Magnus Carlsen tops the field as the 6th edition of Altibox Norway Chess begins today in Stavanger with the traditional blitz opener. The World Champion suffered a “dark night of the soul” a year ago as he finished second last and even questioned his ability to win games, but two supertournament victories already this year show he’s right back on track. It won’t be easy, though – Vladimir Kramnik and Anish Giri are the only Top 10 players missing, while the bottom seeds are none other than defending champion Levon Aronian and 5-time World Champion Vishy Anand!
Probably the strongest chess tournament of 2018 starts today in Stavanger, with Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson commentating here on chess24.
To watch that broadcast, as last year, you should be a Premium member, so if you’re not already it’s a good time to try it out for just $/€9.99 a month.
As in 2017, the organisers have pulled out all the stops to invite the strongest possible line-up, with only Vladimir Kramnik and Anish Giri missing from the Top 10. There’s no space for a local player, except, of course, for Magnus, and everyone has had time to recharge their batteries after a quiet month for the top stars. Let’s take a quick look at the field:
As we mentioned in the introduction, last year’s Norway Chess was a low moment for Magnus, who lost to Kramnik and Aronian and despite salvaging something by beating Karjakin in the penultimate round still finished in 2nd last place. More shocking were his comments immediately afterwards, which included phrases you never thought you’d hear from arguably the greatest chess player of all time:
I’m not so convinced about my ability to win games… Basically I think I can still play – I’m sure I can still play – I just have to get my confidence back.
Things improved from there onwards, though, with Magnus performing well in rapid and blitz to take the 2018 Grand Chess Tour, winning the Isle of Man Open and then finally ending his long wait for victory in a classical round-robin by claiming the 2018 Tata Steel Masters in a playoff against Anish Giri. You could argue his play was somewhat lacklustre in the GRENKE Chess Classic and Shamkir Chess, but it’s hard to argue with clear 2nd and 1st place in those events. He’s having a good year:
He’s often struggled with the added pressure in his home
supertournament, but as always, you wouldn’t bet against him claiming his 2nd
Norway Chess title... or winning the opening blitz for a 3rd time in 4 years!
Of course while Magnus has the best rating performance of the year it’s Fabiano who’s so far been the man of the year. He allowed himself one dire tournament in Wijk aan Zee, but the victory in the Candidates Tournament made that a complete irrelevance. Fabi would have been forgiven for resting on his laurels after the result in Berlin, but went on to finish ahead of Magnus as he won the GRENKE Chess Classic and then score a brilliant +5 in the US Championship, only to be edged into second place by the result of a lifetime from Sam Shankland.
If the fatigue of playing all those events in a row had taken its toll, the month since the US Championship should have been enough for the challenger to recharge his batteries, not to mention sharpen up his wardrobe...
True, his first game back could have gone better – he lost to Anish Giri in the Bundesliga – but that was just a warm-up, as in fact everything else will be before the match this November.
It perhaps tells you all you need to know about his recent rise that Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is making his debut in Norway Chess this year. In terms of rating performance he was the player of 2017, and he came close to capping that by winning the Candidates Tournament. Will he have lost motivation after missing out there – his play in Shamkir Chess was uninspired – or will he simply continue to play at the 2800 level he seems to have made his new home? We’ll soon find out!
Chinese no. 1 Ding Liren is also making his Norwegian debut after an incredible unbeaten run in classical chess since losing a game to Anish Giri in their match on August 9th last year. That was over 290 days and 70 games ago, with the run already eclipsing the 67-game unbeaten streaks of MVL and Wesley So in recent years. It’s not just the results, but where he’s posted them, with Ding getting to the final of the World Cup and entering the last round of the Candidates Tournament in contention to win it. In the run-up to Norway Chess he finished second in Shamkir, and after beating Ivan Cheparinov on Thursday in the Chinese League he’s climbed above Kramnik to world no. 4 on the live rating list with a 2797.5 rating.
Perhaps jet lag coming from China will be an issue at the start of the tournament, but the milestone of becoming the first Chinese 2800 player is well within reach!
Maxime had to watch from the sidelines after narrowly missing out on Candidates qualification and has had a quiet few months. This year he finished second in Gibraltar after losing a playoff to Aronian and failed to set the world on fire in the GRENKE Chess Classic, but of course he remains a potential winner in Norway. His last big statement was winning the 2017 Sinquefield Cup.
Sergey has by some margin the most interesting Norway Chess record: winning the first two events ahead of Carlsen, controversially not being invited for the 3rd edition, controversially cancelling his invitation after accepting it before he won the 2016 Candidates, and then finishing last in 2017!
He showed his teeth and tenacity to almost snatch the 2018 Candidates Tournament despite a bad start and also showed in Shamkir Chess that even when seemingly unmotivated he can post impressive results – he followed eight instantly forgettable draws with a last-round win to take 3rd place. It’ll be interesting to see how motivated the Russian is this time round in Norway.
Wesley So has had a disappointing year. A decent +3 in the Tata Steel Masters was followed by a disastrous start to the Candidates Tournament. By the midway point he'd given up all World Championship ambitions and decided to show he could draw the world’s best players on demand. In the US Championship after two wins at the start he also drew the last 9 to finish in a distant 3rd place, while a year ago he drew all his games in his first appearance in Norway.
It seems some spark is missing, but at 24 Wesley is in fact the youngest player in the tournament, so there’s time to work things out. One start may be to get some outside help. It seemed he was working alone at the Candidates after splitting with Vladimir Tukmakov, but in Norway he’s already been spotted with a helper:
Perhaps having someone to bounce opening ideas off will sharpen his play.
As you can see, Norway has been a good hunting ground for Hikaru, who while never quite winning has finished “on the podium” on all three of his appearances so far. He’s another player who entered the year without the motivation of the Candidates Tournament. He fell just short in Gibraltar but then posted a thoroughly miserable, by his standards, 50% in the US Championship.
Can he kickstart his season with a stand-out result in Stavanger?
Levon is the only player other than Magnus to have played in all the Norway Chess tournaments so far, and after finishing 2nd in 2016 he claimed the title in 2017 with a stunning four-game sequence where he beat Carlsen, Kramnik and Karjakin. The sky is the limit for the Armenian no. 1, but he may still be feeling groggy after his World Championship dreams again went up in smoke in the Berlin Candidates. This time he didn’t even come close.
His performance in the GRENKE Chess Classic (one win, eight draws), seemed to be about steadying the ship, but with another month to recover he may be ready to light up the stage again.
It’s unfamiliar to see Vishy in the role of last seed, but that says more about the strength of the tournament than anything else. He will, of course, have to defy age once again, since for this edition, in the absence of guys like Kramnik and Topalov, he’s the only “veteran”:
But Vishy has been showing age is just a number for a long time now.
What has changed is his consistency – so for instance this year he’s been brilliant in the World Rapid Championship, good in Wijk aan Zee (+3) and bad in the GRENKE Chess Classic (-2). It’s almost impossible to predict what will happen this time round, but no position from first to last would be a major surprise!
So that’s the cast of players who are going to entertain us for the next couple of weeks. Added to them, of course, is our team of Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson, who will be commentating on the blitz from around 15:00 CEST on Sunday and then on the main event from 16:30 CEST on Monday onwards. Don’t miss the show!