Magnus Carlsen wins first edition of the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Challenge

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/17/2024 – Magnus Carlsen defeated Fabiano Caruana with the white pieces to claim overall victory at the first edition of the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Chess Challenge. The Norwegian took home the US$ 60,000 first prize for his efforts. Levon Aronian grabbed third place after beating Nodirbek Abdusattorov, while Alireza Firouzja secured an invitation to the next edition of the event by beating Gukesh D in the fight for fifth place. | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

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“Chess is Magnus Carlsen”

From 2013 to 2023, Magnus Carlsen was the undisputed classical world chess champion, as he beat Vishy Anand (twice), Sergey Karjakin, Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi in matches for the crown. However, soon after Nepomniachtchi won the 2022 Candidates, the Norwegian announced that he would not defend his title, noting that the format is not to his liking as he would favour a format including more games with a quicker time control.

Nevertheless, Carlsen’s standing as the strongest chess player in the world has not been truly challenged since his withdrawal from the World Championship cycle. At the end of 2023, the 33-year-old won both the rapid and the blitz World Championships (for a fifth time and for a seventh time, respectively). He also grabbed his third consecutive Champions Chess Tour title, i.e. the biggest achievement in the world of online chess.

Now, at the newest super-tournament on the calendar, he justified his status as the G.O.A.T.(as per the event’s own appraisal) by winning the first edition of the Freestyle Challenge, which rebranded the chess960 variant of the royal game — much like the Saint Louis Chess Club had done with the Chess 9LX events.

Magnus Carlsen

An elegant outfit in an elegant setting | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

Carlsen, as he has often done in the past, started slowly, scoring 4½/7 points in the rapid section, with losses against Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Gukesh. Moreover, he would then lose his first classical game in the quarter-finals against Alireza Firouzja.

From that point on, however, there was no stopping the “Greatest Of All Time”. After beating Firouzja in tiebreaks, Carlsen defeated Abudsattorov and Fabiano Caruana by 1½-½ scores to win the event outright, showcasing his usual combination of excellent strategic assessment and effective pragmatic decision-making.

In April 2023, former world champion Vladimir Kramnik was interviewed by World Chess. When asked about Carlsen, the Russian legend had this to say about his former colleague:

I understand that this is a player which is born once in a century. He just changed chess. Chess is him in the last ten to fifteen years. Chess is Magnus Carlsen.

Well-known GM and commentator David Howell helped Carlsen to prepare for the event

1.g4, 2.0-0-0

In the second game of the final, Carlsen immediately grabbed the initiative with a couple of moves you could only see in a ‘freestyle chess’ position: 1.g4 c6 (1...0-0-0 is stronger!) and 2.0-0-0, castling queenside on move 2.

Carlsen had a strategic edge, and found a couple of remarkable ideas to make progress in the middlegame. For example, his 22.a4, preparing ideas with Nc3-b5, was approved both by the engines and by the commentators.

It was exactly in this position that Caruana made a big positional mistake by playing 22...Nxc3, damaging White’s structure but also allowing his opponent to simplify into a better endgame — note that White counts with a dangerous passed pawn on the h-file.

There followed 23.bxc3 fxg4 24.Rxf4 Qxf8, and here Carlsen found an elegant way to simplify.

25.Qxc7+ Kxc7 26.Nxe6 Kd6 27.Nxf8 Rxf8, and the h-pawn will decide the game in White’s favour. Further precise manoeuvres in the ensuing rook endgame gave an inspired Carlsen overall victory in the game, the match and the tournament!

Expert analysis by GM Daniel King

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

Aronian, Firouzja and Keymer prevail

None of the four matches that took place between Thursday and Friday reached the rapid and blitz tiebreakers, as all four winners defeated their opponents in the classical portion of the confrontations.

  • Levon Aronian beat Nodirbek Abdusattorov in style to get third place in the event.
  • Alireza Firouzja obtained the draw he needed to beat Gukesh and secure a spot in the next edition of the tournament by obtaining fifth place.
  • Vincent Keymer inflicted a second loss in a row on a clearly out-of-form Ding Liren to claim seventh place.

Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

Vincent Keymer

Vincent Keymer | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

Aronian’s victory with the white pieces was surely memorable. The oldest player in the field was perhaps the one who showed the most creative ideas throughout the event. He even participated in the freestyle (rap) contest organized by the tournament’s social media team.

Aronian did not win the rap contest (sintax.the.terrific won!), but he did find a remarkable way to end his game against Abdusattorov.

With the pawn on the c-file a square away from becoming a queen, Aronian opted for simplifications via 31.Rxe4+ fxe4 32.Qxe4+ Ne5 and 33.Qxh1, temporarily giving up a queen to deal with Black’s threats on the first rank.

There is no stopping an eventual c7-c8Q, so Abdusattorov resigned four moves later.

All games

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.