Three Indian chess players qualify for the Candidates Chess in Toronto, 2024

Indian Chess has never had it so good after Vishwanathan Anand’s reign as the World Chess Champion came to an end in 2013

Vidit Gujrathi and R. Vaishali with the flag of India at the closing ceremony of the FIDE Grand Swiss 2023. (photo: @ChessbaseIndia/X)
Vidit Gujrathi and R. Vaishali with the flag of India at the closing ceremony of the FIDE Grand Swiss 2023. (photo: @ChessbaseIndia/X)

AJ Prabal

The accolades have been a little slow in coming but finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s PMO and cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar woke up to congratulate Vidit Gujarathi from Nashik (Maharashtra) and Vaishali Rameshbabu from Chennai for winning the prestigious Grand Swiss Chess 2023 tournament on Sunday, 5 November.

The top two players at the Grand Swiss, which is the equivalent of a grand slam tournament in tennis, qualified for the FIDE Candidates tournament to be played in Toronto in April, 2024.

At the Candidates, there will be only eight top chess players in the men’s section and for the first time there will be two Indians among the eight, Vidit and R. Praggnanandhaa, Vaishali’s younger brother. Vaishali will also be the first Indian woman to play at Candidates. Praggnanandhaa had qualified earlier in August at Baku, where he occupied the second position after being beaten by Magnus Carlsen of Denmark in the final.

The siblings Vaishali (22) and Praggnanandhaa (18) will also be the first sister-brother duo to play at Candidates. The significance of the Candidates is that the winner at Toronto will earn the right to challenge the World Chess Champion Ding Liren for the title of World Chess Champion. The women’s champion will take on Ju Wenjun.

Only Vishwanathan Anand from India has the distinction of being the world champion for five times. He defeated Alexei Shirov in a six-game match to win the 2000 FIDE World Chess Championship, a title he held until 2002.

Anand again became the undisputed world champion in 2007, and successfully defended his title against Vladimir Kramnik in 2008, Veselin Topalov in 2010, and Boris Gelfand in 2012. In 2013, he lost the title to challenger Magnus Carlsen, and he lost a rematch to Carlsen in 2014 after winning the 2014 Candidates Tournament. Carlsen has been the world chess champion between 2013 and 2023.

While Candidates will be tougher, the three Indians, with Vidit (28) the oldest among them, have age on their side and will have little to lose and everything to gain by playing attacking chess. Pressure on them will possibly be less than on other more fancied players and that could give them an advantage. The manner in which both Vidit and Vaishali played at the Grand Swiss 2023—Vidit had to win his last game and he did so in spectacular style—is what would have given hope to Indian chess fans.

Vaishali said after winning the Grand Swiss that she had stopped bothering about ranking and norms and hence was enjoying the game even more. “It is after all a game,” quipped she with a disarming smile.

Unlike Pragg and Vaishali, who devote most of their time to training and playing, Vidit admits to have multiple interests including playing badminton, basketball and swimming. He is also into reading and confesses that he always has his Kindle with him. He prefers to read non-fiction and books on entrepreneurship.

What will he do with his prize money (as the winners Vidit and Vaishali will take home approximately Rs 66 lakhs Rs 20 lakhs respectively), Vidit was asked. Phones for his parents, a vacation for them, gifts for his sister and a new laptop for himself are on his wish list. “My laptop is really old, and kit barely works, so to start, I will update my electronics,” he told interviewer Alex Colovic after winning.

In the final round Vidit played one of the best games of his career to take down GM Alexander Predke, becoming the second Indian player after Praggnanandhaa to book his ticket to Toronto in 2024. Vidit had actually lost his very first game at the Grand Swiss and his comeback was spectacular. He is now the World no.16 with a live rating of 2737.4.

Vaishali drew her final round with Batkhuyag Munguntuul with the Black pieces. A draw was enough for her to win the tournament with a ‘fantastic score’ of 8.5/11 points, confirming her spot in the Candidates 2024.

Their performance was even more creditable because the Grand Swiss attracted the world’s best talents, largely because there were two slots open for the Candidates. Neither Vidit nor Vaishali were among the higher seeds. Gujrathi was seeded 15th in the open tournament, behind the likes of Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Alireza Firouzja and fellow Indians D. Gukesh and R. Praggnanandhaa. In the women’s section, Vaishali was seeded 12th.

Indian chess is looking forward to a golden future with several other Indian chess players making their presence felt.

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