A New Contender for the Chess Crown

By: Okojie Osakwe Simeon (Contributor)

Chess has been in the headlines recently, dominating the Nigerian consciousness. Why, with Tunde Onakoya and Shawn Martinez’s remarkable 60-hour record attempt for the Longest Chess Marathon, now is as good a time as any to delve into this rich strategy game. And while raising over $100,000 for the Chess in Slums project is remarkable in and of itself, global media was captivated by another chess event held just some 760km away: The Candidates. To compare this with a tournament in another sport would be a great disservice to it. Sure, some may call the TATA Steel Chess Tournament the Wimbledon of chess – classy, highly competitive, suave. But the Candidates is more like ‘The Maximum Tournament’ from Baki the Grappler. It is a bloody, feral brawl. A bare-knuckle fight. Conviction is called into question, careers could well end here. In a competition to determine the challenger to the World Champion, second place has no meaning. World Champion, Ding Liren of China sits on his throne awaiting his challenger. Yujiro Hanma is unwavering!

(Ding Liren, Yujiro Hanma. Ding may be the more charming of the two, I must say. Just about edges it.)

There was a significant furore about this year’s Candidates Tournament long before a piece was pushed. The announcement that the event would be held in Toronto was warmly received, with many keen for chess to reach new audiences. Indeed, this is only the first time the Candidates would take place in North America. Speaking of firsts, it also was the first time the Open and Women’s Candidates would be held simultaneously. Add to that the qualification drama in the weeks prior – world number one, Magnus Carlsen declining to compete, Gukesh Dommaraju winning a hastily organized Chennai Grand Masters super-tournament in December 2023 to qualify via the FIDE Circuit, and perhaps most heinously of all, Alireza Firouzja crushing a weak field in the Rouen Open held in his home country, France to secure the rating spot. This was a firecracker waiting to go off since day one.

Despite some Visa scares in the weeks leading up to it, all eight players arrived in time for the opening ceremony on the 3rd of April. Ian Nepomniachtchi, two-time challenger to the World Champion, Russian number one. Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu, Indian prodigy, Chess World Cup runner-up. Fabiano Caruana, World number two, Chess World Cup second runner-up. Vidit Gujrathi, FIDE Grand Swiss winner. Hikaru Nakamura, the biggest chess personality and the most experienced in the field at 36. Nijat Abasov, the weakest player in the field by rating, qualified via third runner-up finish in the Chess World Cup after Carlsen formally rejected the invite. Alireza Firouzja, once heralded as the Golden Boy of chess, the youngest player to cross the 2800 threshold. Gukesh Dommaraju, the second youngest candidate in history, after only the enigma himself, Bobby Fischer.

(The 2024 Candidates. Courtesy: FIDE)

The double round-robin got off to a slow start with all first-round games drawn. It however burst into life in round two with all games proving decisive, the jitters had worn off. Praggnanandhaa showed some fighting prep early on, no surprise given that Peter Svidler was his second for the tournament. His deferred Jaenisch Gambit in the Ruy Lopez against Vidit proved especially popular with fans and commentators alike. Round four saw some innovative play by Nepo, he soundly defeated Vidit in the Berlin endgame after the 12. Nh2 novelty to take the lead. Firouzja and Abasov lost to Nakamura and Gukesh respectively in the 5th round and settled at the foot of the table where they would indeed remain for the rest of the tournament.

It seemed Firouzja could be on the upturn after some difficult results when he defeated Gukesh in round seven but that comeback failed to materialize, and we are once again left with several question marks around his future. The 20-year-old has had a difficult spell in recent times failing to recapture his 2021, 2022 form where he seemed at the peak of his powers. Indeed, some speculate that his poor displays are not unrelated to his time spent outside of chess pursuing a career in fashion. In round 9, Firouzja played a storming game versus perpetual tournament leader, Ian Nepomniachtchi, going for the elegant 33. Rg6! exchange sacrifice but it wasn’t to be. Firouzja let his advantage slip and Ian held on for a draw. Afterwards, Firouzja would comment on X that he had been distracted by Chief Arbiter Aris Marghetis who commented on the loudness of his steps as he paced in the playing hall. In an interview with chess.com, Marghetis mentioned that another player (Abasov) complained about Firouzja’s pacing, and ChessBase India footage would reveal that the steps were considerably audible. Firouzja would maintain however that he was being consistently victimized by arbiters and organizers and in some way, cast doubt on his future in chess. His father, Hamidreza Firouzja would echo these sentiments in a chess.com interview after being kicked out of the playing hall no less. He revealed that Alireza had told him after the Nepo game that he didn’t want to play chess anymore. Hopefully, that was just a heated moment and this immense talent wouldn’t abandon the sport so soon.

(Alireza Firouzja via X)

Vidit bounced back from a deflating loss to Gukesh to defeat his FIDE Grand Swiss runner-up, Hikaru Nakamura in round nine, completing the double over his American opponent in spectacular fashion. More jostling at the top continued going into the final rounds as the competitors traded blows. Caruana surged after earlier setbacks, and in the same vein, Praggnanandhaa who started the tournament strongly couldn’t go the distance Round twelve saw Nakamura, Gukesh and Caruana claim vital wins putting Nakamura and Gukesh level on points with Nepo on 7.5/12 going into the penultimate round. Caruana was breathing down their necks, a mere half-point behind. In round 13, Caruana put away Pragg in a trademark Rossolimo while Gukesh made easy work of the struggling Firouzja. Nepomniachtchi and Nakamura could only manage a draw and for only the first time in a mammoth forty rounds of Candidates chess across the 2020/2021, 2022, and 2024 tournaments, Nepo was not sole or joint first. The 17-year-old Gukesh had taken the lead at the death going into the final round, fans were delirious.

The final round saw Nakamura paired against Gukesh, and Caruana set to duel Nepomniachtchi. All the makings of a cinematic ending, with Gukesh on 8.5/13 and the elder statesmen each on 8/13, they all needed a win to stand a chance. A draw for Gukesh would guarantee at least tie-breaks, while a win would see him claim the Challengers Spot without question. It was in these circumstances that they stepped into the Great Hall in Toronto, Canada to test their swords for perhaps one last time. Tameshigiri. Nakamura went for d4 against the tournament leader, a shock to commentators who believed that e4 would at least give him better winning chances. It was indeed Gukesh who went for complications in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, opting for the less-explored 5 Be7. Nakamura sought to press on using an isolated pawn but Gukesh navigated the position like a man beyond his years, successfully winning the pawn. Despite Nakamura’s best efforts, it was very quickly evident that he had no chances. They would play on as he poked and probed but the Indian youngster was unfazed. It would end in bare kings, Naka pressing till the bitter end. Draw. On the other board, how do they say it, Nepomniactchi is Nepomniactchi – ever the risk taker. Facing Caruana with the black pieces, he goes for a daring kingside expansion in the Ragozin as he seeks to create winning chances. In the ensuing complications, the Russian blunders and is very quickly dead-lost. The evaluation bar surges as high as +5.68! He’s dead surely, just resign. But the fighter this man is, he just doesn’t give up. He finds a crucial exchange sacrifice just before the time control and surges on in an absolute headache of a position. And then it happens, just after gaining an additional 30 minutes, Caruana blunders! 41. Ka1 allows Nepo to infiltrate with the critical Qc2 and he is holding.

(41. Ka1?? Qc2! Caruana vs Nepomniachtchi (Credit: Chess.com)

This position while tenuous, is now holding for Nepomniachtchi and he goes on to defend valiantly for another 68 moves before they agree a draw on move 109. Heartbreak for Caruana who would feel he had several opportunities to claim the win and face Gukesh in tiebreaks but Nepomniachtchi showed his tenacity in this display. After the game, both players sat at the board still, conducting a brief post-mortem, pointing out mistakes and missed opportunities. Caruana was shell-shocked. “This was very bad.” Nepo paused and grimaced, “I am- am very sorry.” “My fault,” Caruana replied, before he got up to leave. Sums it up. Chess is beauty, in pain and in victory, in suffering and in triumph. What a story for these two gentlemen, both vanquished by Magnus Carlsen in previous World Championships. But chess is in flux now, ever since the King abdicated. The Taiko is dead, and his warlords battle for the throne. In the midst of this, a teenager has emerged with his sights set on the ultimate prize. Picasso said, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” And perhaps that’s happening now, the destruction of the old order. The Indian and Azeri youngsters, Vincent Keymer, Alireza Firouzja, maybe even Hans Niemann? Exciting times.

(The Youngest Candidates Winners of All Time (Credit: Chess.com)

Nepo ends the undefeated but fails to secure a third consecutive world championship match. Pre-tournament favourite, Caruana would well be disappointed to not secure the tiebreaks at the death but he’d have more chances in the future. Nakamura downplayed his chances at the start of the event but joint second seems just about right. The 18-year-old Indian sensation, Pragg can be proud of himself for breaking even in this event but it was truly a tournament to forget for Firouzja. A poor showing in a second consecutive Candidates would have many questioning his resolve, including the man himself, but it’s up to him to put those demons to rest. Abasov ended the tournament winless, only proving that he never really should have been invited to this tournament. He however can’t be blamed for Carlsen’s withdrawal and FIDE’s selection criteria for a replacement. Nevertheless, to many observers including IM Levy Rozman, the biggest chess YouTuber, the Candidates Tournament 2024 could well go down as the most exciting tournament of the last decade.

(Final Standings of the Candidates Tournament, 2024) (Courtesy: FIDE)

In a testament to his mentality, Gukesh credited round seven as a pivotal moment in his tournament. When asked about the moment he realized he may win the candidates, he responded, “If I had to pinpoint a moment where I felt this could be my moment, it was probably right after the seventh game, after I lost to Firouzja. Even though I just had a painful loss, I was feeling at my absolute best on the rest day. Maybe this loss gave me so much motivation and fired me up.” Gukesh is close to securing his place in the annals of chess history. He’s already smashed the record for the youngest player to win the Candidates, and indeed, his mark of 17 years, 10 months and 24 days may never be broken. His sights are now set on becoming the youngest World Champion in history, a feat that would likely transform the landscape of the chess world forever. Emil Sutovsky, Director General of FIDE confirmed via X on the 22nd of April that the match would be held between November 20th and December 15th later this year. The new guard is afoot.


(Firouzja vs Gukesh in the seventh round. The London Opening is on the board. Firouzja’s 10. Rh3 proved an exciting resource). (Credit: Eldar Azimov)

With Gukesh and Firouzja securing qualification for this event ahead of Giri and So, it marks a turning point in chess with the younger generation seen not just as assets for the future but as superpowers even today. Gukesh winning the event outright ahead of Nakamura, Nepomniachtchi and Caruana, legends in their own right only serves to accentuate that. The Carlsen generation, roughly players born between 1990 and 1994 have dominated chess for the last decade or so, they’ve had the highest rating peaks in the history of the sport. But the great Magnus Carlsen ruled them with an iron fist, dominating the sport with no equal. Could this have been the last chance for any of this trio to become World Champion? In the Women’s Candidates, Tan Zhongyi won the event to set up another all-Chinese World Championship match with Ju Wenjun. It is the same scenario as last year when Ju Wenjun successfully defended her title against Lei Tingjie. Given that Ding Liren, also from China is the Open World Champion, Gukesh of India has a chance to break Chinese hegemony at the top. However, all titles would remain in East Asia regardless of all outcomes.






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