General Jun 5, 2017 | 9:18 AMby Colin McGourty

7 questions before Altibox Norway Chess 2017

Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson will commentate this evening as Magnus Carlsen heads a field of ten of the world’s top 12 players in the opening blitz tournament of Altibox Norway Chess. As the year’s most anticipated event is about to begin we ask whether it’s the strongest chess tournament of all time and what we can expect to see. Will Magnus get his mojo back, can Wesley So prove he’s the world’s best player or will Sergey Karjakin claim a 3rd Norway Chess title?

The incredible Altibox Norway Chess line-up - check out the official website for interactive statistics on the players

The wait is almost over! At 18:30 CEST this evening (17:30 London, 12:30 New York) the Clarion Hotel Air in Stavanger will host the blitz opener for the 5th edition of Norway Chess. 9 rounds of fast blitz (3 minutes + a 2-second increment per move) will determine the pairings for the main classical event, with the top five players getting the bonus of an extra game with the white pieces. The full schedule looks as follows:

  • June 5, 18:30 CEST | Opening Blitz | Clarion Hotel Air
  • June 6-8, 16:00 CEST | Rounds 1-3 | Clarion Hotel Energy
  • June 9 | REST DAY
  • June 10-12, 16:00 CEST | Rounds 4-6 | Clarion Hotel Energy
  • June 13 | REST DAY
  • June 14-16, 16:00 CEST | Rounds 7-9 | Stavanger Concert Hall

At stake is a €249,000 prize fund, with €70,000 for first place then big drops to €40,000 for second and €25,000 for third. If that isn’t enough to encourage fighting chess there’s also a complete ban on draw offers at the event.

So let’s get straight to the questions:

1. Is this the strongest chess tournament of all time?

When Altibox Norway Chess was announced in February it would have been hard to give anything other than a resounding yes to this question. The organisers pulled off the coup of getting the complete world Top 10 to agree to play in the event, with the first ever 2800 average rating for a 10-player event. What’s changed since? Well, no-one has pulled out, but Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s recent brilliant streak of form has seen him climb to 2800 and world no. 5, while Ding Liren has also squeezed Sergey Karjakin and Anish Giri out of the Top 10. The average rating has dropped slightly to 2797, but I think you’ll still agree the line-up isn’t bad...

So what’s the competition? Well, AVRO 1938, potentially a Candidates Tournament to play a World Championship match against Alexander Alekhine, featured what was considered to be the eight best players of the time. That was the subject of one of Joosep Grent’s articles on the great Paul Keres and for the occasion we added all the games to our broadcast system (click on a result in the table below to go to the game):

AVRO 1938

If we move to modern times and look at ratings then, for instance, the 2014 Sinquefield Cup stands out. Carlsen’s 2877 contributed to a 2802 average rating for a tournament remembered for Fabiano Caruana’s stunning seven-game winning streak:

Sinquefield Cup 2014

However, those events were with eight and six players, while it looks as though the 5th edition of Norway Chess will be the strongest chess tournament ever held for as many as ten players. So perhaps the video isn’t out of place!

The other question is whether having a field completely lacking in outsiders – no qualifier or second local player like Nils Grandelius, Jon Ludwig Hammer or Simen Agdestein – is a good thing for the entertainment value of the event. Will the players cancel themselves out and put caution first? We’ll soon find out!

2. Can Magnus get his mojo back?

Reports of Magnus Carlsen’s decline always require a pinch of salt. He may not have won a tournament since Bilbao 2016, but defending the World Championship title, tying for first on points in both the World Rapid and Blitz Championships and finishing second in the Tata Steel Masters and GRENKE Chess Classic would be considered exceptional for any other player. Magnus is held to other standards, though, and it’s clear that now, after a few years in which he was competing almost only with himself and dreaming of 2900, he’s engaged in a battle with near equals. Will he again be first among equals? Well, good news for his fans may be that after the bad hair month that followed the GRENKE Chess Classic…

…he’s back to his streamlined look:

Will his chess also be back to its sparkling best?

3. Is So currently the world’s best player?

If any of his rivals is giving Magnus sleepless nights just now, it must be Wesley So. He stepped into the vacuum left by Carlsen’s World Championship defence to win the 2016 Sinquefield Cup and London Chess Classic, before crossing the psychological (and chess!) barrier of winning events in which Magnus is also competing by taking the 2017 Tata Steel Masters. This year he also claimed his first US Chess Championship, which is no mean feat given his competition included Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. He remains unflappable in all situations - even, for instance, when trying to explain the Chess World Championship to outsiders!    

Nothing lasts forever! | photo: official website

Perhaps his one recent stumble, a loss to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the first round of Shamkir Chess, only showed how far he’s come. Losing after 67 games unbeaten must have been a shock to the system, but from that moment onwards he didn’t lose again and managed to outplay Vladimir Kramnik and Sergey Karjakin in consecutive games. He pulled off the Carlsen trick of ending a “bad” tournament in second place. Another reason to think Shamkir Chess only made him stronger is that the loss there was largely due to unfamiliarity with a time control that only had increments from move 61. Well, it’s the same in Norway, though it should be noted there’s only 100 minutes, not 120 minutes before move 40. Expect some time trouble incidents in the first few rounds!   

In general, Wesley has thrown down the gauntlet not just to Magnus but to his young rivals such as Caruana, MVL, Nakamura and Giri. They’ve all been overshadowed in the last year and are no doubt plotting how they can turn the tables.  

4. Can Karjakin complete a hat-trick of Norway Chess wins?

Stavanger is arguably the setting in which Sergey Karjakin first staked a strong claim to be a World Championship contender. He spoiled the Norwegian party by winning the first two editions of Norway Chess in 2013 and 2014, finishing half a point ahead of Magnus on both occasions. It’s played two, won two, since in 2015 he controversially missed out on an invitation due to the tournament becoming part of the Grand Chess Tour, while in 2016, now Carlsen’s Challenger, he returned the favour by pulling out at short notice – he was eventually replaced by Li Chao.

How motivated will Karjakin be to achieve a hat-trick? That’s hard to say. The constant media attention and appearances he’s put in since the match in New York may have taken a toll on the Russian star...

...while it’s clear he also has at least one big personal event coming up in the near future!

Still, who wouldn’t want to disappoint Magnus three times in a row on his home soil!   

5. Can the veterans make their mark?

The short answer to this question is of course yes! It was only in 2015 that Norway Chess was won by Veselin Topalov just ahead of Vishy Anand, and 47-year-old Vishy should be well-rested after a chess year that has so far only seen him playing in the Zurich Chess Challenge. We can’t resist giving the following TV appearance by the Indian former World Champion and his family, where you can marvel at how he switches languages mid-sentence:

Vladimir Kramnik, of course, is close to his peak rating at the age of 41, played some of the longest and most interesting games in Shamkir Chess and, well, Alexander Grischuk said it best in a recent interview:

Ex-World Champion Vladimir Kramnik declared that the current Candidates cycle will be the last for him. Do you believe him?

Kramnik has been making such declarations for four cycles in a row. He already told me 13 years ago that he was about to quit. Vladimir is rated no. 4 in the world and is one of the world’s very top chess professionals. He can still play and play.

The next “veteran” after that is Levon Aronian, who at 34 is in fine form, recently finishing the GRENKE Chess Classic 1.5 points ahead of Carlsen and Caruana despite squandering a won position in the final game.

Aronian got back into the mood for winning supertournaments just in time for Norway | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

It’s interesting to note, though, as we did recently when Vladimir Fedoseev crossed 2700 at the age of 22, that for now there’s been a pause in youngsters reaching the top. There’s no-one younger than 22 in the 2700 club apart from Wei Yi, who recently turned 18. The likes of Jan-Krzystof Duda and Vladislav Artemiev are close, but at 19 are perhaps already long shots to reach the very top. The likes of US prodigies 16-year-old Jeffery Xiong or 14-year-old GM-elect Awonder Liang, and then a whole series of even younger talents like 11-year-old Praggnanandhaa, may be the future, but for the moment it seems the “veterans” should be able to hold on at the top for a while longer!

6. How will this event impact the race to the Candidates?

One reason Kramnik will be motivated to play well in Norway Chess is the race to qualify for the 2018 Candidates Tournament by rating. That’s based on the average rating on the 12 FIDE rating lists for 2017, meaning we’re already halfway there. Martin Bennedik’s tracker assumes that a player’s current rating will stay the same for the remaining months of the year. If it did, the qualifiers on rating would be Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana:

So, Wesley 2814
Caruana, Fabiano 2812
Kramnik, Vladimir 2809
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2797
Aronian, Levon 2787
Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar 2787
Nakamura, Hikaru 2786
Anand, Viswanathan 2786
Karjakin, Sergey 2782
Ding Liren 2774
Giri, Anish 2772

As you can see, though, it would require only the smallest of swings for Kramnik to move into the qualifying positions, while bigger swings would be needed for the other contenders. It’s worth noting that So, Caruana and Kramnik all skipped the FIDE Grand Prix series, so if they don’t qualify by rating their only chance to play a match against Magnus Carlsen next year will be if they get to the final of the World Cup in Batumi later this year.

7. Who cares about the World Team Championship?

Seldom has a major chess event been more unfortunately scheduled than the 2017 World Team Championship. The 10-team event with China, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the USA, India, Turkey, Belarus, Norway and Egypt should be one of the highlights of the chess calendar, but the first round in Khanty-Mansiysk is the day after Norway Chess ends, meaning Kramnik, Karjakin, Caruana, Nakamura, So and Carlsen (and Vishy, though it’s a long time since he played for India!) would only have been able to join later. 

The official site already has all the team lists and will feature live video commentary 

In fact they don’t play at all, which is no surprise given it’s not just Norway Chess that clashes. Both the Paris Grand Chess Tour (Carlsen, MVL, So, Nakamura, Caruana and Karjakin will go there almost immediately from Norway) and then the Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour in Leuven (Carlsen, MVL, So, Anand, Aronian, Kramnik and Giri) overlap with the World Team Championship. Of course that means it’s going to be a wonderful month to be a chess fan, as you can see from our 2017 Chess Calendar.   

The bad news is that Peter Svidler will be unavailable for the final three rounds of Altibox Norway Chess since he’s representing Russia in the World Team Championship, but the good news is that before that probably the world’s best chess commentator will be providing exclusive live commentary here on chess24! He’ll be teaming up with his old partner in crime, Jan Gustafsson, who will be commentating live for the duration.

The commentary on the blitz tournament today – starting at 18:30 CEST – will be open to all, while for the main event starting at 16:00 on Tuesday it will be Premium only. If you’re not yet Premium now is a great time to try it for only €/$9.99 a month. Apart from access to the commentary you can of course enjoy hundreds of exclusive videos, unlimited use of the Tactics Trainer, cloud engine analysis and much more. Plus you may get lucky, since during the tournament we’re doubling the length of every 10th new membership purchased.

So all that's left to say is don’t miss the opening blitz tournament live with Svidler and Gustafsson here on chess24!


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