General Jun 10, 2021 | 6:30 PMby Colin McGourty

Magnus Carlsen plays the 2021 World Cup

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen will play the FIDE World Cup that starts in Sochi, Russia on July 12th, though as one of the Top 50 seeds he’ll join from Round 2 on July 15th. Magnus last played in the 2017 World Cup, when he overpressed and got knocked out by Bu Xiangzhi in Round 3. Although Ian Nepomniachtchi and Wesley So have declined invitations the rest of the world Top 10, including world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana, defending champion Teimour Radjabov and losing finalist Ding Liren, are all set to play.

Can Magnus Carlsen win his 1st World Cup? | photo: David Llada, FIDE

There are two spots in the 2022 Candidates Tournament available to the finalists of the FIDE World Cup, but of course that’s nothing that Magnus Carlsen needs to worry about. Others have objected, just as they did, for instance, when Magnus and Fabiano Caruana both played the 2019 FIDE Grand Swiss.

Hikaru Nakamura and Anish Giri discussed that topic on Hikaru's Twitch channel recently and reflected that the FIDE Grand Prix was likely to become the main way for the top players to try and qualify for the Candidates - since its limited field and multiple events reduces the element of randomness, while already qualified players, such as Magnus Carlsen or whoever has qualified before Spring 2022, will be excluded. 

In Sochi, the World Champion can target the $110,000 top prize, as well as getting some practice playing classical over-the-board chess in the run-up to the World Championship match against Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai in November.

There’s also the sheer challenge - the World Cup is a rare event that Magnus has never won. As a 15-year-old he was beaten in the Last 16 by Evgeny Bareev in 2005, and two years later he lost to Gata Kamsky in the semi-finals. Then there was a decade-long break before, already the World Champion, he crashed out to Bu Xiangzhi in Round 3 of the 2017 World Cup in Tbilisi.

On a day arguably more famous for Anton Kovalyov quitting the World Cup after officials objected to his wearing shorts, Magnus overpushed and lost with White to Bu Xiangzhi. He was unable to win on demand with the black pieces a day later | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

This year’s event takes place in Sochi, Russia, or rather the resort of Krasnaya Polyana in the mountains above the city. 

The tournament will be played in the Galaktika Centre in Krasnaya Polana | photo: FIDE

Magnus, who played his 2014 World Championship match against Vishy Anand in Sochi, is no stranger to the area. 

Round 1 begins on Monday, July 12th, with 156 players competing in 78 matches. A classical game will be played on each of the first two days, and, if tied, the players come back for tiebreaks on the third. The tiebreaks are first two 25+10 games, then, if needed, two 10+10, then two 5+3, and then finally an Armageddon game. One twist this time round is that the final and 3rd place matches also consist of only two classical games, not the previous four.

The other twist is that the big guns, the Top 50 seeds, only join from Round 2, which with 128 players and 64 matches is equivalent to Round 1 of previous World Cups. That’s when Magnus will join the party.

Who’s playing? Actually, it’s easier to say who isn’t, with the following qualifiers not taking part:

  • Ian Nepomniachtchi (replaced by Harikrishna)
  • Wesley So (replaced by Vidit)
  • Richard Rapport (replaced by Alexander Areschenko)
  • Wang Hao (replaced by Bu Xiangzhi)
  • Viswanathan Anand (replaced by Wei Yi)
  • Evgeny Shtembuliak (the U20 World Champion - replaced by Zoltan Almasi)
  • Ju Wenjun (replaced by Dmitry Jakovenko)

The Top 10 seeds look as follows:

PlayerCountryFlagRating (June)Ranking
1Magnus CarlsenNorway2847World no. 1
2Fabiano CaruanaUSA2820World no. 2
3Ding LirenChina2799World no. 3
4Levon AronianArmenia2781World no. 5
5Anish GiriNetherlands2780World no. 6
6Alexander GrischukRussia2776World no. 7
7Shakhriyar MamedyarovAzerbaijan2770World no. 8
8Teimour RadjabovAzerbaijan2765World no. 10
9Maxime Vachier-LagraveFrance2760World no. 12
10Alireza Firouzja Iran2759World no. 13

As you can tell, it's an incredibly strong line-up. At stake is an almost $1.9 million prize fund, while the gruelling tournament will only definitely be over by August 6th, the day on which we could potentially get tiebreaks in the final matches. Alongside the open event there will also be the Women's World Cup with 103 players. Hou Yifan and Humpy Konery don't play, but Women's World Champion Ju Wenjun does.

The pairings were due to be announced today, but with federations struggling to confirm participants the regulations were changed to allow the pairings to be published 20 days rather than a month before the event begins. We may well see more players drop out with the pandemic complicating travel everywhere, but it's sure to an enthralling month of chess!

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