The countdown to the World Championship Match in Manhattan, NYC between Magnus Carlsen and his challenger, Sergey Karjakin, is getting ever-closer, with just 9 days now to the start. Both title contestants were born in the golden year of 1990 and became the two leading chess prodigies of their generation. But what about the leading prodigies of chess today, who could well go on - just like Carlsen and Karjakin - to contest a future world title match?
The stars of tomorrow were on show last week in the World Cadets Championship in Batumi, Georgia - a former Soviet republic. And of all the potential future stars there, the big name (literally!) on everyone’s lips was Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, the 11-year-old Indian who is already the youngest ever international master (at the age of 10 years and nine months) - and now the Chennai wunderkind has designs on Karjakin’s long-standing record as the only pre-teen player to gain the grandmaster title.
Recently, Praggnanandhaa hit the chess headlines with a scintillating 18-move sacrificial win with the Black pieces over an experienced Grandmaster, Axel Bachmann (2645), in the final round of the Isle of Man tournament. And he was, therefore, the big No.1 seed and odds-on favorite to take the gold medal in the under-12 championships in Batumi - but things didn’t go quite to plan.
Praggnanandhaa got off to a perfect start of 8/8, and looked to be cruising to the gold medal - but he was sensationally stopped in round 9 by American underdog Nikhil Kumar (seeded 25th, and rated 400-points lower than Praggnanandhaa), in an equally scintillating sacrificial game. And spurred on by his huge upset win, surprise package Kumar, an eighth grader at Ransom Everglades in Miami, went on to score an undefeated 9.5/11 to be crowned U-12 champion in the World Cadets Chess Championship.
Kumar flew back to the U.S. on Halloween and returned to school on Tuesday. "We were thrilled to hear of Nikhil's success in the chess world championships," head of the middle school Rachel Rodriguez said to the local press. "He is talented and hard-working and has represented Ransom Everglades with class and dignity. We are proud to welcome him back to our campus today."
And Nikhil Kumar wasn’t the only American to come home with a medal from the World Cadets Championship in Batumi. Other medal winners were: Andrew Hong (Silver, U-12) and Rochelle Wu (Gold, Girls-U10).
Nikhil Kumar - IM Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa
World Cadets U12, (9)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Exchange Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 Be7 6.e3 c6 7.Bd3 Nbd7 8.Qc2 Nh5 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Nge2 This line of the Queen's Gambit Exchange Variation was popularized by former World Champion Garry Kasparov. Instead of the usual ‘Minority Attack’ of playing for a3, Rab1 and b4, White intends to play in the center by putting his rooks on d1 and e1, Ng3 and playing for f3 and e4 etc. 10...Nhf6 11.0-0 Nf8 12.a3 Ne6 13.Rad1 0-0 14.f3 c5? This looks good, as it attacks a potential weak-point of e3 - but it is, in fact, a huge blunder as the young Indian overlooks a very clever tactic that his American opponent is quick to act on. 15.dxc5 Qxc5 16.Nxd5!! Kudos to Kumar for quickly spotting this big tactic that leaves Black's position in a total wreck - and notice how the 'sacrificed' knight on d5 also protects against ...Qxe3+! All of this must have come as a bolt out of the blue for Praggnanandhaa. 16...Nxd5 The alternative, of losing just one pawn is, in many ways, even worse, as Black will be left with shattered kingside pawns: 16...Qxc2 17.Nxf6+ gxf6 18.Bxc2 and White has a big advantage. 17.Bxh7+! Kh8 18.Qxc5 Nxc5 19.Rxd5 Kxh7 20.Rxc5 The dust has settled, and we see Kumar almost effortlessly now segue into a middlegame/endgame scenario where he is two pawns ahead with an easily won game. 20...b6 21.Rc2 Too cautious - a rook on the seventh is always the best option, and Kumar should have been ruthless and played 21.Rc7! Ba6 22.Re1 and Black can't get either of his rooks into play without the threat of losing more pawns, as 22...Rfd8 23.Rxf7 Rd2 24.Nd4 Rxb2 25.Rc1! and White is already threatening a game-winning doubling of rooks on the seventh rank. 21...Ba6 22.Rd1 Bxe2 23.Rxe2 Rac8 To his credit, Praggnanandhaa is trying his best to engineer a rook and pawn ending, as rook and pawn endings do have a tendency for allowing to salvage such lost positions, even if you are two pawns down. Easier said than done, though, as Kumar here has such an overwhelmingly good position. 24.Rd7 a5 25.Red2 Rc6 26.Kf2 The problem Black has is that all of White's moves come easily and naturally enough. 26...a4 27.Ke2 f6 28.Ra7 b5 29.e4 Rfc8 30.h4 Rc2 31.Rad7 Rc1 32.Ke3 Rg1 With one set of rooks on the board, Black might have some very slim hope of making an attempt at saving this - but with two sets of rooks, this is impossible as White's pawns are more secure than Black's pawns. 33.R7d5 Rb8 34.Kf4 Rc1 Black could try 34...b4, but even then, White has 35.Ra5 picking off yet another pawn. 35.Rd7 b4 36.Ra7 Once the a-pawn falls, resignation isn't far behind. The rest, therefore, is academic - but a nice clean-up nevertheless from Kumar. 36...b3 37.Rxa4 Rc2 38.Rad4 Rbc8 39.Ke3 Rc1 40.R4d3 Rb8 41.g4 Rh1 42.h5 Re1+ 43.Kf4 Rc1 44.Rd5 Rc2 45.Ke3 Rc1 46.a4! Ra1 47.Rb5 Rc8 48.Rd4 Re1+ 49.Kf4 Rc2 50.Rxb3 1-0