Fresh from his crushing victory over Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai, Magnus Carlsen opens his defence of his world rapid and blitz titles in Warsaw starting at 2pm GMT on Boxing Day. The 31-year-old Norwegian faces a serious double threat to his ambition to hold three crowns – classical, rapid and blitz – simultaneously, and will need all his legendary skills.
Games and commentaries will be viewable live and free online. The tournament is being staged at the PGE Narodowy Stadium, the home of Poland’s national football team.
In October 2015, the five-times US champion Hikaru Nakamura was briefly ranked No 2 behind Carlsen at classical chess, apparently fulfilling his tweet made two years earlier that: “I am the only person who is going to stop Sauron in the context of chess history.” The juxtaposition of Carlsen and the title character of Lord of the Rings went viral. They had already fought it out in a private all-night, six-hour, 40-game blitz match played in Moscow in 2010, which Carlsen won 24.5-15.5. There is also recent history between the pair in their frosty exchange of tweets after Nakamura won at St Louis in August this year.
Nakamura started his Twitch stream in March 2020 with 2,000 followers. Now he has 1.3 million, as his brand of playing all-comers at fast speeds, including bizarre openings like the Bongcloud, and the way he combines instructional nuggets with expressive phraseology, all attract huge audiences. The 34-year-old has not played a rated classical game for two years, but is as deadly as ever at speed play.
Apart from the world blitz and rapid, the Blue Riband of fast events is chess.com’s online speed championship, which has just ended its sixth season. Its knockout format is testing: 16 invited grandmasters, 90 minutes of 5/1 blitz, 60 minutes of 3/1 blitz, and 30 minutes of 1/1 bullet.
Carlsen won the first two finals in 2016 and 2017, but has not taken part since. Nakamura won the next three, and did it again in Monday’s 2021 final, when he crushed Wesley So 23-8. Earlier he eliminated Peter Svidler, Anish Giri and Ding Liren, the last only after tie-breaks and Armageddon.
Victory by such a wide margin over So, who was Carlsen’s main competitor on the online Meltwater Champions Tour, is a clear statement of intent that Nakamura is ready for a serious challenge to the No 1 at Warsaw in the coming days. His performance was highlighted by an 18-move miniature, which is featured in this week’s puzzle, and where So was losing as early as move 10 Ba3? e4!
Carlsen faces an equally dangerous challenge in Warsaw from Alireza Firouzja, the player widely viewed as heir apparent to the throne. The 18-year-old former Iranian, who now lives in Chartres and represents France, has long been bracketed with Carlsen and Nakamura as the world’s best in three-minute blitz and one-minute bullet. Firouzja, like Nakamura, has history with Carlsen, notably in the controversial finish to their game in the 2019 world blitz in Moscow.
Two years on from Moscow, Firouzja is the world No 2, has triumphed impressively in Riga and in the European teams, and is the only player who Carlsen would be interested in taking on in his next championship defence in 2023.
The world No 1 confirmed his stance and explained it further in a new blog this week: “I found that the negative has started to outweigh the positive, even when winning. I have by now played against the previous generation and three leading players of my generation. Being result-oriented has worked out for me in these matches, but it doesn’t feel sustainable long term. Passion must be the main driver. It is unlikely that I will play another match unless maybe if the next challenger represents the next generation.”
There are plenty of others in the Warsaw field of over 150, the great majority of them grandmasters, who can upset the big three. David Howell, seeded 46th, is the only English GM entered, while there are no British players in the women’s championship, where the top three seeds are all Russian.
Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee, the “chess Wimbledon”, is currently still set to go ahead, despite beginning on 15 January, just one day after the planned lifting of the new Netherlands Covid-19 lockdown. The regulations allow major sporting events, although without spectators, and all Wijk’s amateur sections have been cancelled.
Wijk will be the first test of Carlsen’s stated ambition to aim for an all-time record 2900 rating as a target for his future events in place of his probable retirement from future world title matches. Carlsen’s current rating after Dubai is 2865, and Wijk is one of his favourite events, where he has won seven first prizes over the years.
Next month he will need to score 9/13 there just to gain a single rating point, while 10/13 will take his rating to 2876. His lifetime official peak is 2882 from 2014 and 2019, and his highest unofficial live rating is 2889. On the plus side for Carlsen, the field for Wijk 2022 is less heavyweight than usual, with only Fabiano Caruana and Giri from the current top 10. Russia’s Andrey Esipenko, 19, who beat Carlsen at Wijk 2021, and India’s Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, 16, are the rising talents.
What of Firouzja, the biggest teenage talent of them all, already the hero of many chess fans, and the youngest ever world No 2? There is zero chance of him competing at Wijk next month. The reason is Firouzja’s continuing spat with the Wijk organisers, dating back to the final round of Wijk 2021, when he was disturbed by the moving of tables to prepare for the Giri v Jorden van Foreest first prize speed tie-break.
Firouzja was invited to Wijk 2022 several months ago, but negotiations via his father stalled on a demand for financial compensation for the 2021 disturbance, plus a much larger start fee for 2022 than the organisers offered. This is a scenario with echoes of Bobby Fischer in the 70s and Gata Kamsky in the 90s, so chess fans will watch future developments with interest and concern.
3795: 1…Nxf2! and White resigned. If 2 Rxf2 Rxe3, or 2 Qxf2 Bxe3, or 2 Nd2 Rxe3 3 Qxf2 Re2, all with decisive material gain for Black.