Pragg & Yoo reach Challengers Chess Tour semi-finals

Praggnanandhaa will face Vincent Keymer or Leon Mendonca in Saturday’s semi-finals of the Challengers Chess Tour after powering to a 3:0 victory over Volodar Murzin, with Vladimir Kramnik describing the Indian prodigy’s play as being at the level of a 2700-player. The other quarterfinal on Thursday was an absolute thriller, with Christopher Yoo coming back from the dead to clinch victory over Lei Tingjie in the 2nd game of a blitz playoff. 

You can replay all the games from the Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour Finals using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from chess legends Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar.

Eight players are competing over four days in the Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour Finals, with a lot at stake. The first prize of $12,500 (out of a $40,000 prize fund) is impressive for a junior event, and in fact just short of the top prize in the Russian Championship Superfinal that’s taking place at the same time. The winner, however, will also be a regular player on next year’s Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, which Vladimir Kramnik pointed out gives a priceless chance to test yourself regularly against the world’s best players. 

The quarterfinals are taking place over two days, with the first two matches completed on Thursday. Let’s take a look.   

Praggnanandhaa 3:0 Volodar Murzin

When 16-year-old Indian star Praggnanandhaa was interviewed by Judit and Vladimir after his victory he commented:

I’m actually in Armenia. I was playing an open tournament last week. The past few months I haven’t been playing so good and I wanted to play good chess at least in this event, and yeah, I managed to do so in the quarterfinals.

It was another mature, powerful performance from Praggnanandhaa, who Kramnik felt performed at a 2700-level. In the first game his 15-year-old Russian opponent, Volodar Murzin, was ultimately punished for poor time management after he got down to just 16 seconds by move 18 (the players start with 10 minutes and get 5 seconds added each move).

Soon Volodar went astray and Praggnanandhaa didn’t put a foot wrong. By the end almost any move was winning, but Pragg found the most stylish way to force instant resignation.

38…Qxe1+!, with a new queen of course ready to appear on a1. 

The second game was a case of Volodar castling into trouble with 22…0-0? in what was a tricky but still playable position. 

Judit immediately pointed out 23.Bh6!, but although our commentators were initially a little sceptical of it, Pragg’s 23.f3! first was in fact the computer’s top move. After 23…Qd7 24.fxg4 fxg4 25.Bh6 Black was already losing the exchange due to the firepower aimed at f7, while Pragg then spotted a move that Judit also pointed out after 25…h4 26.Bxf8 Rxf8.

27.Rxf7! Rxf7 28.e6! simplified the position and ensured there was no way back. 

Pragg therefore only needed a draw in the 3rd game, but he was proud of how he played.

The last game actually I’ve been in such situations to just need a draw, but it’s not easy to play good chess if you’re trying for a draw, so I just tried to just play normal chess as I do. I think it was also a good game… That’s why I think I just went h5, g6, Kf8, Kg7.

It was certainly bold…

…and although at some point Volodar got chances, the most memorable moment came when the real sporting interest was over.

Volodar had acknowledged match defeat by repeating moves here with Bg2 Qg4, Bf3 Qh3, Bg2 so that Pragg could have clinched the match by repeating with 38…Qg4 again for a draw. The watching Kramnik noted that whatever Pragg chose he could praise him — if he repeated the position it would be an example of professional pragmatism, while if he decided to play on for a win it would show his self-confidence and fighting spirit! 

It turned out to be the latter, as Pragg went for 38…Qc8, won the game, and clinched an emphatic 3:0 victory. 

We’ll see Praggnanandhaa back in action on Saturday, when he takes on either his great rival as player of the tour, Vincent Keymer, or his countryman, Leon Mendonca.

Christopher Yoo 3.5:2.5 Lei Tingjie

Lei Tingjie is the one female player to have reached the Final 8, and the Chinese grandmaster was within a whisker of making it to the Final 4. Her match against 14-year-old US talent Christopher Yoo was incredibly intense. 

The tone was set for the match in the first game as both players found some great moves but also gave their opponent chances. Vladimir Kramnik spotted a killer blow for Christopher on move 23 (though 25.Bh3! instead of 25.Rxf6 immediately is even better).

Again and again Tingjie got back into the game only to let things slip, with some of her moves puzzling the commentators, such as 30…Nd7?!, leaving the d6-pawn en prise.

In the end, Christopher managed to push his passed pawns to victory. 

Lei hit straight back, however, with the kind of swashbuckling attack that Judit Polgar played as well as anyone in her prime.

The final two rapid games were then drawn, but only after some more huge misses. In Game 3 Lei Tingjie had brilliantly trapped the white queen and blown open the white king, so she just had to put the finishing touches to the game.

24…Rdh8! was the move, with 25.g3 running into either 25…Bxg3+ or the much more flashy 25…Rg6!!. Instead after 24…Qd6? 25.g3 Black only had a small advantage and even had to survive some pressure to make a draw.

The final rapid game at times looked like it might be a positional masterpiece by Lei, who gave up a pawn for domination. 

It’s hard to restrict all counterplay in a rapid game, however, and Christopher had chances to make his extra material count.

Instead the match went to a playoff, when two 5+3 blitz games would be followed, if needed, by Armageddon. The first blitz game was again a rollercoaster, with Lei Tingjie first dominating the opening and early middlegame, but then losing her way. Christopher had some big chances. For instance:

Or an even bigger one later.

Such moves wouldn’t be missed at a slower time control, or with less pressure, but it was clear that both players were very nervous, a subject Vladimir Kramnik talked about during the breaks.

The final blitz game would decide the match and was nailbiting, with Christopher Yoo initially appearing to commit chess suicide.

Despite being incredibly short on time, Lei TIngjie kept finding good moves until this was the position after 32…Qg6.

To get an idea of the sheer drama of what followed you have to watch Judit and Vladimir’s commentary of the crucial stages that started here:   

Let’s take that in slow motion: 33.Nh7+! Ke7 34.Qxe5+ Kd7 35.Nf6+! Kc6 and up to here Lei had continued to play perfectly.

Now, however, she needed to find one more good move, 36.Bd5+!, and the rest should have been easy. Instead 36.Ba4+ let the win slip, although it almost checkmates and is a hard move to resist playing. 36…b5 37.cxb6+ Kb7! suddenly changed the balance of power. 

As Kramnik pointed out in the commentary, Lei still had 38.Qe4+, forcing the queens off, when she probably has the slightly better chances in a drawish position. A draw would have meant living to fight another game in Armageddon, but it was hard suddenly to give up the king hunt, and the resourceful sacrifice 38.Bc6+ in fact just left Black on top.

Soon Tingjie had only a miserable queen ending, which became a lost pawn ending.

A tough, tough end for Lei Tingjie, but she’d put up a wonderful fight.

Christopher Yoo will now go forward to play the winner of Liang-Abdusattorov, with that quarterfinal and Keymer-Mendonca taking place on Friday October 15th. Don’t miss all the action with Judit and Vladimir back for live commentary here on chess24 from at 10:00 ET | 16:00 CEST | 19:30 IST!

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