Carlsen wins again
The Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the first high-stakes online rapid chess tournament, was won on Sunday evening by Magnus Carlsen. The host edged home against Hikaru Nakamura with two wins to one, after clinging on for a draw in a difficult endgame in the fourth and final game. The chess was high level and technical despite the shortened time limits. Carlsen, the clear favourite, was taken to the limit by Nakamura in a tense contest. Both players relied on a hazardous defensive strategy with the black pieces, enabling white to press without much risk. Including their opening encounter in the qualifying rounds, the two traded white wins for seven consecutive games before Carlsen held on at the last.
The weekend knock-out matches injected some excitement into a format that had flagged during the round robin’s second week. It had become clear early on who was going to go through to the semi-finals, and at times the quality of play dipped badly. Players seem more inclined to make impulsive moves online than when physically facing an opponent.
Carlsen had displayed his feared accuracy in technical positions, but also made some outrageous blunders. He allowed a checkmate in two in his semi-final against Ding Liren, after thinking for five minutes. In earlier rounds, he had dropped rooks and missed mating threats that led to him squandering good positions. But after going one down to Ding, he responded by winning the last two sharp, seesaw games.
Before the tournament, the excitement had centred on Alireza Firouzja, the 16-year-old who had recently beaten Carlsen in a couple of online matches played with much faster time limits. The world champion got his revenge. Firouzja had a very tough early schedule, which meant he didn’t make it through to the semi-finals, but once he’d got used to playing at this level he won two of his final four matches and took another to tiebreak.
Nakamura played consistently and, until the final, had been bested only in Armageddon tiebreaks: one against Carlsen in the first match of the tournament and once against Fabiano Caruana. The Armageddon game has been the staple tie-break for decades, the chess equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. Players toss for colours. White gets five minutes on the clock, black four, but white must win the game or lose the match: a draw means a victory for black. It’s difficult to follow online and can involve very poor chess: two Armageddon games in the preliminaries were over in fewer than twenty moves.
The first Carlsen-Nakamura clash was marred by a technical fault: the wrong clock times were shown during Armageddon. Nakamura, in check, had to choose between two squares for his king: rather than weighing his options, however, he appeared to be shouting at his computer. After he resigned, he revealed that an arbiter had emailed him with an instruction to abort the game. It wasn’t clear to viewers or commentators what had happened, though the result stood after Nakamura resigned.
Carlsen’s only other Armageddon, against Ian Nepomniachtchi, was even more problematic. Chess24 allows ‘pre-moves’. With both players down to under ten seconds, Carlsen triumphed by repeatedly setting up his next move during his opponent’s turn. Legal pre-moves are executed instantaneously. Spectators suffered because the servers could only relay the resulting sequences in chunks. Any follow-up event should review the practice. Fortunately, Armageddon wasn’t needed in the knock-out games.
By the end of Thursday’s preliminary rounds, Chess24 was claiming to have had 10 million unique viewers: through its own online broadcasts, live TV in Norway and Russia, and highlights packages in other countries. The anonymous backers will probably be pleased with their high stakes experiment.
Viewers could join in the action in two ways: a fantasy chess competition – sponsored by Unibet – in which you got points for guessing before each round what openings would be played, whether castling would occur, how long games would last and whether pieces or pawns would be played to certain squares. Even better, the players took turns to spend an hour playing five-minute games against their fans: it’s hard to think of another sport where anything like that would happen. Carlsen was the warm-up act for the first semi-final on Friday. After the final, Firouzja took on all-comers.
Chess24 still have a few months to transform a diverting stop-gap into a calendar fixture. Carlsen says he ‘can’t wait to go again’.