The two finalists may have done their best work just getting to the finals.
Chinese No. 1 GM Ding Liren edged rising Indian star Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa in the finals of the online Chessable Masters 2022 rapid tournament, which featured a strong preliminary section followed by a series of rapid knockout matches.
But Ding, who many tip to be the next world title challenger, and Praggnanandhaa, who many of those same people say could be a challenger for the title himself in the coming years, both impressed mightily against powerful semifinal foes in reaching the Masters finals. In a morale-boosting result, Ding eliminated world champion Magnus Carlsen after a string of close match losses over the years, giving him new confidence should he win next month’s candidates tournament and book a spot in a title match against the Norwegian. And the young Indian, who has still not cracked the world top 100 ratings list, defeated strong Dutch GM Anish Giri, the world’s 10th-ranked player, to advance as well.
In the one decisive game of the four-game rapid bout, Carlsen’s QGD Slav seems to go awry early on against Ding, as after 14. Rac1 Bd6 15. c5 Bc7 16. f4, the natural Black freeing move … e5 is definitively blocked. Perhaps sensing he’s lost the position battle, Black essentially gambits a pawn to change the character of the position with 16 … Ba5!? 17. Nxd5! (when you can win a pawn against the world champ, you might as well go for it) exd5 18. Bxa5 Rc8 19. Rc3!, indirectly protecting the weak e3-pawn, as 19 … Qxe3+? 20. Qxe3 Rxe3 21. Bxh7+ wins for White.
Black defends doggedly, as expected, so Ding’s king goes on a long journey to a2 before the Chinese star commences decisive kingside operations. Black again tries to sharpen play just as the White plan is completed: 34. Ka2 Nhf6 35. Be1 g5!? (no sense waiting around for White to strike) 36. Bd1 g4 37. hxg4 fxg4 38. Qf1 h5 39. Qh1, and how the blocking 39 … g3!? might have made White’s task harder; e.g. 40. Qh4 (Bxh5?! Rh7 41. Rxb7 Rxh5 [Rxb7 42. Rxb7 Qxb7 43. Bxe8 Nxe8 also looks equal] 42. Qf1 Rh2, and White’s edge looks negligible) Rg7 41. Be2 Rf8, though even here Ding has all the play.
Instead, Black’s bid for counterplay costs him dearly on the game’s 39 … Kg7? 40. Bh4! Ng8 41. Bc2 Nd2 (see diagram; White’s positional edge is so pronounced that he doesn’t mind sacrificing the exchange) 42. Bg5! Nxb3 43. Rxb3 Nf6 44. Bxf6+ Rxf6 45. Qxh5 Rh8 46. Qe5!, and White’s more active pieces, space advantage and dominating queen pretty much ensure the win.
White’s long-blocked center pawns and queenside rook finally get in on the fun, as the champ’s position quickly disintegrates. It’s over on 50. d5! Kd8 51. Qg5 Ref8 52. Rd3 (the final piece — literally — falls into place) Qc7 53. dxc6+ Kc8 54. Qxg4+ Kb8 55. Rd7 Rxf4 56. Qg7, and Black resigns. One path to victory would be simply 56 … R8f7 57. Rxc7 Rxg7 58. Rxg7 Rxe4 59. cxb7, with a dead-won ending.
Giri has earned a reputation as a booked-up player and a hard man to beat, but the 16-year-old rising star widely known as “Pragg” gets in a strong first punch in their encounter in this Nimzo-Indian line with the novelty 12. h5 Qh4 13. Qc1!, sacrificing a pawn for strong activity before Black is fully developed. After 13 … cxd4 14. cxd4 Qxe4 (White also has good positional compensation after 14 … Qxh5 15. Ng3 Qa5 16. Bd2 Qa4 17. Bb3) 15. Rd1, White’s already threatening 16. Ng3 Qg4 (Qh4 17. Bg5 Qg4 18. Be2, trapping the queen) 17. Be2 Qh4 18. Qxc6. On the game’s 15 … Na5 (an unfortunate post on which the knight will be marooned for many moves) 16. Nc3 Qb7 17. Be2, White can boast two good bishops, targets on the kingside and a healthy lead in development for his pawn investment.
White follows up the gambit energetically with 20. d5! and the removal of Black’s fianchettoed bishop, creating all kinds of weak squares around the Black king. After 22. Bxh8 Kxh8 23. Nxd5! Bxd5 24. Qd2 Qe7 (Bxf3? 25. Qxd8 Kg8 [Qa8 26. Qf6+] 26. Qf6 and wins) 25. Qc3+ f6 26. Rxd5, White recovers the temporarily sacrificed piece and keeps Giri in a defensive bind.
Black cracks under the strain on 29. Qe7 Ne5? (missing a shot; Black can fight on after 29 … Qxe7 30. Rxe7 Ne5 31. Bd2, though White retains a clear edge despite the pawn deficit) 30. Rexe5! fxe5 31. Rd7 Qc1+ 32. Bd1 Qxh6 (stopping one mate but not the other) 33. Qxe5+, and Black resigned ahead of 33 … Kg8 34. Bb3+ Rf7 35. Bxf7+ Kf8 36. Qh8 mate.
A very impressive win over a very tough opponent for Praggnanandhaa.
Ding-Carlsen, Chessable Masters Online, May 2022
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bg4 5. h3 Bxf3 6. Qxf3 e6 7. Nc3 Nbd7 8. Bd3 Bb4 9. O-O O-O 10. Rd1 Re8 11. Qe2 Qe7 12. Bd2 a6 13. Be1 Rad8 14. Rac1 Bd6 15. c5 Bc7 16. f4 Ba5 17. Nxd5 exd5 18. Bxa5 Rc8 19. Rc3 Nf8 20. Rb3 Ne6 21. Qf3 Qd7 22. Be1 Nd8 23. Rb6 Ne4 24. Bc2 f5 25. Rd3 Nf7 26. Rdb3 Rc7 27. Kf1 Qc8 28. Ke2 Nh8 29. Kd1 Ng6 30. Kc1 Nf8 31. Ba5 Rf7 32. Kb1 h6 33. a3 Nh7 34. Ka2 Nhf6 35. Be1 g5 36. Bd1 g4 37. hxg4 fxg4 38. Qf1 h5 39. Qh1 Kg7 40. Bh4 Ng8 41. Bc2 Nd2 42. Bg5 Nxb3 43. Rxb3 Nf6 44. Bxf6+ Rxf6 45. Qxh5 Rh8 46. Qe5 Kf7 47. e4 dxe4 48. Bxe4 Re8 49. Qh5+ Ke7 50. d5 Kd8 51. Qg5 Rf8 52. Rd3 Qc7 53. dxc6+ Kc8 54. Qxg4+ Kb8 55. Rd7 Rxf4 56. Qg7 Black resigns.
Praggnanandhaa-Giri, Chessable Masters Online, May 2022
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 Bg7 7. Bc4 c5 8. Ne2 O-O 9. O-O Nc6 10. Be3 b6 11. h4 e6 12. h5 Qh4 13. Qc1 cxd4 14. cxd4 Qxe4 15. Rd1 Na5 16. Nc3 Qb7 17. Be2 Bd7 18. h6 Bh8 19. Bf3 Bc6 20. d5 exd5 21. Bd4 Rad8 22. Bxh8 Kxh8 23. Nxd5 Bxd5 24. Qd2 Qe7 25. Qc3+ f6 26. Rxd5 Rc8 27. Re1 Qc7 28. Qa3 Nc4 29. Qe7 Ne5 30. Rexe5 fxe5 31. Rd7 Qc1+ 32. Bd1 Qxh6 33. Qxe5+ Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.