Magnus Carlsen has announced a new $1m series of major online events in which he will compete, lasting all summer with a final in August. The Carlsen Tour effectively replaces the over-the-board Grand Tour organised from St Louis in the US, which was halted by coronavirus. The Carlsen series could even open up the possibility, if coronavirus continues for a long time, of moving the world championship match itself to an internet setting.
The first Carlsen Tour event has already happened. The Carlsen Invitational, where the No 1 defeated the US champion, Hikaru Nakamura, in a tense final, was watched by an online audience calculated at 114,000.
The next tournament, from 19 May to 3 June, is the Lindores Abbey Challenge, a version of the over-the-board rapidplay in Scotland last summer. Carlsen’s opponents will include Nakamura, China’s world No 3, Ding Liren, and the prodigy Alireza Firouzja.
That competition starts on Tuesday but before then the Norwegian will be in action again, this time in a blitz tournament, the Fide Steinitz Memorial, to commemorate the first world champion’s birth date.
The choice may seem tenuous, for chess clocks came into general use only in the mid-1880s, and there is no record of Steinitz ever playing blitz. Games are live on chess24, starting at 5.30pm on Friday when Carlsen meets the eight-time Russian champion Peter Svidler.
Carlsen and/or Carlsen events will be on your internet screen for at least 60 days from now until August. It should be a great feast of free entertainment and grandmaster commentary for chess fans, but the sheer quantity of games in a short period sparks the question whether at some stage viewer fatigue will creep in. The over-the-board Grand Tour promoted by Rex Sinquefield and Garry Kasparov from St Louis ran for five years from 2015 to 2019, though with longer intervals between tournaments, and interest seemed to wane towards the end.
If that ennui occurs at some stage to the Carlsen Tour at a time when there is still no visible prospect of over-the-board chess resuming in a significant way, then pressure may develop to play the second half of the abandoned candidates tournament and even the world championship match itself as internet competitions. That would be a radical plan and would be fiercely resisted by traditionalists, but normal over-the-board chess, with opponents seated opposite each other for an extended period, may yet come to be viewed as an enduring health risk.
China narrowly edged out the US in the online Nations Cup final last weekend, halving the final match 2-2 but winning the trophy because of their superior performance in the previous rounds.
The powerhouses for the winning teams were China’s Yu Yangyi, who totalled 7.5/10, and America’s world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, who did even better with an unbeaten 7.5/9. Both scored with attacks against the king in direct encounters with their rivals.
It was interesting that Caruana, confronted with the solid Petroff 2 Nf3 Nf6, chose the well worn attacking system with a knight exchange at c3 and castling long which sometimes peters out to a draw but sparked a crushing assault.
The final rounds also featured two impressive victories by Firouzja, who had struggled against the big names at the Carlsen Invitational. The 16-year-old won in fine style against Levon Aronian and Sergey Karjakin at a much slower time rate than the blitz where he is so deadly.
Firouzja’s choice of the Vienna 2 Nc3 and its follow-up against Aronian showed that he was ready to take on the bizarrely named Frankenstein-Dracula variation with all its obscure complexity. His surprised opponent dodged the bullet by 5…Be7 (instead of Nc6) giving White a small edge without risk which Firouzja converted. Firouzja’s all-court attack against Karjakin, the 2016 world title challenger, makes a powerful impression, helped by the loser’s odd choice of h1 for his queen.
Possibly the most significant Nations Cup game for its potential future influence was Hou Yifan’s win over Aleksandra Goryachkina in the China v Russia match. Hou is the all-time women’s No 2 after the retired Judit Polgar, and despite taking two years off for academic studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford she showed that she is still close to her peak strength. Goryachkina is 21, five years younger than her opponent, and the flagbearer for a new generation following her crushing win in the women’s Candidates, so this was a pairing of unusual significance.
Hou got in first with her opening prep after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 (Winawer French) 4 Qd3!? She had used the queen move in a 2015 game, and the database prefers 4…Ne7 rather than dxe4 and chasing the white queen to h4. Goryachkina’s decisive error was 18…Nb4? instead of Nf6, as Black’s resulting weak b4 pawn soon fell leading to a lost rook endgame.
3671: 1…Ra3+! 2 Kb4 Ra7! when if 3 Rxd2 Rxe7 or 3 Bf8 Rd7! with a winning ending.