukesh and Vidit Gujrathi — qualified for the Open section, which has created a lot of excitement in the country. Besides, India’s Koneru Humpy and Vaishali Rameshbabu made the cut for the women’s Candidates, which will take place simultaneously for the first time.

Five Indians competing in such a marquee event show the fact that India has become a powerhouse in chess.

Candidates has a nice mix of experience and youth. Winning the tournament matters the most in the Candidates, which makes it a riveting spectacle. If one finishes second or eighth, it has little significance because of the format's winner-takes-all nature.

Praggnanandhaa, the dark horse

World No. 2 Fabiano Caruana, who triumphed in the 2018 Candidates, will start as a favourite in the Open section, while Praggnanandhaa can be termed a dark horse in the tournament.

Caruana had a great 2023, winning four tournaments: Superbet Chess Classic, USA Championship Sinquefield Cup and St Louis Rapid & Blitz. Importantly, the 31-year-old clinched the overall Grand Chess Tour title for the first time. Plus, he qualified for the Candidates, coming third in the World Cup. He has also regained his No. 2 spot in the world rankings. Heading into the event, Caruana has played only four classical games this year (American Cup, one win, three draws) but has a positive score even though it’s a small sample size. He is playing his fifth consecutive Candidates, displaying his remarkable consistency.

Caruana is the best-prepared player among the elite players and he strives to win every game (whether it’s white or black), which makes him a favourite. After faltering in his last two Candidates, the American No. 1 will be looking to make amends this time.

World No. 3 Hikaru Nakamura reinvented his skills as a classical chess player in 2022, winning the Grand Prix Series. The five-time American champion had a successful 2023, triumphing the Norway Chess and American Cup. Making the cut for Candidates (coming second in Grand Swiss) was one of the high points for him last year. Despite being the busiest and most popular chess streamer, Nakamura has maintained his level as a top player, an incredible feat. He has played only three classical games in 2024 (2/3). However, he has been preparing hard for the event by opting out of important over-the-board tournaments. One of his training methods is competing regularly in online blitz events, which has worked wonders for him in all three formats. He can be considered the second-best bet in Toronto.

Viswanathan Anand picks his favourites

Who is your pick to win the Open section of Candidates? Five-time World champion Viswanathan Anand has this to say: ”Going by their past performances and last year's performances, Caruana and Nakamura are my favourites to win the Candidates."

Most chess experts don’t consider Ian Nepomniachtchi a strong contender for the crown. After losing the World title match to Ding Liren last year, he has not had the best results, dropping many rating points. However, world No. 7 cannot be counted out because he won the last two Candidates (2021 & 2022) in a convincing fashion. Nepomniachtchi will be fighting for the top spot if he surges ahead in the first half.

Alireza Firouzja qualified for the biennial event through rating. The 20-year-old booked his spot at the last moment, winning the Rouen Open with a perfect 7/7 score, which helped him surpass Wesley So by two rating points and make it to the Candidates for the second straight time. Avoiding losses will be the key to Firouzja having a good tournament.

Praggnanandhaa made a big leap in 2023, reaching the World Cup finals, which resulted in him becoming the first Indian after Anand to earn a place in the Candidates. The 18-year-old also entered the 2700-club. Vidit Gujrathi and Gukesh joined Praggnanandhaa in the Candidates, winning the Grand Swiss and coming second in the FIDE Circuit.

What coach Ramesh said

Vidit had the tournament of his life last year, clinching the Grand Swiss crown ahead of many strong GMs. It was the much-needed breakthrough for Vidit, who will be looking to perform well in the Candidates, a realistic possibility. Gukesh is fearless and can win many games, which is his biggest strength. Working with Polish GM Grzegorz Gajewski, one of the WACA (WestBridge Anand Chess Academy) coaches, has made Gukesh a stronger player.

How does he rate the chances of Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh & Vidit Gujrathi in the Candidates? Anand is realistic in his assessment, saying: “Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh and Vidit are very strong players who could have a major impact on the tournament. However, I don't see them as favourites."

“We have prepared well from our side. It will boil down to their form and how the player delivers in the event. I am hopeful of a good finish,’’ said Praggnanandhaa’s long-time coach, R B Ramesh, about his ward’s prospects in the tournament.

Nijat Abasov had a dream World Cup, reaching the last four. He pulled off surprise wins over Anish Giri and Peter Svidler on his way to punching a ticket to the Candidates. The Azerbaijani, who is the lowest-rated player in the field, will find it hard to replicate his World Cup showing. It remains to be seen how he performs.

Lei Tingjie, Goryachkina joint favourites

In the Women’s Candidates, Lei Tingjie and Aleksandra Goryachkina can be called joint favorites to go all the way. Having the ability to deliver in big events, Humpy will be a strong contender for the crown.

Lei, who won the previous edition of the Candidates, lost a close World title match to her compatriot Ju Wenjun last year. She will be looking for an encore, even though it’s going to be tough. Goryachkina had a fruitful 2023, capturing the Women’s World Cup, besides taking the overall second spot at the Women’s Grand Prix Series. The 25-year-old has the experience of winning the 2019 Women’s Candidates, which should stand her in good stead. Having lost a nerve-racking Women’s World Championship match to Ju Wenjun in 2020, Goryachkina will be eyeing her second title, which will give the 25-year-old another shot at the World crown. Her biggest strengths are her opening preparation and ability to convert winning positions with aplomb.

Humpy’s record of performing well in big tournaments is what makes her a force to reckon with. The Indian bagged a silver at the 2023 Women’s World Rapid Championship, which augurs well even though she will be playing in a different format.

How does he assess Humpy’s prospects in the Women’s Candidates? Anand said: “Humpy is very experienced. She looks a little bit like me in the 2014 Candidates. She might be slightly detached about the result. That's how I read it. Hopefully, this will give her the ease to perform well. She has been able to keep her level with the top players, especially in the World Rapid, where Humpy has consistently performed well,”

Vaishali came into her own in 2023, winning the Women’s Grand Swiss, and achieving the GM title. One can expect a good showing from Vaishali but winning the event will be difficult. When asked what’s in store for Vaishali in the Candidates? Ramesh sounded optimistic, saying: “It will be a tough event but a fantastic learning opportunity. With a lot of self-belief, she can be a surprise for many.”

Despite not being the favourites, Kateryna Lagno, Tan Zhongyi, and Anna Muzychuk have the game and experience to make it their own tournament. Nurgyul Salimova put on a scintillating show in the Women’s World Cup (runner-up). Winning the event might be out of reach for the Bulgarian, but one can expect Salimova to make an impact.

Read More
Next Story