The Chess World Cup, which concluded at Baku on Thursday, caught the imagination of the Indian public the way very few sporting events have of late. Eighteen-year-old Chennai lad R. Praggnanandhaa’s astonishing run all the way to the final was the main reason. However, he was stopped by Magnus Carlsen, the highest-rated player in history. The Norwegian is a five-time world champion, but this is his first World Cup, the only significant trophy that had been missing in his cabinet. Ever since Carlsen dethroned Viswanathan Anand in the latter’s hometown Chennai in 2013, the former’s reign on the chessboard has been absolute. If he is no longer the official world champion — that title now belongs to China’s Ding Liren, who was crowned a few months ago — it is because he has chosen to stay away. He does not find the motivation strong enough and he is not comfortable with the format of the World title match involving a series of games of a long duration. He has said that he would not be a part of the next cycle of the World championship either. This is not Carlsen’s loss; it is chess’s. Whoever wins the World title cannot claim to be the planet’s best player as long as Carlsen is around.
Not many in international sport have skipped vying for the World title when they are at the top of their game. But then, not many sportspersons across disciplines have been as good as Carlsen has for such a long time. Praggnanandhaa is one young player who has given Carlsen cause for some worry in recent times. He made headlines when he scored multiple wins over his formidable rival last year. Any win against the World No. 1 is commendable, but what makes Praggnanandhaa special is that he is still very young and could get stronger. He is ranked 29th in the world and it will be safe to bet that he will break into the top 10 in the not too distant future. At Baku, he accounted for the World No. 2 and No. 3, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana. But he was not the only Indian to impress at the World Cup. In fact, his rival in the quarterfinal was Arjun Erigaisi. D. Gukesh, who was the first Indian to make news in Azerbaijan by breaking into the world’s top 10 and replacing Anand as the India No. 1 in live rating, was Carlsen’s opponent in the quarterfinal. Vidit Gujrathi ensured that four of the last eight players left in this prestigious event were Indians. India is shining bright with a whole generation of young talent.