General Aug 9, 2020 | 8:00 AMby Leon Watson

How chess24 moved quickly when chess faced COVID checkmate: Story of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns started around the world, the timing couldn’t have been worse for chess.

The game’s top stars - barring Magnus Carlsen, of course - were deep in competition at the Candidates, the flagship final play-off to find the next World Championship challenger.

It prompted a difficult question: should the Candidates be stopped? FIDE, the world governing body of chess, said no. Even as the highest-profile sporting events around the world started shutting down FIDE decided to forge ahead.

Russia, where the event was being held, had not yet imposed a lockdown and, for a few days, the Candidates was the only major international sporting event taking place anywhere in the world. That was despite growing concern among some of the competitors that it could be a mistake.

FIDE did bring in new measures in an effort to keep players and spectators safe - and who can forget Grischuk and Nepomniachtchi bumping elbows?

But it was not enough.

Eventually, it became clear that Russia was not immune to pressure and it was about to impose a flight ban. The Candidates, which had been a blessed relief to some during lockdown, had to stop and FIDE was forced to relent.

That happened in Round 7 - exactly half-way through - and it left the competition and its players in an awkward state of limbo going forward and, more immediately, in danger of being left stranded in Yekaterinburg if they couldn’t leave quickly.

Players like Anish Giri, from the Netherlands, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, from France, had to hot-foot it out of the country quickly to get back to their family homes.

Daniil Dubov, a Russian grandmaster, decided it was safer to stay in a fancy hotel in Yekaterinburg than leave to go home to Moscow. He ended up staying for months.

Meanwhile, grassroots chess just about everywhere was also cancelled or postponed. It left the immediate future for competitive chess - not just at the elite level - looking very uncertain, as it did with practically every other sport like football, cricket, Formula 1.

In fact, for chess, it looked particularly bleak given the way the game takes place over the board with players in close proximity indoors for long periods of time - pretty much the worst conditions when faced with coronavirus.

And, of course, there was the factor that the typical age demographic that plays in lower-level tournaments is generally older and deemed more in danger from it.

That is when chess24 in partnership with Carlsen resolved to do something. Chess had to fight back and use its trump card - the ability to play online.

We were not alone -, the Saint Louis Chess Club and Lichess had similar thoughts and separately swung into action too. FIDE as well started to take the online game much more seriously and explore ideas. But chess24 was thinking big, really big. It wanted to break new ground.

A summer of chess takes shape

Feelers went out to the top players - including those in the Candidates - about the viability of running a new elite tournament online for fans and players as an alternative to the Candidates while lockdown was on and, potentially, beyond.

The response was overwhelmingly positive and chess24’s team got to work putting together the inaugural Magnus Carlsen Invitational from scratch.

The idea was to bring all the competitiveness and prestige of a tournament like the Candidates online, with big prize money, big players, and a professional attitude.

By the end of the summer we'd become very familiar with where the players were playing! | photo: Arne Horvei

Carlsen was deeply involved in devising the new rapid chess format for games and matches. In fact, it was based on a format he had previously suggested for the World Championship, with a few tweaks made.

Contracts were drawn up, sent out, and signed. A production team put together, branding of the new event finalised and a publicity machine put in motion. All this was done at break-neck speed.

The chess24 team also had to put together all the tournament regulations - including new, never-tried-before anti-cheating safeguards. Equipment for the players, such as webcams so viewers could see them play, had to be sourced and sent out around the world.

While this was going on, chess24’s Banter Blitz Cup was concluding and in the final - as most chess fans will know - there was a big shock when 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja beat Carlsen.

Alireza Firouzja en route to beating Carlsen

It was just the tonic we needed as news of Firouzja’s triumph spread worldwide and it showed online chess could be taken seriously - even Banter Blitz (!) - and could also make headlines. 

Nakamura, Caruana, Nepomniachtchi, Giri, MVL and the young man of the moment Firouzja were all signed up for the Magnus Carlsen Invitational and ready to start on April 18. A record prize pot for an online tournament was also set at $250,000. 

Coming soon! The Magnus Carlsen Invitational

From idea to implementation, this happened in three weeks. On April 18 we went live and from then on the interest just soared. The tournament went out live on the national TV2 station in Norway, while there were also broadcasts in Germany, Russia, Spain, and the Czech Republic.

Our streams also hit record highs with the number of viewers hitting a peak of 115,000 during the final between Carlsen and Nakamura. Tens of thousands watched elsewhere.

One of the highlights was seeing Carlsen lose a match to long-time rival Giri, which prompted this reaction:

With all TV and internet figures combined, an estimated 10 million people had eyeballs on the Magnus Carlsen Invitational at some point during the event - a staggering number for chess. Needless to say, Carlsen won his own event - but the face-off with Nakamura was just what the fans wanted.

There were a few bumps in the road - viewers may remember the initial broadcasts having to overcome some annoying technical problems as combining so many people from locations all around the world proved a challenge.

But behind the scenes, our producers were listening and worked extremely hard to get it right. Every day the broadcast improved.

Two days after the "MCI" finished FIDE and combined to host another online event, the FIDE Online Nations Cup, a team tournament won by China. It also had some big stars but was missing Carlsen.

Magnus was unstoppable

The World Champion was in action however when chess24 teamed up with FIDE to put on the FIDE Online Steinitz Memorial.

The event consisted of two tournaments: the Women's Online Steinitz Memorial and the Online Steinitz Memorial. Carlsen overcame an in-form Dubov in the Open final while Kateryna Lagno won the women's event.

Lagno revealed in her interview afterward that she had to contend with a new distraction as she battled for the $3,000 top prize in the final:

Chess on the internet was clearly booming and the success of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational spurred chess24 on to expand the Norwegian's signature event into an online “tour”, which was announced shortly after the Invitational ended.

The tour followed hot on the heels of the Invitational

Not a tour in a strictly geographical sense, as everything was being held online, but the next stop would be an enticing virtual trip to Bonnie Scotland.

The tour was set out with four legs and a Grand Final in August. First up, was the “Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge” - a revival of an over the board tournament that took place last year - then the “Chessable Masters” and the fourth leg, the “chess24 Legends of Chess”.

Each event was designed with a different theme.

The Lindores event centered around a monastery with historic chess connections and owners with an interest in the game. During the event, chess24 shared stories about the game as part of a #HeritageChess campaign that was all about reconnecting with the game’s roots and highlighting the event’s fascinating virtual venue.

The Lindores event had a surprise winner too in Dubov, who was still in Yekaterinburg at that point. Dubov beat Nakamura in a thrilling final after the American knocked Carlsen out in the semi.

Dubov triumphed over Nakamura in the second tour event

Lindores was followed by the Chessable Masters, supported by chess24’s partner platform Chessable, which highlighted chess education, learning and improvement under the hashtag #StudyChess.

However, in between the two tournaments we managed to fit in a side-event, the MrDodgy Invitational. Billed as “8 top players, 3 days, one joke that went too far” it was essentially the result of one very vocal and social media-savvy chess fan hassling the world's top players until they played in a tournament with his name on based around... horses. Yes, it really did happen

St Louis also put on the Clutch Chess International, an eight-player knockout with an all-star cast. Carlsen won it in a thrilling final against Fabiano Caruana and then wheeled out his Giri-inspired "shhh" celebration.

Giri, as ever, was ready with a little poke on Twitter:

When the Chessable Masters got underway, Carlsen was back in imperious form winning his second event of the tour. The final saw him come up against Giri. It was the match-up everyone wanted, and there appeared to be no love lost between the two (at least if you followed their exchanges on Twitter).

But the voracious Carlsen was not to be denied and he won yet another title: two out of three in the tour, plus the Clutch and the Steinitz.

The fourth stage started on July 21 and was chess24 Legends of Chess. This was a veritable feast for the fans all about celebrating the greats of the game, past and present.

The Legends line-up

Huge names were brought out of retirement or semi-retirement like Vladimir Kramnik and Vishy Anand to play on the elite stage and proved a mouth-watering draw for fans. At chess24, we thought it was what everyone wanted to see.

But perhaps the most exciting action was in the commentary box where the creme-de-la-creme of chess was invited and accepted. We were greatly honoured to get Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Judit Polgar all appearing at different points on our stream.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov, the former FIDE World Champion, also formed a hugely-entertaining double-act with our resident pundit Jan Gustafsson in the commentary box that went down a storm with fans.

Carlsen was in full flow during the Legends event and dominated proceedings. In the final, he brushed aside Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Magnus Carlsen analysing after his chess24 Legends of Chess win

Make no mistake, the Legends had a line-up of the like we may never see again. It was incredible.

These were among some of the best moments of the tour, but who could have predicted some of the others?

Most revolved around Carlsen. In the Legends, he played a rearranged match earlier than the others coincidentally on the day he hoped to win the worldwide Premier League fantasy football contest. The World Champion also played on a boat and revealed in an interview he stepped out between games to go grocery shopping.

Carlsen enraged Liverpool FC fans on social media by saying he finished off games like Kop hero Roberto Firmino - i.e. badly!

And, of course, there was the beef between Carlsen and Giri that rumbled on throughout the tour. Was it purely a PR exercise? As head of PR for the tour, I can assure you it wasn’t (but I was never opposed to it!).

Carlsen and Giri came up against each other in the final of the Chessable Masters

Some of the big moments were challenging. Ding Liren, playing from behind the “Great Firewall of China”, suffered so many disconnections they became known as “Dingsconnections”.

Unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do about it. But Ding, to his credit, still stayed in contention for the Final and made it on points when Carlsen won the Legends.

In one match involving Ding in the Chessable Masters, Carlsen showed his sportsmanship by deliberately handing his rival a point after Ding had lost the previous game because he couldn’t reconnect in time. Instances like that are extremely rare in top-level chess.

Another memorable moment was during the Legends when we saw a wonderful game played by Vishy Anand that had all the experts gushing with praise and calling it a new “immortal”.

Unfortunately for Vishy, his opponent Vladimir Kramnik ruined it for him and went on to win. However, the game was still a classic - and well worth looking over.

All these incidents lead to the Finals (August 9 to 20), featuring the four top players from the previous events: Carlsen, Nakamura, Dubov and Ding. The aim of the final is to bring the tour together and show how chess can improve people’s lives under the theme #ImpactChess.

Huge prize money has been offered during the course of the tour but for the final chess24 has revealed it will donate 50% of its new Premium sales during the event to the non-profit microfinance lender Kiva.

Kiva aims to help marginalized and vulnerable populations, including minorities, women, and those in isolated areas and is running a $50 million appeal to help organizations and individuals impacted by COVID-19.

From the start of the tour when the world was in turmoil, the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour concludes with an event designed to make a difference.

And if it goes well, maybe you will see another Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour soon.

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