“The whole world is laughing at us.”
This was Azerbaijani chess grandmaster Teimour Radjabov’s reaction on the morning of March 26, as people around the world signed on to the internet to watch the eighth round of the FIDE Candidates chess tournament. The tournament is a biennial tradition, pitting eight of the top chess players in the world against each other in a nearly four-week-long, 14-round tournament to determine who will challenge the world champion of chess, Magnus Carlsen, and vie for the title he has held since 2013.
Radjabov was supposed to be one of those eight players, but he declined his spot, citing concerns about the rapidly spreading coronavirus, and pulled out of the event on March 6, nine days before it was scheduled to begin. In a statement, he said, “How the tournament will develop during this global epidemic, what measures will be taken in case of detection of the virus and what measures will be taken in relation to a sick participant, no one has explained to me.” Radjabov was replaced by French grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The tournament commenced as planned.
As the world began to react more swiftly to the growing pandemic, and sporting events all over the globe were canceled, the Candidates Tournament was a rare bit of international competition left for the millions of people quarantined in their homes to watch. The event was being held in Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, and the city’s plan for dealing with the coronavirus included roving bands of Cossacks handing out masks and sprinkling people with holy water. At least two of the players in the Candidates complained of conditions: Russia’s Alexander Grischuk and China’s Wang Hao. After the fifth round, Grischuk said in his postgame interview, “In the beginning I did not have a clear opinion but now from the last several days I have a strong one, I think the tournament should be stopped.” It continued for three more days, until word came that the Russian government planned to halt all air travel in and out of the country by the end of the week. FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich made the decision to halt the event and allow the players to secure travel back to their home countries.
Radjabov felt vindicated, and said he would speak to lawyers about how to make sure that if and when the event was reconvened, he would regain his spot. It wouldn’t be so simple. Players had already completed seven rounds. At the time of the adjournment, the player who replaced Radjabov, Vachier-Lagrave, was in first place.
Carlsen watched these events unfold with detached bemusement. He held little to no sympathy for Radjabov, claiming during a livestream of the event that “if he had wanted to play the tournament he would have played it,” and later taking his case that Radjabov never wanted any of the Candidate’s smoke to Twitter. As for his own stake in the events, Carlsen shrugged it off. “Obviously it’s a shame for the players, for the fans and everything, but regardless of what happens I’m not a victim,” he said during the chess24 livestream. “If I get to play a match then yes, that would be fine, it would be interesting this year, and if I get to sit on the title for a bit more I’m not going to complain!”
But as FIDE scrambled to figure out how and when to restart the cycle, and Radjabov consulted with his lawyers, Carlsen decided he didn’t need to sit back and wait for the coronavirus pandemic to end or for the FIDE governing body to decide when the world’s best chess players would get to play again. He took matters into his own hands. “Chess is unique in the sports world as the moves are the same whether played on a wooden board or a computer screen,” he said. Why wait until quarantine is over to resume playing? He announced his own tournament, one that will be played entirely online. And one that will be like no other chess tournament that had come before it.
As the largest star in the world of chess by a wide margin, Carlsen is uniquely positioned to put together his own event. He has access to money. (Carlsen is one of the few chess players in the world that has a number of corporate sponsors.) One way he could guarantee an audience for an event that would fill the void left by the adjournment of the Candidates? He could play in the event himself. Furthermore, as a vocal critic of the scoring system FIDE uses to determine the winner of the World Championship, one that has resulted in long strings of drawn (and some would say boring) games, Carlsen has spent a lot of time thinking about a better way to run chess tournaments. “If you want to see who the best player is, make them play as many games as possible,” he said after his 2018 title defense against American Fabiano Caruana. “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.”
After talking to a few “patrons of the sport,” Carlsen announced the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, a 16-day tournament between him and seven of his top rivals from around the world, competing for a prize pool of $250,000, by far the largest amount of money ever put up for an online chess tournament before. It tips off this weekend. The players he will face include five of the eight players from the Candidates, as well as American Hikaru Nakamura, the world’s top blitz player, and 16-year-old Iranian phenomenon Alireza Firouzja, largely considered to be the top up-and-coming rival to the world champ.
The tournament will be conducted with the scoring system Carlsen has argued the World Championship should utilize. There will be two stages: an eight-player round robin followed by a final four-player knockout. The round-robin stage will consist of every player playing the other in a series of four games, and each day two of these games will be broadcast live at 10 a.m. EST simultaneously on chess24, with commentary in nine different languages. The winner of a match is awarded three points, unlike the single point awarded in traditional classical tournament play. And if the result is a tie, the players will play a single “armageddon” game, in which the white side is given five minutes and the black side is given four, but a draw is considered a win for the black side, and two points are given to the winner and one point to the loser.
During the final knockout rounds, ties will be decided first by a series of blitz games, and then by “armageddon” if needed. The rationale behind this unique system is that it will reward dynamic, attacking chess over careful play, giving spectators something more exciting to watch and giving players more decisive results. “In chess, in general, there is a bit of a debate between the old school ‘get off my lawn’ guys who say classical chess is the only pure form of chess,” says German grandmaster Jan Gustafsson, who will comment on the games in English for chess24. Classical chess refers to longer games, in which each player is given around three hours each to think through their moves, and is the gold standard for how major chess titles and events are played. “Magnus and a lot of the younger generation have been in favor of mixing in forms of rapid chess. For me, as a commentator and spectator, it’s exciting because it generates action. In a classical game, if a player thinks for 30 minutes, there’s not a lot to talk about. But I’m a little torn about it because I’m a bit of a purist at heart and I feel classical chess has its place. But for action, and for the sporting aspect, for determining the best player, this is the best way for sure.”
One reason there has never been this much money in the prize pool for an online event is fears over cheating, which is rampant in online chess. In addition to running software that attempts to detect cheating, the eight players will have cameras covering all angles of their playing area as they play. “You don’t want to have an arbiter sitting next to a player in this age of social distancing,” Gustafsson says. He says that chess24 has a number of measures in place to ensure the integrity of the games that they don’t want to discuss publicly. But the best detection against cheating, he says, is the hive mind of the chess world, who knows the difference between human and computer-assisted play. The players, who are among the top players on the planet, understand this, and Gustafsson doesn’t think the thought of cheating would even enter their minds. “Because in the chess community we can just smell it when you use an engine, and their reputations wouldn’t be able to take it,” he said. “There’s just no way they would risk it.”
Carlsen is no stranger to playing chess online. He’s a regular on the chess site lichess, where he plays one-minute “bullet” games under the name DrDrunkenstein. He frequently livestreams as he plays, and his shit-talking, both on stream and on Twitter, is legendary. But he’s taking the Magnus Carlsen Invitational seriously. This isn’t just a way to blow off some steam during quarantine. “What we are doing with the Magnus Carlsen Invitational is showing the game can be played online in a serious, professional manner with high stakes. This is arguably the strongest tournament online or offline this year,” Carlsen wrote in an email. “I am definitely not taking it lightly, and I am really looking forward to it.”
Gustafsson agrees that the event has virtually no precedent, both because of the size of the prize fund and the strength of the field. And for that reason, it’s worthy of attention. But he also says it arrives not a minute too soon, during a moment that the world needs something like this to fill the void left by the disappearance of sports. “I was doing commentary on the Candidates and it was sort of keeping me sane. We are all trapped at home with family. For a lot of chess fans it gave us something to watch,” he said. “And I’m grateful to have this tournament because it just gives us something to sweat.”
As FIDE wrestles with the controversy over the aborted Candidates tournament and the challenges to its legitimacy by Radjabov, they may also be watching the Magnus Carlsen Invitational with some trepidation. There is some precedent within international chess for world champions taking matters into their own hands when FIDE displeased them. In 1993, world champion Garry Kasparov grew frustrated with chess’s governing body and decided he would defend his title on his own, independent of FIDE, and broke away to start the Professional Chess Association. That move led to 13 years of a split World Championship, a situation that persisted until Vladimir Kramnik was able to unify the two titles in 2006. The chaos, however, led to a number of changes in how the World Championship would be decided. By 2011, when a young Magnus Carlsen reached the top of the world rankings, he was given an opportunity to play in the Candidates, and, much like Radjabov this year, he turned FIDE down, citing issues with the structure and rules of the event and his desire to play in a round-robin format. Two years later the Candidates was held as a round robin for the first time in 51 years, and Carlsen became the world champion of chess. He hasn’t lost his title since, and he’s riding a world-record streak of 111 games without a loss. He’s used to getting his way, both on the chessboard and off. And he’s used to being right.
When the Magnus Carlsen Invitational begins this weekend, there won’t be competition from other sports leagues, and the game could have an unusually large and captive worldwide audience. “This could be a significant moment for chess,” Carlsen said via email, similar to the boom that occured after the Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky World Championship match that captivated the world. “Hopefully we are on the brink of another one.”
David Hill’s book, The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, is due out in July 2020. His website is davidhillonline.com.