This Christmas our main chess present is going to be the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Qatar, when from 26-30 December Magnus Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin, Vishy Anand and much of the world’s elite will fight for $480,000 and the coveted speed World Championship titles. We look at some of the talking points ahead of the event.
There’s no Qatar Masters this year, but the same organisational team is hosting the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Doha, ensuring we can expect only the highest standards:
The open event has drawn a field of 120 players, while 36 women will also compete separately. The rapid tournament will be held first, with 15 rounds (in the Open) of rapid chess (15+10) split across three days. The format is a Swiss open, which is also used for the two-day blitz tournament (3+2) that follows with 21 rounds.
All the games will be broadcast live, and our broadcasts at chess24 have already been set up so you can browse the player lists and schedules (click the Information tab):
There will also be commentary from the venue by GM Evgenij Miroshnichenko and IM Anna Rudolf:You can find more about the event on the official website. Now let’s get to the talking points!
It’s hard to pick anywhere else to start than with World Champion Magnus Carlsen. In 2014, 400km away in Dubai, he added both the World Rapid and Blitz Championships to his classical crown (see Carlsen has no more worlds to conquer). Then in Berlin in 2015 he defended his rapid championship. He goes into the event in Doha as the top seed in both disciplines and, released from the straitjacket of the World Championship match, we can expect to see him back and hungry as ever in Qatar.
To make sure he could recharge his batteries after the match with Karjakin he went on holiday in Australia and even turned down a chance to kick off a Real Madrid game for a 3rd time, while on receiving his annual Norwegian sportsman of the year awards he made all the right noises about his ambitions. For instance, when asked about Fabiano Caruana breathing down his neck on the rating list, he commented:
It’s a little uncomfortably close now. If you’re going to be World Champion you should preferably also show that you’re the best in the world and be number one on the rankings.
So what could stop Magnus? Well, firstly simply the somewhat random nature of rapid and blitz events, where a run of bad form or an inspired opponent on a particular day can make all the difference. The second possibility is Magnus’ one Achilles’ Heel – his tendency to occasionally suffer emotional meltdowns under pressure. We saw that in the final stages of the 2013 London Candidates, after the loss to Sergey Karjakin in Game 8 of the New York World Championship match, and of course in the World Blitz Championship in Berlin in 2015. Magnus suffered a painful start to the final day with three losses and three draws, and that, and perhaps the burden of playing every game on top board for the benefit of Norwegian TV (as will also happen in Qatar), proved too much. Pens were thrown down and some colloquial Norwegian spoken:
Then a memorable loss to Vassily Ivanchuk saw Magnus end in only 6th place, while Alexander Grischuk emerged triumphant (Grischuk wins 3rd title).
Carlsen will be hoping to avoid such drama in Doha, and if he does there’s every chance he’ll be cashing big checks and standing on the podium a lot. For more on the event from a Carlsen/Norwegian perspective check out Jonathan Tisdall’s Aftermat(c)h.
One of this year’s most entertaining subplots will be to see whether Sergey Karjakin can instantly bounce back after the World Championship tiebreaks and show that he’s not so bad at speed chess after all. He has pedigree, since he spoiled Magnus Carlsen’s tournament when he won the 2012 World Rapid Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan. He’ll be keen to build on the impetus given to chess in Russia after he came so close in New York, but that might also be his undoing. While Magnus was relaxing with kangaroos down under Sergey has been busy with an unending series of media and other public engagements – most recently at the 60th anniversary of the Central Chess Club in Moscow.
There’s a long list of players who could get involved in the fight for medals. Nakamura is back after missing the 2015 event to play in (and win) Millionaire Chess, the likes of Nepomniachtchi and MVL are always dangerous, while there are former rapid and blitz World Champions such as Grischuk, Ivanchuk, Dominguez, Aronian, Mamedyarov and, of course, the once undisputed speed chess king, Vishy Anand.
You might dispute describing him as a dark horse, but while 18-year-old Russian Vladislav Artemiev hasn’t broken into the world chess elite as fast as some expected he’s currently blitz no. 3 after a brilliant run at the Russian team and individual blitz championships earlier this year.
You could add blitz specialist Rauf Mamedov, European Rapid Champion (and current Russian Champion) Alexander Riazantsev, $30,000 Eurasian Cup winner Farrukh Amonatov and, for instance, Wei Yi – the Chinese superstar is so far better known for time trouble at classical chess and lost to Richard Rapport days ago in Armageddon, but we can’t rule out his following in the footsteps of Alexander Grischuk.
On the other hand, the real dark horses are probably players we simply wouldn’t expect. For instance, in Berlin Sergei Zhigalko led the rapid event after two days, while Yuri Vovk led the blitz with only two rounds to go!
Despite a stellar list of players there are some very notable absences. We’re missing Vladimir Kramnik, who won silver in the Berlin blitz and was the only player other than Carlsen to remain unbeaten in the rapid. Other absentees include 2013 World Blitz Champion Le Quang Liem, reigning European Blitz Champion Dmitry Andreikin (see his interview here), current blitz world no. 1 Ding Liren, man of the moment Wesley So and world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana. You might argue Fabiano isn’t as good at speed chess, but he did beat Nakamura in a rapid and blitz match in St. Louis and finish 2nd in the Dubai rapid championship in 2014 (he also skipped 2015 to play in Millionaire Chess).
Yes, by far the most notable missing player in the women’s event is the Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan, who’s the clear leader on the women’s rapid and blitz lists as well. In general the women’s event is much smaller with only 36 players and fewer rounds - 12 in the rapid and 17 in the blitz – while the top prize is $10,000 in each event rather than $40,000 for the open tournament. Nevertheless, it’s still a big pay day for women’s chess and the event promises to be fiercely fought.
Russia’s Kateryna Lagno is the reigning Women’s World Rapid Champion and is second behind Hou Yifan on both the rapid and blitz lists, while Anna Muzychuk is the reigning blitz champion. Valentina Gunina won the world blitz in 2012 and is coming off the back of one of the most remarkable results by a woman in an open field ever after winning the Super Rapidplay in London. World no. 2 Ju Wenjun, no. 4 Humpy Koneru, no. 5 Alexandra Kosteniuk and no. 7 Harika Dronavalli are of course among the other possible challengers.
It’s time for a little Christmas bah humbug People regularly claim that rapid and blitz chess is the future, but for now, at least, the viewing numbers don’t support that. The only rapid and blitz event that did exceptionally well was when Kasparov played against Caruana, Nakamura and So in St. Louis, but even the biggest advocates of speed chess would surely admit that was mainly down to Kasparov's return to the chessboard. Meanwhile the traditional World Championship match with only two players and up to 7-hour games is hugely popular, with the audience growing the longer any game goes on.
You could argue that it’s just because of what’s at stake, but I’d suggest a large part of it is that only having two players and one game a day actually makes the event much more accessible to average chess fans or curious observers – the storyline is clear and there’s time to try and explain/understand what’s going on.
That brings us to the World Rapid and Blitz Championship, which is fun, but of course unwatchable. Alexander Grischuk told Vlad Tkachiev after winning the World Blitz Championship in 2012:
It’s impossible to follow even two games simultaneously. Only one game should be played at any given moment.
They advocate the PCA/Intel Grand Prix knockout system used in the mid-90s, when there were only two players on stage at any moment. In Doha we’ll have 78 games played simultaneously most of the time, with 1260 games to be played in the open blitz tournament alone.
The only real way to handle it is for the TV and commentators to concentrate on a single game, with Magnus Carlsen simplifying the choice for a Norwegian audience. Anyway, that’s enough bah humbug for now, since it should still be hugely enjoyable. Let’s hope for a few more moments like this one!
Merry Christmas from everyone here at chess24!