General Apr 18, 2020 | 8:22 AMby Colin McGourty

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational starts today

World Champion Magnus Carlsen takes on world blitz no. 1 Hikaru Nakamura today in a 4-game rapid match as the $250,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational begins. Usually that pairing would eclipse any other match, but 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja taking on world no. 3 Ding Liren is almost as mouth-watering. Can Alireza continue in the form that saw him beat Magnus in the Banter Blitz Cup final? All the games will be streamed live on chess24 with commentary in 9 languages as a new age of online chess begins.

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational begins today, Saturday April 18th, and will feature 16 consecutive days of top-level chess until it ends with a final on Sunday May 3rd.

The stakes are high, with a prize fund the likes of which has never been seen before for an online chess event:

The commentary will also be on a new level for an online event, with Jan Gustafsson, Peter Svidler, Lawrence Trent and Alexander Grischuk among the regular commentators in English alone, while the players not involved on any given day will also make appearances on the commentary team. The tournament will be live on Norwegian and Russian TV and also distributed through multiple channels to countries all around the world, with these strange times we’re living in representing a unique opportunity for chess.

Round 1, like each of the first 6 rounds of the preliminary stage, will be played over 2 days, with all the pairings visible in the selector below (click on a game to watch it with live commentary and computer analysis):

The 2 matches each day are played simultaneously, with each match consisting of at least 4 games of 15-minute rapid chess, where players get an extra 10 seconds each move. The winner gets 3 match points, but if it’s a 2:2 tie then an Armageddon game will be played. White has 5 minutes to Black’s 4, but if the game ends in a draw Black gets the 2 points on offer for a win, with 1 point for the loser.

Let’s take a look at the Round 1 pairings and what we can expect to see:

Carlsen vs. Nakamura

Nakamura and Carlsen's last game couldn't have been more dramatic, as Magnus won the World Blitz Championship in a playoff | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

World Champion Magnus Carlsen commented on this event:

We’re going to have the first Magnus Invitational – not my choice of name, but still I’m not complaining, obviously. I’m loving the format. You’re going to see exciting matches every day and hopefully it’s going to be something that both the public and also the players are going to enjoy a lot in these not so joyous times!  

He starts, of course, as the big favourite, since as well as topping the classical rating list for more than a decade he’s arguably even stronger in faster forms of chess and currently holds the world title in classical, rapid and blitz. Hikaru Nakamura, meanwhile, is rated only world no. 18 right now and at 32 years old surprisingly finds himself the oldest player in the field:

PlayerFEDAgeClassicalWorld #RapidWorld #BlitzWorld #
Magnus Carlsen29286312881128872
Fabiano Caruana2728352277311271135
Ding Liren 27279132836327888
Ian Nepomniachtchi29278442778927859
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave29277852860228223
Anish Giri25276410273124275222
Hikaru Nakamura322736182829429001
Alireza Firouzja16272821270337275024

Of course that’s a very long way from the whole story! Hikaru is the blitz world no. 1 (the one prize Magnus doesn’t currently hold) and pushed Magnus all the way when they last met in December in the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Moscow. They drew their final game in rapid as Hikaru finished 3rd, while in the blitz it was even closer – they tied for 1st place and eventually Magnus won the 2nd game of the playoff to claim the title after Hikaru missed a great chance in the 1st game. Hikaru is also an online chess specialist while Magnus suddenly has a lot to prove after losing the Banter Blitz Cup final – in short, it should be a fascinating battle!

Firouzja vs. Ding Liren

16-year-old Iranian Alireza Firouzja is the hottest property in chess, with his Banter Blitz Cup triumph becoming big news all around the world:

He was dampening expectations like a pro after beating Magnus…

Because it’s rapid of course I have some chances, but of course it’s not much. I’m the last seed and I am not the favourite of course.  

…but he finished 6th in the World Rapid Championship in 2018 aged 15 and runner-up in 2019, so that his current modest rating can be treated as a statistical anomaly. On top form he has to be one of the favourites.

The same goes, however, for world no. 3 Ding Liren, who is back in action after a long, tough couple of months when he was quarantined in China and then Russia before a hugely disappointing first half of the Candidates Tournament. He’s back in China now (the games will start at 22:00 for him!) and if he’s managed to recover he can also beat anyone – he’s not just the classical but the rapid world no. 3. As you can see from this moment in his first ever Banter Blitz session, there’s nothing wrong with his will to win!

Let’s then move on to Sunday’s match-ups:

Caruana vs. Nepomniachtchi

The other Candidates top seed, Fabiano Caruana, also had a tough event, but perhaps no tougher than the journey home:

He explained how it went to Pascal Charbonneau, in an interview after playing a first ever Banter Blitz session:

It was kind of a rough journey, but mainly the start was rough. So basically around like noon in Yekaterinburg we got notice, a phone call, that the tournament was called off, mid-prep against Maxime. And then we had to figure out how exactly we would get back.

We were told that the borders would close at midnight and that we wouldn’t be able to leave the country after that. So we were assisted by FIDE. They were trying to arrange a charter flight, but it kept getting pushed back farther and farther until the flight eventually left at 4:50. But it wasn’t really clear if we would actually make that chartered flight because they kept postponing it, and my coach wasn’t allowed on the flight. He had to take a different route. He went Moscow, Belarus, Minsk and from Minsk he went home.

My whole journey was probably about 35 hours, and I expected some problems when I got to the border. We landed in Rotterdam, rather than Amsterdam, which was the original plan, and I expected they might give me some trouble because I’m travelling with an Italian passport. I wasn’t sure if that might be an issue. At the time Italy was by far hit harder than any other country, but I didn’t really get any trouble arriving in the Netherlands. I travelled to Amsterdam, waited a few hours, and took a flight to Detroit, Detroit to St. Louis. The journey was very long, but it went rather smoothly in the end.  

Fabiano will be playing at 9am in St. Louis, and noted he has much less experience at playing online than most of the other participants. It was clear from the Banter Blitz session, however, that he’s not as bad at playing fast as he claimed!

And his chess is of course a threat to anyone – he’s not the world no. 2 in rapid, but world no. 11 isn’t too shabby, and he can play great games:

Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, is very much at home online. He’s been a regular streamer, not just of chess but other computer games, and is in the form of his life right now. He hit a career high world no. 4 on the latest rating list, a status quo unlikely to change anytime soon, and is tied for 1st in the Candidates Tournament. He goes into the match against Fabi as the favourite after winning all three of their clashes in the Grand Chess Tour Paris Rapid and Blitz last year as well as winning a tumultuous classical game in Croatia.

MVL vs. Giri

Both these players, and later Magnus Carlsen, made it to the online drawing of lots for the event, with Anish Giri commenting barely after entering the meeting:

I first saw Jan, he was smiling with his fake Show Jan smile, then I saw Maxime’s hair, so I thought we are still not live!

Maxime noted he’s not expecting to get to a barber’s shop anytime soon, as he adjusts to life on lockdown in Paris:

Basically I’m going for groceries twice a week, and that’s all the fun stuff I’m doing outside. Basically I go out for 200 metres every week!

In the opening ceremony not all dreams came true…

…but we did have the curiosity that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Giri were drawn against each other, with Maxime suggesting they could start already. Maxime, the rapid world no. 2 and the current leader of the Candidates Tournament, is the clear favourite. Whole elaborate Star Wars intro videos have been devised for their brief jokes at Giri’s expense…

…but the current rapid no. 24 was taking the event seriously. He arranged two “secret” training matches with the same format here on chess24, but when it was suggested that would make him more prepared he responded:

That’s what you’d think if you hadn’t seen my training match!

He lost the first against Jorden van Foreest 3:1, with one brutally short crush along the way:

He did win the second against Vidit, but that involved one win and 3 draws, and he was losing the game he won until Vidit collapsed in time trouble. The “general” preparation for an online event perhaps went better!

As Anish commented during a show on the Stockfish vs. Leela Zero Chess computer match:

As long as Fabiano is taking part I'm always hopeful, because they usually need one target. Once I become a target it's a bit nasty, but sometimes Fabi's the target, and then I'm doing fine!

We’ll soon see how that plays out, while if you think you can predict what’s to come don’t miss the last chance to fill out the Fantasy Chess Contest entries both for the tournament as a whole and Round 1! There are some major prizes on offer:

Then settle back and follow all the action live here on chess24 from around 15:30 CEST!

See also:

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