General Nov 8, 2017 | 6:12 PMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen & Ding Liren in Champions Showdown

World Champion Magnus Carlsen will play 30 rapid and blitz games against Chinese no. 1 Ding Liren in a 4-day match in St. Louis as part of the Champions Showdown. The prize fund is $100,000 with $60,000 for the winner, but that’s just one of four matches, as Hikaru Nakamura takes on Veselin Topalov, Fabiano Caruana plays Alexander Grischuk and Wesley So faces Leinier Dominguez. We’ll have live commentary here on chess24 from 20:00 CET (13:00 CDT) on Thursday.

Caruana, Grischuk, Nakamura, Topalov, So, Dominguez, Carlsen & Ding Liren meet in St. Louis | image: official website

More players, more money

The 2016 Champions Showdown was a 4-player tournament featuring Topalov, Caruana, Anand and Nakamura that was somewhat overshadowed by the start of a little match in New York between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin. This year there’s no such distraction, but there are major changes to the format:

  • The number of players has doubled from 4 to 8
  • Instead of playing round-robins they're playing matches against one other player
  • The prize fund has almost tripled: Vishy Anand won $60,000 for finishing 1st in 2016, but this year four of the players will take home that amount, while the losers gain $40,000, the amount Hikaru Nakamura earned for 2nd place in 2016
  • The time controls are shorter, with more games: In 2016 each player played six 60+5 games (Days 1-3), six 15+5 games (Day 4) and 12 3+2 games (Day 5). In 2017 there are just four 30-minute games (Day 1), six 20-minute games (Day 2), eight 10-minute games (Day 3) and finally 12 5-minute games (Day 4).

The biggest change, though, deserves a section of its own:  

No increment or delay

The St. Louis organisers have chosen to try and turn back the tide of modern chess by going back to the old days when your time was fixed and there was no increment or delay after each move. The reasoning is simple – they want to force the players to play faster, with more excitement expected as the players get down to their final seconds and will have to throw the pieces around the board to try and avoid losing on time.

Grandmasters Alejandro Ramirez and Cristian Chirila played three bullet games to illustrate the difference:

It’s likely to prove controversial, though, since there are objective reasons why increments or delays (in the US) have become standard since the technology made it possible. 3-time World Blitz Champion Alexander Grischuk pulled no punches when he was interviewed by Jan Gustafsson during the last round of the European Team Championship on Crete (he’s flying to St. Louis via Athens and New York without returning home to Russia):

Grischuk: It’s a very strange format they chose. All games are without increment, so they want really dirty stuff. First it’s 30 minutes, 20, 10, then 5 and all no increment, so...

Jan: Do you feel increment is good for you, especially when playing blitz?

I just think that when playing live if you don’t want pieces like this (gestures with pieces flying around) it just has to be done. Online you can play without increment, but live it just becomes a dirty game.

You can watch Grischuk’s comments below (we've started the video a little earlier, by popular demand, at the point where Alexander talks about why he "lifetime-banned" himself from Wijk aan Zee!):

The attempt to innovate is admirable and the chances of playing without an increment succeeding are greater than those of the ACP’s ill-fated attempt to revive adjournments, but it’s hard not to agree with Grischuk that it’s much more suited to online play – and many would argue against it even there for top-level chess.

But let’s get to the players and see what we can expect of the matches:

Magnus Carlsen vs. Ding Liren

You can compare any two players using our head-to-head feature

We have to take a look at the World Champion first, but note this match will actually only start on Saturday, while the others start on Thursday. The reason for the strange scheduling is that Magnus is playing in a live simul in Hamburg, Germany for users of his Play Magnus app. You should be able to watch that from 19:00 CET on Thursday here on chess24.  

In terms of chess it goes without saying that Magnus is the favourite for the match, with a 176-point lead in rapid chess and a 73-point lead in blitz. Carlsen has been in good form of late in all types of chess, winning the Paris and Leuven Grand Chess Tour events as well as the Isle of Man Open. On the other hand, Ding Liren is having a breakout year. He came within a rapid game or two of winning the 2017 World Cup and by getting to the final became the first Chinese player ever to qualify for the Candidates Tournament.

The aftermath of a modern classic | photo:

For an illustration of the chess strength of the Chinese no. 1 it’s enough to look at the absolutely stunning game he played against Bai Jinshi in Round 18 of the Chinese League. After being surprised in the opening Liren sacrificed his queen and played the beautiful 20…Rd4!! to trap the white king:

At the time that was tweeted the game was still in progress and soon it was just a question of whether or not Ding Liren might spoil a masterpiece. He didn’t, and in fact it only got better as Black still had all his pieces other than the queen in the final position. The white king and the chess world could only look on in awe…

If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss Jan Gustafsson’s analysis of perhaps the game of the year:

Magnus Carlsen himself has long been an admirer of Ding’s, to the extent that he paid for him to come to a week-long training camp in Doha, Qatar back in 2015.

Prediction: Magnus is even tougher to face at fast time controls than in classical chess and will have too much experience for Ding Liren, but if the score is close before the blitz it might get interesting – Ding Liren has been blitz no. 1 before

Hikaru Nakamura vs. Veselin Topalov

On paper this looks like a mismatch. Veselin is a former World Champion and world no. 1, but speed chess has never been his thing. He famously fell on his sword in the final classical game of his World Championship match against Vishy Anand since he felt he had little chance in rapid and blitz tiebreaks (it didn't help that he'd lost the match of his life to Vladimir Kramnik in rapid tiebreaks in 2006). Veselin is also in semi-retirement, having chosen not to play in FIDE events such as the Grand Prix and the World Cup, and last wielding a pawn in anger at the Paris Grand Chess Tour back in June. He finished second last.

Against him is one of the chess world’s biggest speed chess specialists, Hikaru Nakamura, who is also likely to take exploiting the lack of an increment in his stride.

Prediction: A comfortable victory for Nakamura

Fabiano Caruana vs. Alexander Grischuk

We’ve already heard Grischuk’s doubts about playing without an increment, and he also noted in that interview that he’ll be jetlagged in St. Louis. That’s probably good news for chess fans, though, since it may level the playing field. Fabiano Caruana suffers from the same defect as Topalov that he plays significantly worse at fast time controls – no-one really knows why – though he’s also unpredictable. For instance, Fabi managed to beat Hikaru Nakamura in the 2015 Showdown in St. Louis, coming out on top in rapid and blitz.

Fabi will have been preparing hard and have “home advantage”, but…            

Prediction: Grischuk to edge a close match

Wesley So vs. Leinier Dominguez

This is perhaps the most evenly-balanced of all the matches. Wesley So is of course one of the world’s top players and should have recovered from the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup final now that he nevertheless qualified for the Candidates Tournament. Even if not renowned for speed chess, Wesley has shown the ability to lead or finish towards the top of the Grand Chess Tour rapid and blitz events. At his best he's as solid as he is in his classical games.

Wesley So and Ding Liren will both be in St. Louis, but Wesley won't have the chance to take revenge for his World Cup exit | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

Leinier Dominguez hasn’t been able to play too much of late, with the need to remain in the US for a certain length of time requiring him, for instance, to skip the World Cup. On the other hand, he got experience playing in St. Louis during the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz and the new time controls without increments should play right into his hands. He did, after all, win the World Blitz Championship at a time when there wasn’t an increment, with Grischuk describing him as the fastest player he ever saw in over-the-board chess.

Prediction: Too close to call – expect more draws than in the other matches, with both players likely to play solidly unless the score is badly against them

Who do you think will win the matches?

We won’t have to wait too long to find out, since the action starts at 20:00 CET on Thursday, with commentary from the tried and tested St. Louis team of Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley. In case you’re in St. Louis the games start at 13:00 local time and you may also want to check out the Global Moves: Americans in Chess Olympiads exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame. It opens Friday and runs until April 1st next year.

See also:

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