The temptation to classify the 2023 FIDE Chess World Cup quarterfinal between Magnus Carlsen and D Gukesh as master vs apprentice is almost too great -- especially after the pair's spell as teammates for Alpine Warriors in the recently concluded Global Chess League -- but when the pair sit across each other on Tuesday, in Baku, Azerbaijan it will be clear that there's a talent in red-hot form. Only it's the one sitting with the Indian flag in his corner.
Ordinarily, any contest involving Carlsen is a foregone conclusion, but Gukesh has had the benefit of studying his opponent at close quarters for a long spell as well as training together. The pair also spent an hour analysing one of their draws earlier this year, with Gukesh later marvelling at Carlsen's "understanding of the game, the way he thinks." In a conversation with ESPN earlier, Gukesh pointed out Carlsen's superior endgame, saying "It's his best quality and I would like to add it in my game."
Ironically enough, it was Carlsen's endgame that failed him in a Round 4 loss to 18-year-old German prodigy Vincent Keymer, as the five-time world champion saw a draw turn into a loss. It ought to provide hope for Gukesh, in addition to Carlsen's motivation levels.
Plenty has been written on Carlsen's motivation levels after he opted out of the World Championships earlier this year, yet the FIDE World Cup remains curiously absent from the Norwegian's trophy-laden career (third place finishes in 2007 and 2021 remain his best efforts). There are no such questions about Gukesh's hunger, though, as the 17-year-old recently became the first Indian to eclipse Viswanathan Anand in the FIDE rankings (albeit the live ones, where Gukesh has even climbed above Dutch GM Anish Giri into seventh place).
Gukesh has yet to lose a classical game in this World Cup, requiring a tiebreak to beat Andrey Esipenko (WR 40) in Round 4 and then capitalizing on an endgame error from Wang Hao (WR 24) in Round 5 to book his spot in the quarterfinal. The 17-year-old Indian has climbed four places in the live rankings over this World Cup and seems in no mood to stop. Yet, apart from the prize of defeating Carlsen (a feat he already achieved in a blitz game in 2022), lies another tangible prize - that three other Indians also seek to claim.
The first Indian to play in a Candidates Tournament since Anand?
Despite the name, the FIDE World Cup isn't the biggest tournament in chess - that's the FIDE Candidates tournament. Eight players can qualify for the Candidates - with the winner of that tournament then given the chance to challenge the reigning World Champion (Ding Liren in 2023, after Carlsen abdicated his crown last year).
Viswanathan Anand remains the only Indian man to ever feature in the Candidates tournament, but if results play out generously, India could very well see multiple names feature in the 2024 edition. The Top three from this World Cup will automatically qualify - but, if Carlsen opts out of the Candidates tournament (as he is expected to do), then a further spot may open up if Carlsen finishes amongst the top three.
Gukesh, R Praggnanandhaa, Vidit Gujrathi and Arjun Erigaisi have reached the quarterfinals, a record-breaking result for India in this tournament. The latter two face off against each other in the quarterfinals, thus ensuring a semifinal spot for India.
Just after Praggnanandhaa won his game, The World no.1 Magnus Carlsen got up from his board to talk with him! It seemed that Magnus was talking about some variations with @rpragchess , and gave him a pat on the back! #FIDEWorldCup
- ChessBase India (@ChessbaseIndia) August 11, 2023
However, they will likely face the third highest-rated player in history, Fabiano Caruana in that semifinal, who also beat defending World Cup champion Jan-Krzysztof Duda en route his quarterfinal tie against fellow American, Leinier Dominguez Perez. It represents tough opposition for the likes of Praggnanandhaa and Erigaisi - although even losing the semifinal would afford them the chance to vie for third place - where their opponent could even be another Indian.
Vidit reached the quarters after a stirring win in the second rapid tiebreaker against Worlds runner-up Ian Nepomniatchi in Round 5, forcing Nepomniatchi into a series of errors despite being under the pressure of the clock himself. He now faces a relatively comfortable quarterfinal against Nijat Abasov of Azerbaijan, ranked 69th in the world. Win that and Vidit would face the winner of the Carlsen v Gukesh tie. It's a scenario that could potentially see three Indians in the semifinal, although the possibly of there being only one is very real too.
Either way, there is real shot for an Indian not named Anand to make the Candidates for the first time. These are promising signs for Indian chess in the men's section, with a wealth of talent coming through the ranks steadily and breaking markers set solely by Anand once.
Across the gender aisle, reflecting the lack of support for Indian women's chess, Harika Dronavalli waged a lone battle in her quarterfinal tie against Aleksandra Goryachkina, coming back in the rapid tiebreak when in a must-win situation, but ultimately fell away in her quest to reach the semifinal as the tie went down to the wire. She can still be proud of a feat that includes five Indians in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Four Kings and a Queen - India's chessboard may not stick to the rules but it's a wealthy one right now.