Garry Kasparov has the white pieces versus Sergey Karjakin today as he plays his first officially rated game since he retired 12 years ago. The Beast from Baku is a wildcard for the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, the 4th stage of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour, and will be fighting to take money and tour points off the likes of Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian and Vishy Anand. Garry said at the opening ceremony, “I have no plans to come back, and I have no plans to make such plans”. If true, we better enjoy it while we can, and where better than on the official broadcast platform provided by chess24!
The Sinquefield Cup had barely ended when six of the same players found themselves sitting down for the opening ceremony of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. They were joined by Leinier Dominguez, Le Quang Liem, David Navara and the man everyone was there to see – Garry Kasparov. The whole ceremony was unashamedly about the player many consider the greatest of all time, with first others and then Garry himself talking about his tournament expectations. If you didn’t catch it live you can watch on demand below:
The other purpose of the opening ceremony was to determine the pairings, and you can see them for all 27 rounds using the selector below:
Clicking on a result will open the game with computer analysis and video, while if you hover over a player’s name you’ll see all their individual pairings. For instance, Garry’s rapid pairings looks as follows:
It’s curious to note he plays Black against the four highest (classically) rated players, while he has White in five games against the rest.
The format is exactly the same as in Paris and Leuven, with nine rounds of 25-minute rapid split over the first three days followed by 18 rounds of 5-minute blitz on the next two. Once again we have a delay – 10 seconds per move in rapid and 3 seconds per move in blitz. At stake is $150,000 in prize money, with $37,500 for 1st place, along with up to 13 Grand Chess Tour points, the same amount as MVL got for winning the Sinquefield Cup. The live show will again be a top-quality broadcast featuring the talents of Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley.
So then, the big question everyone is asking – and it seems no top player has avoided it in the last few weeks - is how will Garry do? Let’s look at some of the reasons why he will, and won’t, be his old dominant self in St. Louis:
For most of the Sinquefield Cup participants this is just another tournament. Classical ratings aren’t at stake, the prize fund is healthy but not life-changing and the overall Grand Chess Tour prizes look a long way off:
Never mind trying to catch Magnus, in the best case scenario Aronian and Anand can only get within 6 points of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave before the final event of the tour in London in December, while only 1st or 2nd place matter.
For Garry, meanwhile, this is a huge moment – the culmination of his testing the water in the match against Nigel Short in 2015 and the Ultimate Blitz Challenge against Nakamura, So and Caruana last year. He’s back playing rated games, putting at least part of his reputation on the line and giving a new generation a chance to catch a legend in action. After Garry retired at close to the height of his powers we’ve spent so long wondering how he would do if he was still around… and this is it!
Magnus Carlsen told Maurice Ashely after Round 1 of the Sinquefield Cup:
If everything proceeds logically he probably won’t win, but you can’t rule it out, since he’ll be extremely motivated and probably better prepared than the others.
In the Opening Ceremony Vishy Anand recalled the Garry he knew (and he should know – since 1991 they’ve played almost 80 games, with the classical score a daunting 16:4 in Kasparov’s favour):
There was one Garry Kasparov – 1991-2005 – a very intense guy and so on, then I met him for many years and something was missing, he seemed more relaxed, more at ease, and now I think I’ve got used to the second guy, but I’ll have to remember the first one again! But it should be fun. I’ve spoken to many people and a lot of people are very excited about this. It’ll be a great event.
During his playing career Kasparov almost always entered tournaments as the top dog, intimidating his rivals. The one player who has been doing that in current elite chess, at least until recently, was of course Magnus Carlsen, but the Norwegian played in Paris and Leuven and hence skips St. Louis. The same goes for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wesley So, who finished second in Paris and Leuven respectively. Curiously, if you look at the rapid rating list, the Top 5 are all missing, with the three mentioned joined by Alexander Grischuk and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who were only wild cards in Paris.
The next best player is Hikaru Nakamura, who won the Ultimate Blitz Challenge in 2016 and on paper should be the player to beat.
It may be 12 years without an officially rated game, but apart from the rapid and blitz events in St. Louis in 2015 and 2016 Garry has been involved with top level chess in a variety of different ways. In a Russian article in Soviet Sport Evgeny Tomashevsky commented:
As for knowledge, in his time Kasparov was so far ahead of his era that for another decade a lot of people advanced by following things he’d worked out. And then, after all, he coached Nakamura and Carlsen. And that’s only those we know about. Perhaps he worked with someone else. That means that he’d never fully left chess. He has such huge reserves of knowledge, that with the necessary effort he should be able to live up to his high renown. If Kasparov has the urge to play at the top level he’ll do it.
Kasparov pointed out that in rapid and blitz, “it’s more about your own form”, with whatever rustiness he has in modern chess theory likely to be less of an issue.
We saw in the Ultimate Blitz in 2016 that it was Garry who, particularly on the first day, was posing his opponents real challenges in the opening, playing the kind of rich, principled chess that he did in his prime. There’s no question he’ll have done some serious homework this time as well. As Alexander Grischuk commented:
Kasparov won’t finish first in the tournament, but he will, I hope, perform decently. Precisely because he’s a genius. Knowing Kasparov, as the most serious of chess professionals, I can assure you that he wouldn’t play in the tournament just like that, without preparatory work.
Perhaps it’s not only chess preparation!
In his heyday opponents were sometimes lost from the moment they sat down against Garry, overwhelmed by the force of his personality. Age may have mellowed him slightly and turned his hair grey, but make no mistake, the Beast from Baku is still a fearsome presence at the board.
Some members of later generations are about to find out how it feels to sit opposite him, with the knowledge that one of the biggest chess audiences ever will be watching their every move.
Conspiracy theorists might speculate that the use of the delay time control in the Grand Chess Tour events this year was a cunning attempt to level the playing feel for Garry! Yes, he’s lacking the competitive practice of his rivals, but in private he could practice exclusively with the delay, learning how to use that unfamiliar time control that so bamboozled the players in Paris and Leuven i.e. perhaps he can actually use the delay, since the players’ natural instincts to blitz out moves in time trouble don’t help them when there’s no increment available.
If there was one theme running through the post-Sinquefield Cup interviews it was of fatigue, as 9 intense days of competition with only a single rest day had taken their toll on the players. It’s absolutely understandable for organisational reasons that the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz follows so quickly, but it’s asking a lot of the six players who play both. It might be pointed out that the players who went to Leuven straight after Paris were the ones who did best there, but on the other hand, that may have been because of the practice they got in rapid and blitz (and particularly with the delay time control). Moving from classical to rapid could be trickier.
Age is just a number, but if we’re going to constantly recall that Vishy Anand is now 47 it’s worth remembering Garry is another seven years older. We saw last year in the Ultimate Blitz that he was hanging more pieces than he ever used to, and mistakes are unlikely to go unpunished in this company. The five-day format also makes it a gruelling event, particularly if it starts off badly.
Daniil Dubov was another player giving his opinion in the Russian article:
Kasparov’s opponents feared him – he exuded some kind of charisma – but I think it’ll be tough for him in St. Louis. Genius is all well and good, but you need to work every day. It’s clear that Kasparov never entirely left chess, he helped Nakamura and Carlsen, but nevertheless a lack of practice will tell, at least if his opponents are Top 20 level. He’s often said himself that in blitz and rapid he can still fight, while in classical he wouldn’t have any chances.
Garry commented himself at the opening ceremony:
The early tournament will show whether I can recover some of my instincts, but I cannot even dream of recovering my form of my thirties… it’s as naïve as recovering my hairline.
Hikaru Nakamura claimed on the first day of the Sinquefield Cup that in last year’s Ultimate Blitz So, Caruana and himself “showed [Garry] too much respect and didn’t take it 100% seriously”.
Nakamura has been coming up with a catalogue of doubts about Kasparov’s chances. In another Sinquefield Cup interview he noted:
It’s probably very important that he doesn’t start off badly… when you start off badly it becomes very hard to stay motivated and play well. If Garry gets off to a bad start it’s going to be a long tournament.
Then at the opening ceremony, when he was challenged on some of his statements:
I don’t think I said he couldn’t win. Obviously it’s going to be very interesting. I think unlike most of the events Garry played in when he was a professional player he’s not the clear favourite, that much is certain. I think all of us really want to beat him quite badly, so I think he’s going to have his work cut out for him.
Fabiano Caruana vowed to do better than in the Ultimate Blitz, while Levon Aronian was at his best:
Aronian: I think l have a great admiration for Garry’s chess. I’ve only played him once, in a blitz game in a tournament. It will be special to increase my good score!
Ashley: Let the trash-talking begin...
Aronian: What to do? You know what I’m good at!
Sergey Karjakin talked about it being a dream come true to play against Kasparov, though in that Russian article he was quoted as saying of the legend’s return:
That’s the best news about Kasparov in recent years.
From another chess player or fan that would be a perfectly innocent statement, but it’s hard not to see it in the context of Karjakin and his manager Zangalis having aligned themselves as closely with Vladimir Putin as they can. Kasparov is of course one of the Russian President’s most vehement critics, so it’s hard not to see the opening encounter of the tournament as something of a grudge match.
Everyone has their reason to beat Garry, who summed up:
I will be sort of the most desired prey in the history of chess!
Although Garry Kasparov was impressive in the Ultimate Blitz last year it’s worth remembering he finished 3rd out of 4 players, 4 points ahead of Caruana, but half a point behind So and 1.5 points behind Nakamura.
At the Opening Ceremony Garry talked about how he hasn’t slowed down his globe-trotting schedule to prepare for the event, and was even keeping to routines in St. Louis:
I think it’s an interesting experience that will last only five days, and I’m making a lot of hard preparation. For instance, tonight I’ll be watching the next edition of Game of Thrones!
However much Garry says that he’s just planning to have some fun he knows better than anyone how intense the focus will be and how painful it will be if things go badly. Even at the age of 54 he may still have the most to lose of any of the players – it’s tough to be a legend!
Normally you might be relieved to find two wild cards such as Cuba’s Leinier Dominguez and Vietnam’s Le Quang Liem, who have slightly lower ratings and have never quite broken into the super-elite circuit. In this case, though, there’s little cause for relief, since both players are former World Blitz Champions, with Alexander Grischuk once naming Dominguez as the fastest “offline” blitz player he’s ever seen:
When he became World Blitz Champion in Almaty, without an increment, I could give perpetual check in my game against him, and I had 20 seconds until the end while he had 10. We both started to blitz out moves but my flag fell while he still had 5 seconds left, so in that phase he’d taken 5 seconds to my 20.
That sheer speed may have become less significant now increments/delays are used everywhere, but if you check the rating lists Dominguez is no. 8 in rapid and no. 10 in blitz.
One reason to think Kasparov won’t do so well is that he’s been on a mission to lower expectations. At the opening ceremony we got to witness a new self-deprecatory Garry, with phrases including:
I’m also probably the classical definition of a wild card - I can do very well and I can do very poorly…
Let’s take it easy – don’t be too harsh on me!
But I’ll be kicking and fighting. I still can hardly take it very seriously, because, as you said, 12 years is a long time.
Of course we may choose not to entirely believe in this new chess player. Garry might have pledged his winnings to the charity Chess in Africa, but don’t for one moment expect him to be handing out charity at the board! If he goes down at all, he’ll go down fighting…
So then, all that remains is to get the popcorn ready and switch on to the live show from 20:00 CEST (i.e. whenever the Sinquefield Cup started where you are) on each of the next five days. It’s going to be unmissable!
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