General Oct 10, 2019 | 9:44 AMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen & Caruana return for FIDE Grand Swiss

Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are back to play on the Isle of Man after missing the 2018 event while preparing for their World Chess Championship match. The world numbers 1 and 2 are the clear top seeds for the FIDE Grand Swiss after six of the Top 10 declined to play, making world numbers 8 and 9 Wesley So and Vishy Anand the favourites to clinch the single 2020 Candidates Tournament place on offer. It’s not going to be easy, though - with 110 players rated above 2600 this is no open!

Magnus Carlsen picks the white pieces at the opening ceremony | photo: John Saunders, official website

The 2019 FIDE Grand Swiss starts at 16:00 CEST on Thursday 10th October and you can follow the games live here on chess24. Magnus Carlsen drew White at Wednesday’s opening ceremony and plays Ukrainian GM Yuriy Kuzubov in Round 1. Here are the full pairings, which as you can see are already packed with exciting match-ups:

All change on the Isle of Man

Although this looks a lot like the super-strong open we’ve seen on the Isle of Man for the last five years, some things are very different this year. The venue has changed from the old one on Douglas’ seaside promenade to the COMIS Hotel and Golf Resort a 5-minute drive inland, while instead of the usual 9 rounds we now have 11. The main change, however, is the inclusion of “FIDE” in the title, since the tournament has now become a qualifying event for the 2020 Candidates Tournament. Only the winner makes it, with the proviso that it might be enough to finish 3rd since Fabiano Caruana is already qualified for the Candidates and Magnus of course won’t play in an event to choose his challenger.

Fabiano Caruana can also enjoy the event without worrying about the Candidates | photo: John Saunders, official website

Should Magnus and Fabiano be able to play?

There’s been some debate over whether Magnus Carlsen, who won in 2017, or Fabiano Caruana, who lost out in a tiebreak in 2016 to Pavel Eljanov, should be able to play in this year’s event. While not involved in the race for the Candidates Tournament themselves they’re likely to have a big impact on who will gain that qualifying spot. Magnus himself doesn’t think he should be able to play, as he told Jan Gustafsson during commentary on the 2nd round of the 2019 World Cup:

Magnus: For the life of me I cannot figure out why I’m allowed to play in it!

Jan: Do you feel you shouldn’t be allowed in the World Cup and the Isle of Man and tournaments where you can qualify for playing you?

Magnus: Yeah, I think it’s pretty obvious that I shouldn’t, but I don’t have any morals, so it’s ok!

Russian Grandmaster Nikita Vitiugov, who is also playing on the Isle of Man, shared that view in a recent interview when he was asked whether the Candidates place was a serious motivation:

As with the World Cup, it’s impossible to predict the winner of a Swiss tournament. A place in the Candidates Tournament is, of course, a serious motivation, though it’s not entirely clear (I think in sporting terms it’s wrong) why the World Champion Carlsen and Candidates Tournament participant Fabiano Caruana will play. They definitely don’t need a ticket to Yekaterinburg, but they can seriously affect the tournament standings.

On the other hand, for chess fans it is of course much more interesting to have the world’s best players involved – and for many the tournament will be more about seeing how the World Champion performs than the somewhat arcane path to a potential World Championship match. This is also nothing new – Magnus played in the 2017 World Cup and could have played this year, while there’s no way of stopping him, for instance, interfering with the rating qualification spot for the Candidates Tournament.

Where are the other top players?

It seems odd to ask of a tournament that’s so strong, but despite the Candidates Tournament place now on offer we haven’t seen an increase in participation by the world’s very best players. In 2018, without Magnus and Fabiano, there were 20 players rated 2700 or above. This year there are 21. In 2018 there were six of the Top 10 (Aronian, Giri, MVL, Kramnik, So and Anand), this year there are four (Carlsen, Caruana, So and Anand).

Vishy Anand is second seed, if we're talking Candidates qualification | photo: John Saunders, official website

The following list shows which of the 2700+ players on the October FIDE rating list are playing (in bold), and which aren’t:  

1. Magnus Carlsen [not in the Candidates race]
2. Fabiano Caruana
[not in the Candidates race]

3. Ding Liren
4. Anish Giri
5. Ian Nepomniachtchi
6. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
7. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

8. Wesley So [no. 1 seed for the Candidates]
9. Vishy Anand

10. Leinier Dominguez

11. Yu Yangyi [3]
12. Sergey Karjakin
13. Alexander Grischuk
14. Levon Aronian

15. Teimour Radjabov
16. Vladimir Kramnik
17. Richard Rapport

18. Harikrishna [7]
19. Radek Wojtaszek
20. Vladislav Artemiev
21. Hikaru Nakamura

22. Dmitry Andreikin
23. Veselin Topalov
24. Jan-Krzysztof Duda

25. Nikita Vitiugov [11]
26. Peter Svidler [12]
27. Wang Hao
28. Bu Xiangzhi

29. Wei Yi
30. Evgeny Tomashevsky

31. Vidit [15]

32. David Navara

33. Maxim Matlakov [16]
34. Jeffery Xiong
35. Le Quang Liem
36. Sam Shankland

There are of course multiple reasons players could choose to skip the tournament. The crazy schedule this year, and in particular the overlapping Grand Chess Tour and FIDE Grand Prix, has meant that players will take any chance, and even make some sacrifices, to prevent exhaustion. For a player such as Ding Liren, who was already almost certain to qualify for the Candidates by rating before he qualified through the World Cup, it was a no brainer to skip the Isle of Man event, while players such as Ian Nepomniachtchi and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov are betting on Candidates qualification through the FIDE Grand Prix.

Sam Shankland has something to show Peter Leko and Paco Vallejo | photo: John Saunders, official website

It may also have been the case that players assumed the Grand Swiss would be so strong that their qualification prospects would be too small to merit the investment of time and energy required. The weakening of the top of the event may have changed the calculations somewhat, but perhaps too late for some plans to be altered.

There’s also been some very public controversy!

The case of Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

When Ding Liren reached the final of the 2019 World Cup it was great news for Anish Giri, who suddenly became the clear frontrunner to qualify for the 2020 Candidates Tournament by rating, ahead of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Shortly afterwards it was announced that Giri had dropped out of the Isle of Man. The assumption, and this wasn’t challenged by Anish, was that the Dutch no. 1 had decided the risks to his rating, and therefore Candidates qualification, weren’t worth the rewards of playing. That seemed a reasonable practical decision, and players drop out of opens all the time, but MVL pointed out it wasn’t so simple for an official event:

What is a “satisfactory reason”, however? Is “fatigue” enough, or wanting to concentrate on another event such as the European Team Championship, or, after all, wanting to maximise your Candidates qualification chances? Giri was also far from the only player to drop out, with world no. 10 Leinier Dominguez and even FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky among those to withdraw. The regulations also only mention that a player “could” be sanctioned.

There are other good reasons to skip a chess tournament

When Maxime Vachier-Lagrave appeared on a Banter Blitz Cup broadcast after flying back from Khanty-Mansiysk to Paris he mentioned that there should at least be some financial penalties for late withdrawal, but he also stated that he’s still willing to fight to qualify for the Candidates by rating – as well, of course, as through the Grand Prix series.

So is this year’s Isle of Man event weak?

Absolutely not! The big difference this year comes in the 2700-2600 rating range. In 2018 there were 21 players in that awkward spot where they're very strong but struggle to have their accommodation or travel paid for by a tournament and can’t be confident their prize money will cover expenses. This year, with FIDE footing the bill for 100 players invited based on rating, there are now 89 players in that range, with 110 of the 154 players rated above 2600.

That means that it’s not entirely clear if Swiss Open specialists, such as Hikaru Nakamura and arguably Vladislav Artemiev, who have performed so well in Gibraltar, will find it a happy hunting ground. The strong opposition from the early rounds makes it likely we’ll get a lot of draws, with a steady performance likely to keep players in contention towards the end. Of course when it later becomes clear what’s required we’re likely to see more all-or-nothing chess!

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Levon Aronian is another player who's shown he can win strong Swiss events

Who should we look out for?

The obvious tournament favourite is Magnus Carlsen, with the extra two rounds boosting the chances of a player known for slow starts and out-lasting opponents towards the finish. As well as winning, if he can avoid losing he’ll have set a new record against absolutely top class opposition:

Then, as you go down the list, you could make a good argument for almost any player in the Top 15 winning, while on a very good day anyone in the Top 100 and beyond could be in with a chance!

In short, it’s an event where the narrative is impossible to guess at until it begins, but what’s certain is there are a lot of exciting players to watch. That includes, of course, some young stars. Alireza Firouzja doesn’t play, but we have the likes of Jeffery Xiong, Parham Maghsoodloo, Andrey Esipenko, Nihal Sarin, Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Gukesh and Vincent Keymer to look forward to.

Could one of the young stars take a short cut to the Candidates? | photo: John Saunders, official website

What else is at stake?

Apart from Candidates qualification there is of course a healthy prize fund, with a total of $432,500 for the Grand Swiss, including $70,000 for 1st place. There’s also $33,000 in women’s prizes, with $10,000 for the top-placed woman. That’s meant that although they’re very unlikely to challenge for the Candidates Tournament we still have a healthy female contingent (invited by the organisers), including Harika Dronavalli, Elisabeth Paehtz and defending champion Alina Kashlinskaya, who is joined again by her husband and overall 2018 Champion Radek Wojtaszek.

Jorden van Foreest & Erwin l'Ami chatted with a promising young Norwegian talent... | photo: John Saunders, official website

All that remains is to tune into the live action here on chess24 from 16:00 CEST!

See also:

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