Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi: A Brief Take

Maybe the Greatest?

Dubai skyline
Dubai’s stunning skyline. Image: LonelyPlanet

With Magnus Carlsen‘s dominant 7½—3½  title defense against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the Dubai 2021 FIDE World Championship Match, the 31-year-old Norwegian has already amassed one of the best records in title matches … perhaps the best.

I remain heavily critical of Carlsen being declared winner of the 2013 London Candidates Tournament by virtue of having more wins than Vladimir Kramnik, and not through an over-the-board tiebreak. Even blitz or rapid would have been better!

But in the cauldron of a World Championship Match, Carlsen has proven invincible. In late 2013 he convincingly wrested the crown from Vishy Anand, and defeated him again in 2014 when the Indian legend surprisingly won the next Candidates Tournament.

Carlsen drew his next two matches against Sergey Karjakin (New York, 2016) and Fabiano Caruana (London, 2018), eventually subduing his rivals in rapid tiebreaks.

Carlsen Nepo 2021
Carlsen wins again. Image: chess24

With this victory, Carlsen has one win as Challenger and four title defenses as Champion; in five World Championship matches he has lost a total of just two games out of 56 played!

In tiebreaks? Carlsen has five wins and two draws in seven games!

Matches are shorter now than in the past, but I don’t think anyone in history can claim better.

I value longevity, so I’ve long said Garry Kasparov is the Greatest of All-Time, for now … but Magnus Carlsen has a an argument that gets stronger every year.

What happened to Ian?

Nepomniachtchi was not widely considered the strongest Challenger this time around, but perhaps he was less afraid of Carlsen than others. How would this dynamic affect the match? While unclear, I predicted a three-point Carlsen victory.

During the first five games, “Nepo” probably played as well as Magnus did.

I really think losing the a3-pawn in Game 6 was his undoing. Even if the engines say the resulting position should be drawn, it was always going to be difficult against a top player, let alone a notorious grinder like Carlsen.

A game behind, Nepomniachtchi had to take on more risk.

A poor Game 8 simply ended the match. There was no coming back down two games against Carlsen with six left. Frankly, I think Magnus would be unlikely to level the match if Ian had a two-game lead.

Nepomniachtchi knew this very well, and I think he simply couldn’t play at his best any longer: doing so would just delay the inevitable. So, I agree with the consensus view that he just collapsed.

Who’s Next?

Alireza Firouzja
The next Challenger? Image: Twitter (@AlirezaFirouzja)

Many chess fans expect Alireza Firouzja to be the next Challenger. I think there’s a decent chance of that happening.

The other favorites are Caruana and Ding Liren.

Still, Candidates Tournaments are arguably as grueling as a World Championship Match; but those eight players don’t have to face Carlsen to become Challenger!

The 2021 FIDE Grand Swiss: Final Thoughts

A Grand Success

The FIDE Grand Swiss  and Women’s Grand Swiss (organized in partnership with chess.com) concluded this past weekend in Riga, Latvia. The COVID protocols were apparently effective, as we did not hear of any incidents during the event.

Grand Swiss

Alireza Firouzja
Firouzja won the FIDE Grand Swiss convincingly. Photo: FIDE

Alireza Firouzja (France) won clear first with 8 points out of 11. Fabiano Caruana (USA) and Grigoriy Oparin (Russia) finished in a tie for 2nd place with 7.5 points.

Caruana, the 2018 World Championship Challenger, had the better mathematical tiebreaks, even defeating Firouzja in their individual encounter. As a result, “Fabi” joined “Firo” in the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

A Note on Tiebreaks
The primary tiebreak used was “Buchholz Cut-1.” Buchholz compares the total scores of tied players’ opposition, the idea being that a player who faced opponents that scored more points had a tougher road to the same final score. The “Cut-1” removes the score of the lowest-scoring opponent, to reduce the impact of an unlucky pairing. Each player therefore had the scores of 10 of their 11 opponents compared to judge who had the best tiebreaks.

Oparin, Yu Yangyi (China), Vincent Keymer (Germany), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Alexandr Predke (Russia), and Alexei Shirov (Spain) all got seats into the upcoming FIDE Grand Prix Series. This tournament series will have a total of 24 players; and the top two finishers at the end will qualify for the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

Overall, it seems clear that Firouzja is the leading “young gun” who many fans are already picking to challenge Carlsen in the next World Championship Cycle. I can’t disagree; during this event he was knocking on the door of World #3 (live rating), nearly overtaking Caruana at one point.

Women’s Grand Swiss

Similar to the Open event, one player was in command for most of the Women’s event, but even more so.

Lei Tingjie
Lei scored 7 wins and 4 draws. Photo: FIDE

Lei Tingjie (China) won with 9 points out of 11, earning the only direct slot into the next Women’s Candidates Tournament. Her pre-tournament rating of 2505 shot up to 2536 afterwards!

I will note that Lei is only 24 years old, younger than her countrywomen Ju Wenjun (30) and Hou Yifan (27), the current and previous Women’s World Champions. She’s just a year older than Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), the previous Challenger, who played in the Open event.

The Women’s World Championship cycle should be fascinating! There are several contenders of similar strength vying for the crown, but none seem invincible (unless Hou decides to return).

Finishers 2-4 in the Women’s Grand Swiss earned a spot into the upcoming Women’s Grand Prix Series. They are Elisabeth Pähtz (Germany), Zhu Jiner (China), and Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine).

Pähtz and Jiner each scored 7.5 points out of 11, and earned GM norms. The 36-year-old from Erfurt, Germany completed her title after a long and distinguished career, and becomes the 40th female to earn the “open” GM title. Zhu is the top Junior Girl in the World.

Muzychuk had the best tiebreaks among the 7 pointers, beating out Harika Dronavalli (India), Lela Javakhishvili (Georgia; she scored a 9-game GM norm), and Olga Badelka (Russia).

Bibisara Assaubayeva (Kazakhstan) also earned a 10-game GM norm.

A Note on Grandmaster (GM) Norms
A norm is a performance level (2600 for GM), in an event that meets other conditions relating to the makeup of a player’s opposition. Norms need to be scored in events totalling 27 or more games. With few exceptions, a player needs to play at least 9 games in an event to earn a GM norm, but the maximum number of games counted for a norm is 13. This is why players usually need three GM norms (plus a 2500 rating) to earn the Grandmaster title. In events longer than 9 rounds a player can disregard any games won, or not count any games played after a norm has been scored. In Assaubayeva’s case, for example, she had a GM norm after Round 10, but lost in the final round. Her performance rating dropped below 2600 after Round 11, so she doesn’t get an 11-game norm but keeps her 10-game norm. There’s little practical difference between a 9-, 10-, or 11-game norm since a player still needs three in any case.

What’s Next?

The FIDE World Championship Match starts November 24 in Dubai, UAE.

2022 should be a busy year: we should see the Grand Prix Series and Candidates Tournaments (open and women), as well as the 2022 Moscow Olympiad.

Stay tuned!

No Playoffs for Round Robins!

Why do we need them?

I’m not necessarily against mathematical tiebreaks for Swiss-System tournaments, especially scholastic events with trophies.

For decades and longer, a high-level round robin would be held over multiple weeks, and at the end one or more players would emerge with the highest score. End of event.

Only when indivisible prizes were at stake — such as qualification to a future event — some kind of classical playoff would be held, either immediately or at some point in the future.

Otherwise, an event could have two, three, or more co-winners. No big deal.

The London 2013 Candidates Tournament would have benefitted from a playoff, but instead “most wins” was used to decide a Challenger for the World Championship! Completely asinine.

 

Endangered Traditions

Of course, I bring all this up in light of the recent controversy surrounding the conclusion of Tata Steel Chess 2021, the 83rd annual Wijk aan Zee tournament.

I won’t wade into the events surrounding Firouzja, Wojtaszek, and the arbiter. But I will say this: the organizers should have reconsidered the importance of having a playoff when they saw the possibility of disturbing a last-round classical game!

When the playoff did happen, between Anish Giri and Jorden van Foreest, it was not decided by brilliant play. To say the least.

An armageddon game decided a prestigious event after 13 rounds of classical chess where the two Dutchmen finished ahead of Carlsen, Caruana, MVL, and other rising stars. Seriously…why??

The few traditional tournaments we have left like Wijk aan Zee should not feel pressured to give into the rapid/blitz chess mob.

I would love to hear the thoughts of others in the chess community on this issue.

Norway Chess 2020

Supertournaments Return Over-the-Board

Altibox Norway Chess
Norway Chess: a supertournament fixture since 2013.

Altibox Norway Chess will be held from October 5-16, 2020; the latest edition of the Norwegian supertournament held in Stavanger since 2013. It will also be the first major over-the-board tournament since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Magnus Carlsen has only won two of the seven editions of his home tournament (2016, 2019), the same amount as Sergey Karjakin (2013, 2014). Many players find it tough to perform their best with the hometown glare squarely on them.

Veselin Topalov (2015), Levon Aronian (2017), and Fabiano Caruana (2018) are the other winners. Carlsen has won the companion blitz event three times, however — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has two victories, while Karjakin and Wesley So have one each.

Altibox Norway Chess 2020

This year Carlsen (Norway), Aronian (Armenia), and Caruana (USA) are joined by young stars Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) and Alireza Firouzja (FIDE). Aryan Tari (Norway) completes the six-player double round robin. Firouzja defected from Iran last year and has yet to declare which country he will represent in the future.

In a sign of the times, the official player photos were taken with each man wearing an Altibox Norway Chess mask!

Over-the-board round robins are making a comeback in the latter portion of 2020, including norm tournaments and the National Championships of several countries … not including the USA, unfortunately.

In November, FIDE will restart the Candidates Tournament, another round robin that had to be suspended after the first half in March.

Small Swiss tournaments and round robins will return sooner than many expect. Large tournaments will be a concern for awhile, and I predict it will impact scholastic chess the most.

Thank goodness we have real chess again, and not only a bunch of online events! They’re better than nothing, but far from adequate in my opinion.

Who do you think will win Norway Chess in 2020? Post your predictions below!

The FIDE Online Nations Cup

With the ongoing corona virus pandemic, chess tournaments have ceased. Online events like the Magnus Carlsen Invitational and now the FIDE Online Nations Cup have filled the breach.

The games are broadcast on chess.com and elsewhere.

The Format of the FIDE Online Nations Cup

FIDE and chess.com collaborated on the FIDE Nations Cup
FIDE and chess.com collaborated on the FIDE Nations Cup.

The games are played with a time control of 25+10 (25 minutes for the entire game plus an additional 10 seconds per move starting from move 1).

There are six teams in the event with six players each; four male and two female players.

Each match is contested on four boards. On Boards 1,2, and 3 a team chooses three of its four male players to play. On Board 4, a team chooses one of its two female players to play.

2½ points out of 4 are needed to win a match, and all boards count equally.

The team that wins each match gets 2 points and the loser 0. In case of a 2-2 tie, each team receives 1 match point.

It’s a double round-robin team tournament, so each team faces the other five teams twice for a total of 10 rounds. After 10 rounds, the two highest-scoring teams play a final match on May 10. The team with the highest score going into the final gets draw odds; in other words, if the final match is tied 2-2, the team with the highest score in the round-robin phase wins the event.

Every team gets $24,000 for participating. After 10 rounds, the two top scoring teams face off in a final match for the FIDE Nations Cup. The team runner-up gets an additional $12,000 ($36,000 total for the team), and the winner of the Cup gets an additional $24,000 ($48,000 for the team).

The Teams

Four top nations are invited, and then two other “compilations” of teams were added.

The countries invited were China, India, Russia, and the United States.

The two additional teams were Team Europe and Team Rest of World.

Every team brought most of their top male and female players! The captains were notable too.

The Players and Captains of the FIDE Online Nations Cup

China

The male players included 2020 Candidates Ding Liren and Wang Hao, plus Wei Yi and Yu Yangyi. Even scarier for the rest of the field were their female players: the return of 3-time Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan, and current Women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun.

Having won two of the last three Olympiads and the last two Women’s Olympiads, China was undoubtedly the favorite. Longtime captain Ye Jiangchuan lead the team here, too.

India

All the top players from this chess powerhouse came to play as well, including legendary former World Champion Vishy Anand, up-and-coming star Vidit Gujrathi, elite fixture Pentala Harikrishna, plus Adhiban Baskaran.

Their top female players are present as well, including Cairns Cup winner Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavali. Anand is playing and serving as captain, while former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik is an adviser to the team.

Russia

This team is formidable as well, led by Candidates’ co-leader Ian Nepomniachtchi, the rising Vladislav Artemiev, former Challenger Sergey Karjakin, and former Candidate Dmitry Andreikin.

Their female players include recent Women’s World Championship Challenger Aleksandra Goryachkina and current Russian Women’s Champion Olga Girya. Their captain is the experienced Alexander Motylev.

United States

Their “Top 3” are here: 5-time US Champion and former World #2 Hikaru Nakamura, current World #2 and recent Challenger Fabiano Caruana, and perennial Top 10 Wesley So. Also playing for the team is recent arrival Leinier Dominguez.

Two stalwarts of US Women’s Chess, 7-time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush and 4-time US Women’s Champion Anna Zatonskih make their appearance as well. The team is lead by John Donaldson, who has captained US Olympiad teams since the 1980s.

Team Europe

A mix of players from different nations is led by Candidates co-leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, former World #2 Levon Aronian of Armenia, and former World #3 Anish Giri of the Netherlands, who is playing as a reserve. Board 3 is Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda.

Their female team members are Ukraine’s Anna Muzychuk and Georgia’s Nana Dzagnidze. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: their captain is the greatest player ever, Garry Kasparov!

Team Rest of World

Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) has returned to the top with a bang, and he is joined by young star Alireza Firouzja who has not chosen a country to represent after leaving Iran. Bassem Amin (Egypt) and Jorge Cori (Peru) represent Africa and South America, respectively.

Former Women’s World Champion Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine) and Dinara Saduakassova (Kazakhstan) round out their lineup. They are captained by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a tournament in 2019.

Round Robin Phase

China dominated the first part of the FIDE Online Nations Cup with 17 match points (+8=1-1). They drew Russia in Round 3, and only lost to USA in Round 10 when they had already clinched the top spot in the final.

The race for the other final spot came down to USA (+6=1-3) and Europe (+5=3-2). Each squad finished with 13 match points, but USA got the spot in the final by scoring 22 game points to Europe’s 21.5!

The other teams — Russia, India, and Team World — fell out of contention early on.

Superfinal

China earned draw odds in the Mother’s Day final match, which I have to agree with. There should be a reward for winning the first, 10-round phase of an event like this. In one match, anything can happen.

Still, it was too much for the USA to overcome. On paper, China had an advantage anyway, especially on Board 4, with the strongest active female on the planet Hou Yifan facing my friend Irina Krush. I had no doubt America’s only female Grandmaster would bring her best, and she held a draw rather comfortably despite being massively out-rated.

To win the match, USA needed two points out of the three remaining games, and it was just not to be. Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren drew a very double-edged game on Board 1, while Fabiano Caruana pressed Wei Yi on Board 2 and Yu Yangyi pressed Wesley So on Board 3.

Caruana and Yu both won, which was fitting because they were the two best performers in the entire event. The match was drawn 2-2, and China won the first FIDE Online Nations Cup.

Will this event become a fixture in the future after we (hopefully) defeat COVID-19? I hope so!