Features Jun 1, 2014 | 1:02 PMby Colin McGourty

Norway Chess 2014 preview

The wait is almost over. No Logo Norway Chess 2014 has strong claims to be the chess event of the year, and starts on Monday with a blitz tournament. It features the world’s top four players, 9 of the top 14, and even with the inclusion of local hero Simon Agdestein (2628) exceeds the rating average of the Candidates Tournament. chess24 will be providing live commentary by GM Jan Gustafsson and IM Lawrence Trent, and in this preview we look at the chances of the players.

A final round draw between world numbers 1 and 2 Carlsen and Aronian meant Sergey Karjakin won last year's Norway Chess tournament | photo: official website 

This year’s Tal Memorial remains in doubt, but luckily for chess fans Norway Chess has taken on its mantle by simply inviting the top players on the rating list – always nice, if you can afford it! Although Viswanathan Anand and Hikaru Nakamura declined their invitations this year, the inclusion of Russian ex-World Champion Vladimir Kramnik – a great rival especially of Magnus Carlsen – will go a long way to filling that gap.

As in the inaugural 2013 event the tournament will switch between different venues in the Stavanger region of southwest Norway. Seven of the nine rounds take place in the Hotel Scandic Stavanger Forus, one in a school in Sandnes and another in a factory in Bryne. 

Sør Hidle island will provide a tranquil setting for Monday's blitz mayhem! | photo: Norway Chess Facebook page 

The most spectacular venue, Flor & Fjære on Sør Hidle island in the middle of a fjord, is this year reserved for the opening blitz tournament to determine the seedings for the main tournament.

The pairings of the 9-round blitz tournament are already known (in full here), with Round 1 featuring:

Round 1Simen Agdestein – Vladimir Kramnik
Veselin Topalov – Magnus Carlsen
Anish Giri – Sergey Karjakin
Alexander Grischuk – Fabian Caruana
Levon Aronian – Peter Svidler

The schedule involves two rest days for the players:

Monday02.06.201417.00BlitzFlor and Fjære – closed event
Tuesday03.06.201415.301st roundHotel Scandic Stavanger Forus
Wednesday04.06.201415.302nd roundHotel Scandic Stavanger Forus
Thursday05.06.201415.303rd roundHotel Scandic Stavanger Forus
Friday06.06.201415.30School tournamentVitenfabrikken, Sandnes
Saturday07.06.201415.304th roundVågen VGS, Sandnes
Sunday08.06.201415.305th roundHotel Scandic Stavanger Forus
Monday09.06.201415.306th roundAarbakke fabrikkhall, Bryne
Tuesday10.06.201415.307th roundHotel Scandic Stavanger Forus
Wednesday11.06.201415.30Celebrity tournamentHall Toll, Stavanger
Thursday12.06.201415.308th roundHotel Scandic Stavanger Forus
Friday13.06.201414.309th roundHotel Scandic Stavanger Forus

The sponsor of this year’s event is Unibet, with the “No Logo” in the title of the event referring to the fact that non-state-owned betting companies aren’t allowed to advertise publicly in Norway. Still, that hasn’t stopped the sponsors offering odds on the event, and even allowing live betting on Carlsen's games. Their current odds are as follows:

Let’s take a look at the players one by one (ratings are from the June 1st FIDE rating list):

Magnus Carlsen, Norway: 2881, world no. 1

Betting odds: 1.75

Recent form and activities: Carlsen has been taking things easy since claiming the World Championship in November, but his two outings this year have seen him win the Zurich Chess Challenge and the Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, the latter despite a mid-tournament “wobble” with two consecutive losses.

The 2013 tournament featured an iconic image with a single face visible | photo: Norway Chess Facebook page

Off the board Carlsen has been as active as ever, making an appearance in Moscow, playing a red masked man (and Norway) in an Oslo shopping centre and visiting New York.

Why he’ll win: Because that’s what he does… Magnus has a 100-point ratings gap ahead of most of the field and has won super-tournaments with awesome consistency for the last five years. Would you bet against him?

Why he won’t: Sergey Karjakin edged him out into second place in both the blitz and classical tournaments last year. Perhaps even Carlsen isn’t immune to the added pressure of playing at home.

Quotes: In a pre-tournament interview in the Norwegian tournament programme distributed to 40,000 people in the Stavanger region, Magnus explained that when growing up he was more interested in playing stronger opposition than in winning tournaments:

I wanted to develop myself and become better, but there was a point when I found I was playing against the best in the world, so I had to start beating them. There was no higher level to come.

Now the focus is clear:

Before every tournament I just want to win. My first thought after the World Cup match was how much fun it was going to be to play a World Championship match again next time.

He still sees room for improvement:

My greatest strength is perhaps what I feel it has been for a long time, namely that I have a pretty good psyche. I constantly adapt to new situations without letting what happened previously in a game or event affect me much. I have a good intuition and calculate well - perhaps better than many people give me credit for, and that's one of the reasons I make very few tactical errors. But clearly there are still some things I feel I don’t understand, both positional patterns and tactical themes that I underestimate, especially when tired.

Curiously, Aronian recently commented that he didn’t think the young Carlsen would develop into a top player:

To be honest, I never liked his style. He tried more to put pressure on his opponent mentally and didn’t have a particular chess style. Therefore I thought he’d be unable to play against strong players, but he’s proven he can change and play a different chess.

Levon Aronian, Armenia: 2815, world no. 2

Betting odds: 6

Recent form and activities: Winning Wijk aan Zee by 1.5 points despite losing in the last round illustrated just how strong Aronian can be, but his 6th place at the Candidates Tournament was another hugely disappointing performance just when it mattered most.

Aronian did some unusual preparation for Norway Chess by playing Zurich Chess Challenge sponsor Oleg Skvortsov in a chess and table tennis match:

Levon won 4:3 and later clarified that he won the chess segment 4:0 and lost the ping pong 3:0!

Why he’ll win: Carlsen has often been quoted as considering Levon his main rival, and in form the Armenian is a force to reckon with. Wijk was also a long tournament involving more than one venue, which might make it a useful dry run for Norway.

Why he won’t: Armenia’s pride and joy is unpredictable. Last year he finished 5th after a quiet event – 2 wins, 6 draws, 1 loss.

Quotes: In the same interview quoted above Carlsen explained why he felt Aronian was more dangerous for him than Kramnik:

Aronian applies a bit more pressure. He’s very well-prepared and very good in the opening and just a little better in defence – he’ll find more resources in difficult positions.

Aronian was also interviewed for the tournament programme and noted that when growing up he thought he’d work as a psychologist... before he realised it was tougher than chess. He characterised himself as follows:

I think I'm ambitious, but I don’t think I deserve to be known as hard-working. I rely a lot more on my instincts than logic when taking decisions.

Fabiano Caruana, Italy: 2791, world no. 4

Betting odds: 8

Recent form and activities: Caruana had another poor Wijk aan Zee (by his standards), and mixed fortunes in the Zurich Chess Challenge and Shamkir Tournaments, though in both the latter events he only narrowly finished second behind Magnus Carlsen.

Why he’ll win: Caruana beat the World Champion for a second time in a year in Shamkir and has been showing the same talent as Carlsen for grinding out stellar tournament results almost regardless of his form. 

Why he won’t: Carlsen still does it better, for now.

Quotes: Caruana was also interviewed for the tournament programme, outlining his ambitions:

Becoming World Champion is the ultimate in chess. I think I have the potential to challenge Magnus Carlsen and become World Champion, but it's a difficult road to get there. I just have to keep doing hard and targeted work.

His coach Vladimir Chuchelov perhaps added a necessary correction to the image of Caruana as a player who achieves what he does based solely on hard-work:

After working with him for several years, I can say that he definitely has a greater talent than work ethic. His talent is immense, but I have to make him a hard-working player. Then he’s the complete deal.

Vladimir Kramnik, Russia: 2783, world no. 6

Betting odds: 12.5

Recent form and activities: Kramnik has taken a break since the Candidates Tournament, which despite some fine games was a huge disappointment for the Russian overall. Before that he won the 2013 World Cup.

Why he’ll win: The bigger the challenge, the greater Kramnik’s motivation, and however unconcerned he claims to be about winning or losing, finishing ahead of Carlsen on the Norwegian’s home turf would certainly be sweet. He also has good memories of Norway – he sailed to victory in the 2013 World Cup in Tromsø.  

As well as winning the 2013 World Cup Kramnik also found a little time to do some fishing in Tromsø | photo: Paul Truong, World Cup website

Why he won’t: With age has come inconsistency for Kramnik, and his more aggressive style since losing the World Championship title only increases the range of possible results. He also faces two ordeals – a grudge game against Veselin Topalov and changing venues. Kramnik appears even less of a fan than most players of changing his routine during a tournament.

Quotes: In a recent interview Kramnik claimed his success surprised him given he wasn’t competitive at heart:

Actually I don’t care so much about competing — I don’t care about being the best. For me it’s never personal, the game of chess. Most of them, like Magnus, Garry, Karpov, were crazy about winning in anything they were doing. Even if they played cards or whatever you could see that they really badly wanted to win. I really never cared so much. I like tennis or football, but when I play I don’t care whether I win or not. I just enjoy playing.

In his interview for the Norway Chess programme Carlsen gave his characterisation of Kramnik:

Kramnik is one of those who has beaten me before, and he’s very self-confident and arrogant. He thinks he can beat everyone, a bit like me. Using football terminology, he's good on the ball. He's good if he gets pressure from the opening and an initiative. When he’s under pressure himself he’s nowhere near as good.

Alexander Grischuk, Russia: 2792, world no. 3

Betting odds: 15

Recent form and activities: After failing to receive the Russian wild card for the Candidates Tournament Grischuk has had a prolonged sabbatical, though when he returned to the board for the Russian Team Championship a spectacular 6/7 catapulted him to a career high no. 3 on the rating list.

Why he’ll win: He’s not no.3 in the world for nothing and combines deep chess understanding with nerves of steel.

Why he won’t: Grischuk’s super tournament CV is light on victories, and he’s admitted himself that he often struggles to motivate himself for such closed events – although he did note that it helps when the prize fund is larger than the appearance fees, as it is in Norway Chess.

Quotes: In a recent interview Grischuk commented on what allowed Magnus Carlsen to dominate chess:

The guy simply plays chess well. It seems to me that in such cases people are inclined to look for some supernatural explanation, although the simplest explanation is also the most appropriate: the guy simply plays chess well.

Sergey Karjakin, Russia: 2771, world no. 9

Betting odds: 15

Recent form and activities: Karjakin’s 2014 chess marathon featured Wijk aan Zee, the Candidates, the Russian Team Championship and Shamkir, and he starred when it mattered most – dominating the second half of the Candidates Tournament to come closest to challenging Anand.

He then married his girlfriend Galiya and went on honeymoon to Qatar!

Why he’ll win: He won the inaugural 2013 Norway Chess super tournament – perhaps his greatest tournament result to date. 

Why he won’t: It remains to be seen if his honeymoon was the ideal preparation for facing nine rounds against the world’s best players. There’s also the issue of draws – as Carlsen alludes to in his preview of Norway Chess Karjakin's drawing streak has reached epic proportions, standing at 16 games in a row. He needs to break it to win Norway Chess again.

Quotes: Magnus Carlsen notes “I think he’s pretty proud of his streak!” when describing Karjakin’s recent draws. He also talks about the tournament as a whole:

Veselin Topalov, Bulgaria: 2772, world no. 8

Betting odds: 18

Recent form and activities: Topalov’s only tournament in the last 5 months was the Candidates, and bottom place with four losses was an uninspiring outcome. He remains in the same state of semi-retirement he’s been in since he lost his World Championship battle with Anand in 2010.

Why he’ll win: Topalov is one of those players with the potential to blow away the field by posting an unmatchable +4/5 result. His lack of games may have given him more time to focus on opening preparation, and even in the Candidates he gained excellent positions that he would previously have converted into full points.

Why he won’t: Besides question marks over Topalov’s form he also has an aversion to speed chess, and a repeat of last year’s last-place misery in the blitz tournament (2 draws, 7 losses) is unlikely to help his mood. He struggles, as do many, against Carlsen, with the last five decisive classical games between them going the Norwegian’s way. 

Quotes: Topalov summed up his recent failure in the Candidates Tournament as follows:

Overall I was well-prepared but I played very badly. There were games where I blundered on almost every move, but overall it seems I lacked a little energy. The ability to make draws isn’t enough in this tournament. If I wanted to make 50% then I would have managed, but the idea of this tournament is totally different.

Peter Svidler, Russia: 2753, world no. 13

Betting odds: 20

Recent form and activities: Svidler had his moments in the Candidates Tournament and provided a lot of entertainment, but couldn’t, of course, be satisfied with finishing in second last place. He failed to shine in the Russian Team Championship but was back in sparkling form for the Shamkir Chess Tournament… in front of the camera in the chess24 studio!

Lawrence Trent and Peter Svidler commentate on Shamkir Chess for chess24

Why he’ll win: Svidler 2.0 in recent years has shaken off the drawing habit that used to make him an unlikely tournament victor, greatly increasing his chances of winning such major events. He also has a plus score against Carlsen, and beat eventual winner Karjakin on the way to a highly respectable +1 in last year's event.

Why he won’t: Playing risky chess and avoiding draws is, of course, a double-edged sword!

Quotes: Jan Gustafsson recently asked Svidler whether he was excited or nervous about the upcoming Norway Chess tournament:

A bit of both, clearly, but it's exactly the kind of tournament I’ve loved throughout my career, so more excited than worried. I even did some work!

Anish Giri, Netherlands: 2752, world no. 14

Betting odds: 25

Recent form and activities: Giri’s last major event was the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, when he finished in second place with an unbeaten +2. Since then he’s been edging towards the Top 10 with occasional league appearances, while the 19-year-old has had time to work on his game since finally finishing school.

Why he’ll win: As Wijk aan Zee showed, Giri is capable of performing solidly in top company, and the stronger the tournament the more important that becomes. He’s also the only player in the field never to have lost to Magnus Carlsen. In fact he won their first ever classical game – a 22-move miniature with the black pieces in Tata Steel 2011 – and drew the next four. He can even beat the virtual Magnus:

Why he won’t: Solid draws alone won’t enable Giri to fulfil his full potential and start winning such events. At some stage he needs to take risks, which could go either way.

Quotes: At the press conference where Giri was named as the final Norway Chess participant Carlsen was quoted as saying:

I’m a bit disappointed. Well, Giri is a good player and a nice guy, but he also has an annoying tendency to beat me and not respect my authority. So that I don’t like! He’s well-prepared and the fact that he doesn’t have any respect for authority is an advantage for him. His self-confidence is high, sometimes rightly so, sometimes not. I really want to beat him, as I’ve never beaten him in classical chess. I haven’t faced him many times either, but he’s clearly one I want to beat.

Simen Agdestein, Norway: 2628, world no. 160

Betting odds: 150

Recent form and activities: Agdestein defeated Jon-Ludvig Hammer in a televised match to decide on the second local victim participant of Norway Chess. Apart from that his chess preparation has mainly involved playing open tournaments such as Llucmajor

Agdestein's last competitive chess experience before sitting down against Kramnik on Monday was losing to Aleksander Delchev in the last round of the Llucmajor Open | photo: Patricia Claros 

Although he has been able to enjoy one of the luxuries of players on the elite circuit:

Why he’ll win: He was once no. 16 in the world and knows his way around the venues after commentating there last year. Plus:

Why he won’t: Outsiders in super tournaments tend to be looked on the way wildebeest are by cheetahs on the plains of the Serengeti – and seldom has there been such a clear outsider in a tournament of this strength. Simen’s realistic aim is perhaps to beat Hammer’s 1.5/9 last year.

Quotes: Agdestein was unsure about playing despite winning the playoff against Hammer, but explained what changed his mind:

I think I will accept the invitation. I had my doubts, but it’ll be fun to test myself. I don’t like losing chess games and I’m so old that I don’t have any respect for Caruana and other 21-year-olds. Caruana and Magnus are human, so I’m not afraid (smiles).

The average rating of all the players without Agdestein is 2790, while with him the tournament is still a highly respectable 2773.8.

Don’t miss the action, which starts with a blitz tournament on Monday 2nd June at 5pm in Norway (11am New York, 4pm London). We'll bring you live commentary from GM Jan Gustafsson and IM Lawrence Trent!

And perhaps one or two other grandmasters will be passing by:

See also:

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