Unprecedented Magnus Carlsen Invitational kicks off Saturday

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/16/2020 – With no over-the-board action, online playing has gained strength among chess fans. Moreover, the world champion himself has decided to make the most out of a dire situation by organizing an unprecedented elite tournament to be played over the internet. Eight of the strongest players in the world will fight for a $70,000 first prize. The tournament will run from April 18th to May 3rd.

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A round-robin and a knockout

It is certainly unfortunate that a number of strong chess events had to be cancelled or postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Of course, this is an irrelevant concern compared to the major healthcare crisis some countries are confronting. However, while staying at home during the quarantine, trying to keep our spirits up is highly advisable — following the news 24/7 would only rub salt into the wound. In that sense, chess fans are privileged, as we will get to follow the best in the world battling it out from their houses.

Many blitz tourneys are organized daily over the internet, with strong grandmasters frequently showing up and facing their colleagues in a more relaxed environment. But only a few times do we see major online events using rapid time controls — the biggest exception being the PRO Chess League, a team competition with a time control of 10 minutes plus 2-second increments. The Magnus Carlsen Invitational will go further, as it will use a 15'+10" control (see more details about the format below).

Magnus CarlsenIn a way, it is no surprise that Carlsen is championing the idea of organizing a closed elite event with a rapid time control. In fact, he has voiced his support for accelerated rates of play having a more relevant role even in the World Championship cycle. He declared in 2018:

If you want to see who the best player is, make them play as many games as possible, and if you keep the rapid format then there’s still room for opening ideas, preparation and everything, but the time allowed to conceal your weaknesses and everything is not there. You just up the stakes, you increase the chances for errors and I think it makes it more exciting and it gives a more real picture of the best players.

[Photo: Alina l'Ami]

Given the current crisis, Carlsen considers it a responsibility to try something more ambitious:

This is a historic moment for chess, and given that it’s possible to continue top professional play in an online environment, we have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to players and fans around the world who need a distraction when no other live, competitive sport is being played. 

The champ took the bull by the horns by creating this event with a $250,000 prize fund — the winner will get $70,000 while the eighth-placed participant will receive $15,000. 

Perhaps the biggest concern regarding an online tournament is the issue of cheating. The organizers have addressed this by explaining that extra cameras covering the whole area where a participant is playing (only visible to tournament monitors) will be in use, besides the standard automated and human cheating detection systems. Moreover, given the strength of the players, even a suspicion of cheating would greatly damage their reputation.

Firouzja included in star-filled line-up

The most talked-about rising star in the world at the moment, 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja, will be among the eight participants. The wunderkind showed what he is capable of at this year's Tata Steel Masters, getting the sole lead for a couple of rounds. Furthermore, he is known for his abilities in faster time controls, as proven during last year's World Rapid & Blitz Championships, and more recently during a 16-game match with a 3-minute-to-finish time control in which he beat the world champion

Firouzja will nonetheless be the eighth seed, as he will be joined by the five highest-rated players in the world, perennial elite star Anish Giri and blitz specialist Hikaru Nakamura. The full line-up:

Player Classical World # Rapid World # Blitz World #
Magnus Carlsen 2863 1 2881 1 2887 2
Fabiano Caruana 2835 2 2773 11 2711 35
Ding Liren 2791 3 2836 3 2788 8
Ian Nepomniachtchi 2784 4 2778 9 2785 9
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2778 5 2860 2 2822 3
Anish Giri 2764 10 2731 24 2752 22
Hikaru Nakamura 2736 18 2829 4 2900 1
Alireza Firouzja 2728 21 2703 37 2750 24

Magnus Carlsen Invitational

Format and schedule

The tournament involves two stages. First a round-robin and then a knockout among the top four players in the standings.

  • During the round-robin, each match-up will include four rapid games (15 minutes plus 10-second increments), and in case of a tie an Armageddon game (5 v 4 minutes) will be the decider. If a players gets the victory without needing the sudden-death tiebreaker, he will get 3 points, while a win in the playoff will give the winner 2 points and the loser 1 point.
  • In the semi-finals and the final, the same four-game rapid format will be employed, except that in case of a tie the contenders will play two sets of blitz games (5 minutes plus 3-second increments) before going to Armageddon. The tie can be broken in the first set of blitz encounters.

Not all match-ups of each round will be played simultaneously, except in round seven, the last one before the knockout. From rounds one to six, two matches will take place concurrently each day, so these rounds will be played over a two-day period. Each semi-final will be played separately as well. The action kicks off daily at 14:00 UTC (16:00 CEST, 10:00 EST).

Day Date Round  
Saturday April 18 Round 1 Matches 1-2
Sunday April 19   Matches 3-4
Monday April 20 Round 2 Matches 1-2
Tuesday April 21   Matches 3-4
Wednesday April 22 Round 3 Matches 1-2
Thursday April 23   Matches 3-4
Friday April 24 Round 4 Matches 1-2
Saturday April 25   Matches 3-4
Sunday April 26 Round 5 Matches 1-2
Monday April 27   Matches 3-4
Tuesday April 28 Round 6 Matches 1-2
Wednesday April 29   Matches 3-4
Thursday April 30 Round 7 Matches 1-4

The pairings are already out. The world champion will face Hikaru Nakamura in round one, while Firouzja will play Ding Liren.

Round one pairings
Saturday Magnus Carlsen v Hikaru Nakamura
  Ding Liren v Alireza Firouzja
Sunday Fabiano Caruana v Ian Nepomniachtchi
  Maxime Vachier-Lagrave v Anish Giri

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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.