Looking back: Qatar Masters 2015 – a class of its own

by Sagar Shah
2/4/2016 – What happens when you organize a tournament that has 132 players, 77 of them grandmasters? What happens when 17 players above 2700 are trying their best to defeat the reigning World Champion? What happens when playing hall, facilities and accommodation are world class? What we get is an open tournament of a stature that has never been seen before in the history of chess – say our reporters in Doha.

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Qatar Masters 2015 – in a class of its own

Retrospective report by Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal

Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal left home on the first of December to immerse in the world of elite chess. Their one-month sojourn consisted in covering two of the biggest events of 2015 – the London Chess Classic and the Qatar Masters, for the ChessBase newspage. Amruta was the photographer and provided us with some beautiful moments captured during every round of these events. Along with writing extensive and detailed reports Sagar was also playing in the London Classic FIDE Open and the Qatar Masters Open, trying to make his final GM norm – a task which he couldn't achieve. After his games, he and Amruta would often stay awake until four in the morning, finishing their reports and then getting ready for another brand new day! All this was tremendously hectic, but what they got in return was an incomparable experience of attending world class events and mingling with the best chess players that our generation has seen.

After the adventures at the London Chess Classic, our voyage in the elite chess world took me and Amruta to the magical city of Doha. From the high-level closed Round Robin at London, the Open Swiss event at the Qatar Masters Open provided a refreshing change. At this tournament you could not only see the elite players crossing swords against each other, but also witness the young and upcoming 2500s and 2600s get a chance to fight it out against world class GMs. The tournament was open only to players above the rating of 2300. There were 132 participants from 30 different countries. India, as usual, sent the biggest contingent of 28 players, followed by Russia, which had 19. Out of these 132 players a whopping 124 were titled – 71 grandmasters and 36 International Masters. The Qatar Masters was rightly called as the strongest open tournament in the world.

Crème de la crème of the chess world

Magnus drew his first round game against IM Nino Batsiashvili, which became quite a sensation, but later came back strongly to score 7.0/9, with wins over GM Aravindh Chithambaram, IM Daniil Yuffa, GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda, GM Li Chao (which was his favourite game from the tournament), and GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Against the three other elite opponents, Anish Giri, Wesley So and Vladimir Kramnik, he split the point. Magnus’ victory, including his tiebreaks against Yu Yangyi, was delineated in a separate report on our newspage.

The strongest woman player in the world fittingly won the best women player’s prize and took home the winner’s cheque of US $8,000. In this picture she is seen with her mother Wang Qian, who is not so proficient in English, but a thoroughly charming lady.

Carlsen and Yu Yangyi scored 7.0/9, the rest of the players Vladimir Kramnik (3rd), Sergey Karjakin (4th), Sanan Sjugirov (5th), Ni Hua (6th) and Vassily Ivanchuk (7th), finished with 6.5/9. A natural question that could arise in the minds of the readers is: where are the top guys like Anish Giri, Wesley So and Mamedyarov? Anish finished eighth, Wesley was 18th, and Mamedyarov 20th.

Top players (6.0 points or higher) after nine rounds

Rk SNo Ti. Name FED Rtg Pts  TB  rtg+/-
1 1 GM Carlsen Magnus NOR 2834 7.0 2887 6.8
2 11 GM Yu Yangyi CHN 2736 7.0 2863 14.4
3 2 GM Kramnik Vladimir RUS 2796 6.5 2833 5.1
4 5 GM Karjakin Sergey RUS 2766 6.5 2793 3.6
5 33 GM Sjugirov Sanan RUS 2646 6.5 2791 18.3
6 18 GM Ni Hua CHN 2693 6.5 2762 8.7
7 16 GM Ivanchuk Vassily UKR 2710 6.5 2700 -0.2
8 3 GM Giri Anish NED 2784 6.0 2815 4.3
9 79   Xu Yinglun CHN 2470 6.0 2800 38.4
10 30 GM Ganguly Surya Shekhar IND 2648 6.0 2743 12.0
11 9 GM Harikrishna P. IND 2743 6.0 2736 -0.5
12 17 GM Ponomariov Ruslan UKR 2710 6.0 2720 1.8
13 29 GM Akopian Vladimir ARM 2648 6.0 2713 8.2
14 25 GM Duda Jan-Krzysztof POL 2663 6.0 2697 4.4
15 36 GM Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son VIE 2642 6.0 2691 6.7
16 13 GM Vitiugov Nikita RUS 2724 6.0 2687 -3.4
17 37 GM Sethuraman S.P. IND 2639 6.0 2634 0.3

Aspire Zone, Torch, Grand Heritage and the hospitality

The Qatar Masters Open 2015 was hosted in the Aspire Zone. It is a 250 hectare complex, with the state of the art facilities related to all the sporting disciplines. The playing hall and the two official hotels – The Torch and the Grand Heritage, were all located within the Aspire Zone.

Both the hotels were in walking distance from the playing hall, but the organizers made
sure to keep buses for players to travel from the hotel to the tournament hall and back

If you were late and missed the bus, you were not punished! In fact, you would be
taken to the tournament venue in these comfortable Qatar Masters sedans!

A rooftop view of Hotel Grand Heritage

The view from our room in the Grand Heritage, with the elegant Torch Hotel and the Aspire Dome

The rooms were splendid and had everything you required, often more than you could ask for...

For example, after checking in, you had to choose the kind of pillow you wanted to use from these four options! Much harder than to decide whether to play the King’s Indian or the Grunfeld in the first round!

All the players had breakfast as a part of their package. It was more like brunch as some of the items available were like main course dishes. At the same time the spread of fruits was lavish and you had all sorts of nuts to munch on. There were also some delicious pastries and mouth-watering varieties of breads and croissants and different types of cheese.

But this variety was not just limited to the hotels in which we were staying. The organizers made sure that high-level conditions are maintained even at the playing venue. Free mineral water is available nowadays at just about any tournament, but in Doha they went a step further and provided fruits as well as cookies to the players in all the rounds. On the last day the round began at 12 p.m. instead of the usual 3 p.m., and the organizers were so thoughtful that they kept wraps and kebabs to make sure that the players who hadn’t eaten their lunch wouldn’t go hungry.

The playing hall was spacious, each and every game had an individual table...

... and all the boards were electronic ones with wooden pieces

Totally ab‘norm’al!

As many as 16 norms were achieved at the event. That is quite phenomenal considering that there were 132 players and 77 out them were already grandmasters and not in any need of norms. The number of norms scored: five GM ten IM and one WIM.

The guys who scored a GM norm: IM Daniil Yuffa (RUS, 2504), Xu Yinglun (CHN, 2470), IM Lin Chen (CHN, 2532), IM Shardul Gagare (IND, 2470), and IM VIgnesh N R (IND, 2422). Noteworthy was the 2800 performance of the untitled Chinese Xu Yinglun.

Ten players who achieved the IM norm were: Alireza Firouzja (Iran, 2372), FM Li Di (CHN, 2389), WGM Goryachkina Aleksandra (RUS, 2493), FM Basso Pier Luigi (ITA, 2438), Raja Harshit (IND, 2325), Prantik Roy (IND, 2370), FM Rohan Ahuja (IND, 2426), WGM Dinara Saduakassova (KAZ, 2407), Mohammad Nubairshah Shaikh (IND, 2414), and FM Luca Moroni (ITA, 2466). WFM R. Vaishali (IND, 2313) scored a Woman International Master norm.

Chess was not the only sport!

“For such a tournament it is good to do some exercise, otherwise, at least I would go crazy!” These were the words of Magnus Carlsen, after winning the event, on how football had made a positive impact on his performance. The organizers had taken special care that the players would be given an option to play some sport or other every night, and had booked the football field, basketball and tennis courts well in advance.

The football playing sessions were for one hour, from 10-11 p.m. Two teams were formed and the players were segregated on the basis of Russian speaking and non-Russian speaking. The games were evenly matched and both sides had their star players. For example, the Russian speaking had fierce attackers like Alexander Ipatov, Pavel Tregubov and Daniil Yuffa, while the Rest of the World banked mainly on Magnus Carlsen, Samy Shoker and David Howell.

Extremely fit and athletic Magnus was a bundle of high voltage energy on the football ground

In order to differentiate one team from another the Russian speaking guys took off their T-shirts
– but Qatari security guards quickly came in and asked the players to put them back on!

Sergey Karjakin, who preferred to play basketball, is viciously tackeled by Alejandro Ramirez

The crazy blitz session

In between Magnus Carlsen winning his second tiebreak game against Yu Yangyi, and beginning of the prize giving ceremony, there was a gap of an hour. In those sixty minutes something quite wonderful happened: all the players, instead of waiting for the ceremony to begin, took seats in the playing hall and randomly started playing blitz against each other! This was just an amazing scene to see!

Chess couples Radoslaw Wojtaszek and Alina Kashlinskaya, and Mateusz and Marta Bartel,
indulge in mixed doubles tandem chess. We think that White has the advantage at this point,
although the game later ended in a draw!

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov took on Aleksandr Lenderman. Alex was extremely focused as he tried to get one back after the brilliancy that Mamedyarov essayed against him in the third round of the tournament

The super-talented Russian Aleksandra Goryachkina with her little sister,
who is mastering the art making a tower of chess pieces!

Chess can be romantic at times! The newly-weds Nguyen Ngoc Truongson and
Pham Le Thao Nguyen enjoying a friendly battle.

Even Magnus couldn’t resist chiming in, as he helped his friend from Norway,
IM Johan-Sebastien Christiansen, against English FM Ravi Haria

Here’s the reason why Chinese players are so strong: while everyone was enjoying the blitz or chatting with each other, the Chinese contingent consisting of Yu Yangyi, Ni Hua, Li Chao, Wei Yi, Lu Shanglei, Hou Yifan and many others were sitting around one of the boards in the corner of the hall and…

…analyzing the endgame of Yu Yangyi-Wesley So, which the former had won in the final round. But it was not at all clear as Yu Yangyi had three pawns for Wesley’s knight. As you can see from the picture, the players were thoroughly enjoying this analytical session. When your work is fun, then you are bound to keep getting better!

Soon Indian grandmasters Harikrishna and Ganguly joined in– the Indo-China
relations look pretty good, at least as far as the game of chess is concerned!

An interview with the tournament director Mohammed Al-Mediahki

The man who made it possible for a tournament of such a magnitude to be held on Qatari soil was surely Mohammed Al-Mediahki (photo above from Wiki). Mohammed, who is Qatar’s first grandmaster and the recipient of the trophy for player of the century within Arab countries, worked tirelessly to organize the second edition of the strongest open tournament in the world. We caught up with him a day after the tournament ended and did a small interview.

Sagar Shah: Mohammed, this was one of the biggest open tournaments to have taken place in the history of the game. What are your impressions about the event?

Mohammed Al-Mediahki: I am very glad it ended this way. The tournament was very strong. We had about 18 players above 2700, 77 Grandmasters, and at the top we had Carlsen, Kramnik, Giri, Ivanchuk, Mamyedarov. Also we had three female World Champions, Hou Yifan, Kosteniuk and Stefanova. Overall the tournament was very tough I think. We tried to attract more players to take part in this event by adding a rest day, which is very important for the elite players. I think Qatar Masters 2015 has improved the standards of the organization of open events in the world of chess.


The horse was okay with it: GM Mohamed Al-Mediahki takes a selfie with a GM at the Al Shaqab stables

SS: What is your vision with this tournament?

MAM: We are planning to organize this tournament for many years to come. Next year for sure we are going to have the Qatar Masters. The sponsors are very happy with how the things went this year and we had some very good reviews. During the first four days we had 1.6 million visitors to watch the games. Overall, I think it's easier to organize a closed Round-Robin tournament, but what we are doing here is giving a chance and opportunity to everybody to come and play against strong opponents and fight for the prizes. I hope that one day we can increase the prize fund. [Thinks for a long time about an amount...]

SS: A million dollars?

MAM: Why not? I am sure we will reach there one day. As of now we would like to think about things that we could improve for the next year’s edition. Getting TV coverage will help to increase the popularity of the event. So that is an idea. The third edition is a long way off, so I will think about it in peace!

Mohamed with his wife Zhu Chen and the star footballer Xavier Hernandez (Xavi)
who now plays for the Al Saad club

SS: You are a 2550 rated grandmaster. Did you at any point feel like playing in this tournament?

MAM: Last year I was really eager to play. But the responsibilities as a tournament director convinced me that it was impossible. This year I wasn’t so tempted. My wife [GM Zhu Chen] played in the first edition and had a disastrous result. This year she decided to take a break and enjoyed the event as a spectator.

SS: And last question: apart from the Qatar Masters what would be on your agenda for the next year 2016?

MAM: We are trying to organize something else, but I cannot reveal it now. It will take around one week to announce. [Subsequently the news was confirmed and Mohamed-Al-Mediahki tweeted the following]

We are organizing our local tournaments and trying to promote chess in schools. The Qatar Masters is actually helping quite a bit to promote chess in the country. I have a dream about organizing this tournament for many years and making it some kind of a legacy. And I hope we will have more such events like it around the world where everybody comes, fights and wins good amounts of prize money. For me this is more attractive than closed Round Robins, and I think for many people as well. Basically, when you have players from different countries participating, it generates an interest for the tournament in that nation. Also there are a lot of upsets. For example Magnus’ draw in the first round spread like wildfire. With the help of Qatar Masters and many other projects I hope to develop chess and chess players in Qatar.

SS: Thanks a lot of Mohammed for your time and see you next year!

Some random shots and trivia!

Team Carlsen! – Signe, Ellen, Ingrid. You can read a very nice interview with Ellen in the Indian
news periodical The Hindu, in which she describes herself as the first victim of Magnus!

Here is a small trivia for you. We found this picture from many years ago, taken by the inimitable
photographer Fred Lucas. Your task is to identify which of the three Carlsen sisters is she?
Please give us your opinion in the comments section below.

J’adoube: Can you guess the name of the players whose hands are shown in the picture?

Here’s a small hint (!) for all those struggling with the above question

A picture for posterity?! Iran’s Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, Atousa Pourkashiyan,
Kazakhstan’s Zhansaya Abdumalik and India’s Padmini Rout share a wonderful moment together.

“Let’s fix a date for November 2016 in the United States” – unfortunately Alejandro Ramirez, Peter Svidler, Sergey Karjakin and Magnus Carlsen are discussing chess moves, not the 2016 World Championship

The beautiful Doha

When you visit Doha it is far from your Middle East city. In fact the capital of Qatar intermittently keeps giving you a European kind of feel. In the limited time that was available to us before, during, and after the tournament we saw some of the sights of the city, and I must say we were thoroughly impressed.

The Western Bay skyline as seen from the Doha Corniche. Just look at the creativity in the
designing of the tall structures and also the clear blue water! It was a sight to behold.

A walk near the corniche is an excellent way to spend an evening

And just in case you forgot, these animals remind you that you are still in the middle of the desert!

The Souq market, where you can order a cup of Arabian tea and coffee and relax

The Qatar Masters Open 2015 was surely one of the best organized events in the calendar year. As chess players and reporters, me and wife look forward to going back there in 2016 and meet many new chess friends from all over the globe!

Chess couple Amruta Mokal and Sagar Shah in front of the Doha west bay skyline

On a parting note we leave you with this highly professionally made video made by the Qatar Masters Open 2015 media team:

Photos by Amruta Mokal of ChessBase India


The games will be broadcast live on the official web site and on the server Playchess.com. If you are not a member you can download a free Playchess client there and get immediate access. You can also use ChessBase or any of our Fritz compatible chess programs.

Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.


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