"A remarkably bold tournament"

by Gregor Poniewasz
2/19/2024 – Jan Henric Buettner, the driving force behind the G.O.A.T. Freestyle Challenge, had promised that the tournament in Weissenhaus would set a new milestone in the presentation of chess. This was indeed the case, and expectations were exceeded. It was the players themselves who had the most fun. The focus was not on opening knowledge, but on creativity and talent. Gregor Poniewasz has collected sounds and pictures from the final day of play.

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Carlsen wins "his" format in Weissenhaus

The handshake at the start of the most important game between the two most important men at the boards was not forced, not artificial, not half-hearted, not half-lazy, as so often happens in chess tournaments; instead it was a genuine, an honest, a serious handshake between Carlsen and Caruana before their crucial game that would decide the tournament.

In this handshake between the two best chess players in the world and the two only players with a rating of more than 2800, you could see respect, a long acquaintance and the desire to play with the new Chess960 cards. Before the game, this moment expressed what Magnus Carlsen said afterwards about his tournament victory: this tournament format "is a dream come true for me, it means a lot to me, it was the first of its kind". "I had already talked to many people about a tournament like this" - Schach960 - "but he" - tournament organiser Jan Henric Buettner - "was the one who said 'yes, let's do it' and I like that enthusiasm".

Miss Angola at the board of the finalists

Carlsen's scoresheet

A perfect venue

The joy and enthusiasm for this revolutionary tournament was visible and palpable in the almost perfectly furnished tournament room at Jan Henric Buettner's Weissenhaus estate on the Baltic Sea near Lübeck: the dignified atmosphere with draught-free player seating, sound-absorbing carpets and pleasant lighting set the scene for a remarkably bold tournament that would certainly have made Chess960's inventor and namesake Bobby Fischer's eyes shine: everything breathed respect for the legend's idea of liberating classical chess from the dictatorship of rote memorisation. Fischer was far-sighted, because at the time of the first Fischerrandom Chess Tournament in 1996 there was almost no preparation with computer chess engines, as is common today and is no small part of a player's success or failure. Péter Lékó was invited to Weissenhaus as a commentator in honour of his victory in the first Fischerrandom Tournament: The entertaining live commentary videos with Lékó, Tania Sachdev and Niclas Huschenbeth had almost 10,000 viewers even on Friday afternoon, a very good number for this unusual chess format and the time of day.

And organiser Buettner was clearly delighted with the format and the absolutely remarkable top-class players: "We couldn't have done it better," he said before the final day of play, visibly proud but also excited, referring to the winning pair of Carlsen/Caruana.

Mastermind Jan Henric Buettner and Fiona Steil-Antoni

Jan Henric Buettner with his wife and Miss Angola

After Carlsen's victory you could almost see a fire of joy burning in Buettner's eyes, and even before the awards ceremony he announced his next ideas in true entrepreneurial style: In a year's time, he promised, the tournament would get a new round in Weissenhaus, and he was bubbling over with possibilities such as Formula 1 parallels and a Grand Slam approach with several tournaments throughout the year on different continents and a million-dollar prize purse, this time 200,000. And he would like to invite Hikaru Nakamura, who had cancelled due to another tournament, to complete the field of very different but all outstanding players -  this year's Elo-average of 2763 made Weissenhaus one of the world's top four tournaments.

And the players themselves were clearly enjoying the event, with only Ding Liren visibly suffering from his bad play; at one point he struggled with a sneeze, but didn't appear to be really ill. "I'm sure the players enjoyed it as much as I did," said Carlsen, and a cheerful Alireza Firouzja agreed: "This is about creativity and talent, the format is really good." For the media, too, it was a rare and enjoyable opportunity to see so much of the world's chess elite up close. Buettner's team around Weißenhaus hotel managers Natalie and Frank Nagel had radically restricted the number of entrances to the venue, so that in the few hours of the final day of the tournament media representatives were sometimes only two metres away from the players. This intimate atmosphere also lent a sense of tranquillity to the observation of the games, and the fascination that these top players are just people like you and me, yet only a few centimetres away, with an athlete's pulse of 120 and highly concentrated thinking, became palpable: while the observer strolls from board to board and remains relaxed, top brain performance is being achieved in the immediate vicinity, invisible and almost motionless. Rarely is it so obvious what it is that makes humans tick - their ability to think.

The players didn't remain completely motionless though, Gukesh and Firouzja wiggled their feet under the table incessantly from the start, but halfway through the game Aronian - who had yawned during the ceremony to establish the starting position - was almost dancing in his seat, and towards the end even Caruana and Carlsen, were bobbing their legs. Almost all the players made the rounds to the other boards from time to time. Aronian took the most time for such rounds, and even calmly made his own tea at the edge of the tables at the start of the games and later, eating apples, was not above dodging media representatives in the narrow corridors around the tables. Keymer and Firouzja also stayed longer at individual boards, and Carlsen also walked around a few times, but never looked at a board for more than 5 seconds: whether he was bored, didn't care, couldn't deduce anything that quickly anyway, or simply had penetrated every position in 5 seconds as only he can, only the best chess player in the world knows.

The overall atmosphere was of course highly concentrated, but there was complete silence in the room, and Carlsen, Caruana and Aronian even had a smile to spare during the games for interested media visitors who stared at a game for minutes on end. And so it was almost like being in one's own living room, helped of course by the fact that - unthinkable in a classical chess tournament and all the more fascinating here - the players were given a few minutes to think about the starting position of their games, which they partly used to discuss among themselves - rivals! - how best to play the opening. They made use of the large leather armchairs just a few metres away from the tables with a tournament-sized extra board. Some players preferred to concentrate on the drawn position alone: Carlsen looked visibly pensive but not strained at the unfamiliar position, Firouzja said after the tournament that he had used 7 of the 10 minutes allowed to him to calm down and only 3 minutes to deal with the position. During the game, most of the players were outwardly in their element - Carlsen, as usual, twisted his opponent's won pieces in his fingers and many made the typical head-in-hands gesture of concentration.

Thinking poses

The extent to which the dignified, pleasant atmosphere of the venue had a positive effect on the players was evident at the end of the day: just a few years ago, classic tournaments in neon-lit, bare, hall-like rooms ended with a forced press conference in which you could almost see the players in physical pain, so little did they want to be questioned after the game. The statements were accordingly uninspired, meaningless and short. Although there were no statements on stage after the tournament apart from Carlsen's, Carlsen gave his summary of the event in good spirits, and Keymer talked loudly with Caruana and others about positional details after the game.

After the game Carlsen and Caruana did not mind setting up the pieces again though this was not really necessary. Meanwhile - it was still absolutely quiet despite the 30 or so media people now present - they unnecessarily lapsed into whispering during their apparently relaxed dialogue about their game: all the other games were long over. This was also indicative of the calm and concentration in the venue; whispering from visitors was prevented, as was the soft beeping of cameras when they were triggered. The relaxed atmosphere was also reflected in the behaviour of the players: although the snacks in each player's cabin - a bar of chocolate, chocolate bars, grapes, bananas, apples and various soft drinks - remained largely untouched, Carlsen himself went back to his cabin for a bottle of water and drank a litre during the game, although he did not appear to be sweating. His girlfriend and father only entered the room after the game, but after the tribute on stage and a short interview he said that he was now tired and didn't feel like much action in the evening.

This chess event was also on a higher level in terms of appearance, more comparable to classic celebrity events: all the players were dressed in different coloured velvet jackets by Hamburg fashion designer Frank Rudolf, which looked much more elegant on site than in the video streams, and even competed in white shirts - an unusual elegance even in top chess circles.

So it didn't matter that the youthful and cheerful Firouzja completed his outfit with a pair of trousers that were way too big and a cufflink that was the wrong way round. Or that all the players were allowed to wear casual footwear, although Ding Liren's Super Alarm trainers or Alireza's alien-like trainers, which squeaked incredibly loudly with every step, were a modern twist on elegance.

Sneaker show

The tall Keymer had turned up in a suit, the American Caruana in his usual correct jeans, everyone seemed very relaxed, perhaps due to the 960 format, which of course doesn't change the Elo rating. It was a nice, relaxed but no less exciting event; the games were at times extremely exciting, as Lékó, Sachdev and Huschenbeth pointed out time and again in their commentary.

The fact that the chess conservatives immediately after the tournament unleashed a wave of criticism against the 960 format, which attracted a lot of media attention, proves that this could be the beginning of a change: Chess streamers like Britain's Lawrence Trent or Hamburg's Georgios Souleidis wandered around the room with interested, satisfied faces, as did the tournament organiser, Grandmaster Sebastian Siebrecht. Carlsen, who had essentially cancelled his participation in the last World Championship due to a lack of interest in opening cramming, was the conceptual mastermind behind the tournament organisation and had been given a free hand by Buettner. He was beaming after the tournament and said that he would even have been very happy with this 960 event if things hadn't gone so well for him.

Colourful award ceremony

The winner

To the critics who try to claim that Fischer Random will soon fade into oblivion, it should be noted that in February 2024 a foundation stone was laid on the chessboard in the tranquil town of Weissenhaus on the German Baltic Sea, on which much could be built in terms of tournaments.

Weissenhaus Private Resort

And this place in the province has recently acquired global significance - the G7 foreign ministers met here in 2022. The lighthouse effect of the Weissenhaus Freestyle Chess Challenge should not be underestimated...