Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen take centre stage this weekend when the all-time top two meet in their first official game since 2004 in the 10-player $150,000 St Louis Champions Showdown.
The nine rounds will be played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, starting at 7pm and continuing each day for around three hours. Free live coverage with grandmaster commentaries is at uschesschamps.com.
Fischer Random or Chess 9XL is the format, where a computer chooses the back rank piece array at random to reduce the role of book openings. For Carlsen and Kasparov, these parameters seriously increase the risk that the two megastars will fail to deliver.
It is only one year since Carlsen admitted to being “deeply ashamed” by his heavy defeat by Wesley So in the first World Random Championship final in Oslo, while Kasparov was crushed 5-1 by Fabiamo Caruana at Random in St Louis and said: “I can fight all opponents, but not age.”
So and Caruana will both be in the 10-player field this weekend, and will surely be itching for a repeat of 2019. Then there is Alireza Firouzja, the 17-year-old prodigy who won two speed matches with Carlsen but has been less prominent recently. Firouzja is still the world’s best teenager, and he showed his skills last weekend when he outclassed a strong field including England’s top four in an informal blitz tournament held in memory of John Naylor, a talented English amateur who died in August aged 48.
The $250,000 St Louis 27-round Rapid and Blitz on 15-19 September will be another stiff test for Carlsen. The Norwegian’s opponents include top US and Russian players led by Hikaru Nakamura, whose marathon 38-game Tour final against the world champion attracted record online audiences.
Despite all his successful online activity, it will be a moment to savour for Carlsen when he starts play in the over-the-board Norway competition at Stavanger from 5 to 16 October. When normal tournaments stopped in March-April, Carlsen was on a record run of 121 unbeaten games, almost all against elite opponents. It is a cherished achievement which the No 1 will try to extend further, but it will not be simple.
Stavanger’s double round of six players replaces its normal single round all play-all of 10. The six include the rising stars Jan-Krzysztof Duda of Poland and Firouzja, and the champion also meets his traditional rival from the 2018 world title match, Caruana.
Caruana, however, is faced with an unexpected diversion. Fide has just announced that the Candidates, which was stopped after seven of its 14 rounds in April, will resume on 1 November. The eight-player tournament’s original venue of Yekaterinburg in Russia still stands but Tbilisi in Georgia is available as a reserve if the coronavirus situation requires it.
The American is on 3.5/7, a full point behind the joint leaders from France and Russia, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi, but Caruana is not out of it. He has four whites in the final seven games, and the most important one comes at the very start in round eight where he meets Vachier-Lagrave, who can be expected to play the Najdorf Sicilian against 1 e4 and the Grünfeld against 1 d4. Caruana also likes to prepare his openings in great depth so a theoretical battle is expected.
Apart from these two elite events, over-the-board chess continues to stutter, with a near-return to normality in several countries in central and northern Europe contrasting with a near-wipeout in others, including England – but there is an exception.
The Northumberland Congress at the North Shields Parks Leisure Centre on 25-27 September is trying to break the negative pattern. Its organisers include several respected figures in English chess, it will be staged at a venue which previously hosted the 2012 British championship, entry is limited to 120 players, and a host of anti-virus measures will be in place.
But what about the new rule of six? The view is that inviting guests into the leisure centre, a Covid-19 secure workplace operated by North Tyneside Council, keeps it secure, provided the guests sanitise, wear a facemask, fill in the track and trace, and are not running a temperature, which is as much or more than the centre asks of its own employees. The congress is a brave effort, although cases in North Tyneside are rising.
Ireland has fared better, with the Irish championship successfully concluded and the Dublin championship scheduled for 25-27 September. Virus-hit Spain has also just completed its title contest in Linares, the ciry which used to host a renowned annual elite tournament.
Two players at Linares, who tested positive before the start, and 19 close contacts withdrew, but the remaining 127 competitors completed the tournament without further problems.
There was a shock in the final round. Alexey Shirov, author of the classic Fire on Board and the world No 2 in 1994 who would have challenged for Kasparov’s crown in 1998 but for lack of a sponsor, has been in fine form recently with a massive 13/15 for Spain in the online Olympiad where he also won the brilliancy prize with a double queen sacrifice.
Shirov entered round nine at Linares with 7/8 and a half point lead, but was then beaten by the less well known GM Jaime Santos, allowing the top seed, David Anton, to win the title on tie-break.
Overall, online chess has made impressive gains in terms of player and spectator participation. Whether over-the-board play can regain lost ground may depend on how well the Norway and Candidate events are received, and even more on Carlsen’s next title defence, which is still intended for 2021 in Dubai.
3668: 1…Qf3+! 2 Kxh4 Qxf2+ 3 Rg3 Qh2+ 4 Kg4 Kg6! and Black soon mates.