General Dec 26, 2019 | 9:45 AMby Colin McGourty

World Rapid and Blitz starts in Moscow

World Champion Magnus Carlsen is out to regain the number 1 spots in rapid and blitz from Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura respectively as the $1 million World Rapid and Blitz Championships begin in Moscow today. Other narratives to watch out for include 16-year-old Iranian star Alireza Firouzja playing, but under the FIDE flag, while retired ex-World Champion Vladimir Kramnik joins for the blitz championship on the final two days.

No peeking, as top seed Magnus Carlsen picked out White for the first game of the 2019 World Rapid Championship | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website

Much of the world may just be recovering from Christmas celebrations, but the World Rapid Championships begin today. World Champion Magnus Carlsen starts against Kazakhstan GM Azamat Utegaliyev...

And women’s top seed Anna Muzychuk faces 16-year-old Russian WIM Elizaveta Solozhenkina in the Women’s World Rapid Championship:

Let’s take a look at some more details of the event.

Moscow hosts the final year of Saudi Arabia’s contract

This year the World Rapid and Blitz Championships are taking place in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium | photo: official website

The World Rapid and Blitz Championships this year once again have the full title of the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Championships, since this is the third and final year of a 3-year contract between Saudi Arabia and FIDE. In 2017 that saw a $2 million prize fund with a huge $250,000 top prize for each of the open events in Riyadh, with $80,000 for the women’s tournaments.

That first event was mired in controversy, however, since players from Israel and Iran were unable to travel to Saudi Arabia, while others such as Anna Muzychuk and Daniil Dubov sacrificed the chance of a big pay day by boycotting the tournament. It looked as though the lucrative contract would be cancelled, but instead a compromise solution was arrived at whereby the tournament would take place in Russia and everyone would be able to play, but it would still be sponsored by Saudi Arabia. The prize fund was halved, but there's still a very healthy top prize of $60,000 for the open events and $40,000 for the women’s tournaments.

The VIP zone overlooks the football pitch | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website

In 2018 the tournament took place in the former Russian capital city of St. Petersburg while this year it’s moved to the current capital of Moscow. The venue is the VIP Zone of the Luzhniki Stadium, an 81,000 capacity football stadium that hosted the opening and final matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

A star-studded field, but with some absentees

The field this year is formidable, with 158 grandmasters in the open rapid championship, including 8 of the Top 10 players. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave missed the 2018 event as he’d already booked holidays before the dates were confirmed, but is back as the no. 1 on the live rating list. The players missing from the Top 10 are, as a year ago, Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana, while other absentees include 2017 Rapid World Champion Vishy Anand as well as Wesley So, Teimour Radjabov and Wei Yi.

Anna Muzychuk starts as top seed in the Women's World Rapid Championship | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website

In the women’s section the absence of Ju Wenjun and Aleksandra Goryachkina stands out, but of course they have some other business to attend to – the Women’s World Championship match starts in Shanghai on 5th January.

Kramnik is back

When Vladimir Kramnik announced his retirement from chess on January 29th this year he mentioned, “I might still like to play a rapid or blitz chess tournament at times.” He has indeed made some appearances in speed chess events since, but his appearance as 16th seed in the World Blitz Championship will be his most significant yet. That means we may not have seen the last Carlsen-Kramnik duel, but we’ll have to wait until December 29-30th, since Vladimir is skipping the rapid tournament from December 26-28th.   

Like Kramnik, FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky skips the rapid but plays the blitz, where Hikaru Nakamura starts as the top seed | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website 

Firouzja plays under the FIDE flag, with a change of federation on the cards

16-year-old Alireza Firouzja is one of the most exciting prospects in world chess and it should be the most natural thing in the world to see him competing in the World Rapid and Blitz Championships. Alas, international tournaments have become a minefield for the talented crop of young Iranian players, who can only play Israeli opponents at the risk of extreme sanctions back home in Iran. Alireza “obeyed orders” in the GRENKE Chess Open in March, where his forfeit loss to Israel’s Or Bronstein ruined his chances of qualifying for next year’s GRENKE Chess Classic.

There was briefly hope that Parham Maghsoodloo and M.Amin Tabatabaei’s both playing Israel’s Ido Gorshtein in a blitz tournament in Sitges recently meant a change in policy from the Iranian government:

Instead it just turned into another fiasco for Iranian chess, since it seems the players had either genuinely been unaware who their opponent was or had hoped a casual blitz tournament would escape attention.

The net result is that while three women represent Iran in Moscow, including Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, who won two silver medals in St. Petersburg a year ago, there are no male players competing under the Iranian flag. It’s worth pointing out that there are no female Israeli players registered to play in Moscow.

Alireza Firouzja now plays under the FIDE flag | image: FIDE website

That doesn’t mean that Alireza Firouzja misses out, however. The youngster, who has been living in France in recent months, will play under the FIDE flag. That looks like being a temporary measure before he changes federation to further his chess career, with the obvious new federation being France.

We may get to see another Firouzja-Carlsen clash after their recent Banter Blitz encounter on chess24:

The Candidates

In the near future Firouzja could give Maxime Vachier-Lagrave serious competition for the French no. 1 spot, with Maxime competing in Moscow shortly after his manager’s appeal for a chance at the wild card spot in the Candidates Tournament fell on deaf ears. When Magnus Carlsen was asked about that he had little comfort for Maxime:

I’m very glad that Ian Nepomniachtchi has qualified. I’m happy for him to qualify for his first Candidates and I also think that he is one of those who could make an upset and potentially win. Apart from that it’s clear that Ding and Caruana are by far the clear favourites. There are some serious underdogs that would do very well to make 50% there. If they are involved in the fight for 1st place I would be shocked.

As for Maxime, a lot of people are sad that he didn’t make it but I think in the end the facts are you have plenty of chances to qualify and ultimately not qualifying is a testament to coming up short in the critical moments, and I think he more than anybody else realises that.

As we’ve mentioned, Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana are missing in Moscow, as is Teimour Radjabov, but we’ll get to see the remaining Candidates players in action: Alexander Grischuk, Wang Hao, Anish Giri, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Kirill Alekseenko. 

Candidates Tournament wildcard Alekseenko has had to get used to being at the centre of attention | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website

Giri couldn’t resist poking a little fun at Magnus for not being the no. 1 (although officially he is in rapid chess since the London results currently affect only the live list):

Duda, Dubov and dark horses

The World Rapid Championship is played over 15 rounds of 15 minute + 10-second increment chess (12 rounds for the women) while the World Blitz Championship has 21 rounds of 3+2 (17 for the women). That leaves ample opportunity for dark horses to challenge for the titles if they hit form at the right moment. We saw that in 2018, when Daniil Dubov managed to win gold in the rapid, while Jan-Krzysztof Duda pushed Magnus Carlsen all the way in the blitz. Both players are back again this year, with the 21-year-old Pole now up to world no. 12 on the classical rating list after reaching the final of the Hamburg Grand Prix.

In 2018 Jan-Krzysztof Duda finished just half a point behind Magnus in the World Blitz Championship and 2 points clear of 3rd placed Nakamura | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

In a recent interview with Marek Cegliński for the Polish Press Agency PAP (a full version can be found at Onet Sport) Duda talked about an approach to the game that’s particularly suited to rapid and blitz:

My style arises from the fact that I love complications and try to make moves that aren’t always theoretically the best but which at that given moment pose the greatest problems to my opponent. It also depends on my mood. Chess is a psychological game and I love games where something is happening not only on the chessboard – I try to apply different types of pressure to my opponents. There’s something to recall afterwards…

I consider myself quite a universal player, but I think the tactical element is most evident for me. I’d put myself close to Fischer, though not entirely, since I’m a more intuitive player, while the American was more concrete. For him more or less everything had been calculated.

The first goal for Duda, however, will be to recover from the 12-course meal he was planning to eat on Christmas Eve! Something similar no doubt goes for many of the players, but there’s not going to be much time to acclimatize, since the whole event will be over after a fast and furious five days. You can follow all the action LIVE here on chess24, with commentary in five languages: World Rapid Chess Championship | Women’s World Rapid Chess Championship

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