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  • FIDE Grand Swiss: Round 11 report

    Published: 06 Nov 2023

    John Saunders reports: a pulsating last round of the 2023 FIDE Grand Swiss at the Villa Marina, Douglas, Isle of Man, saw a remarkable victory for Vidit Gujrathi, who defeated Alexandr Predke to score 8½ out of 11 and take first place despite a first-round loss. This stunning result qualifies the 29-year-old Indian grandmaster for the 2024 World Championship Candidates tournament in Toronto, Canada, next April. The second qualifying place in the Candidates went to Hikaru Nakamura who drew his game with Arjun Erigaisi to finish second in the tournament with 8 points. Indian chess celebrated a double success as first place in the FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss was taken by Rameshbabu Vaishali who drew with Batkhuyag Munguntuul to score 8½ out of 11, ahead of Anna Muzychuk in second place on 8 and Tan Zhongyi in third place on 7½. Vaishali had secured her place in the 2024 Women’s Candidates with a round to spare, and Tan Zhongyi took the second place since Anna Muzychuk had already qualified for the FIDE Women’s Candidates from the FIDE Women’s World Cup.

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    Vidit Gujrathi on the brink of victory, at the start of the last round

    The battle for the two Candidates places was between the three players on 7½ in the open section – Nakamura, Vidit and Esipenko – and three more on 7 – Erigaisi, Predke and Keymer. However, it was a seventh player from the 6½ point group who intervened to deliver a hammer blow to one of the leaders. Andrey Esipenko was paired with the black pieces against Anish Giri. Before play started one couldn’t help fearing for Esipenko as he had had a fantastic tournament, playing almost all the leading contenders, only to be paired in the last round with a monster who had been comatose through the earlier part of the tournament but then woke up and remembered how to win games of chess.

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    A tough last round pairing with Anish Giri was the blow which derailed Andrey Esipenko's tournament

    Somehow one just knew that the writing was on the wall for poor Esipenko and so it proved. The opening of their game was a QGD Exchange variation. Esipenko, in quest of a win, decided to spin the dice with 8...c5, giving up a pawn for swift development, and then a second pawn. But to me it looked a little like what I call ‘lastrounditis’ – the phenomenon whereby players seem to go on tilt at the end of tournaments, either because they need to push to achieve an objective, or else they’re just tired and want the game over quickly. The latter might have been the reason here, as Esipenko openly admitted to being tired at his previous post-game interview. They reached a position where Esipenko was a pawn down and he chose not to play a grovelly defensive move but to donate a second pawn. A few moves, after Giri had taken a third pawn to triple his pawns on the f-file, Esipenko simply threw in the towel.

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    That took one of the leaders out of contention. The next to finish was Hikaru Nakamura, defending a Kalashnikov Sicilian against Arjun Erigaisi. Given the opening, the pawn structure was imbalanced, with Black having doubled e-pawns, but eventually White also had doubled e-pawns and play continued cagily. It was typical rarefied GM play, the nuances of which mere mortals like me, or even engines, cannot follow with any precision. But it always looked like a draw. The result ensured that Nakamura would receive one of the two tickets to Toronto since the only other player who could make the same score, Vincent Keymer, had an inferior tie-break. So Nakamura proceeded to the commentary room as a Candidate and received a round of applause for his achievement.

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    An innocuous opening was the precursor to a great victory for Vidit Gujrathi over Alexandr Predke

    We didn’t have to wait long to learn who would take the other ticket. Vidit Gujrathi and Alexandr Predke played the most innocuous of openings, the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, with an immediate queen exchange, but as in the Giri-Esipenko game, the black player felt obliged to stir things up, to his own detriment. Playing the crosstable and not the board is a common affliction in the last round. After wholesale exchanges White found himself a pawn up. In fact, White could have agreed a draw at this point for a place in the Candidates and a share of first/second prizes, but Vidit saw no reason not to continue since he was in no danger of losing a position with no sharp tactics to worry about. Another phenomenon of last rounds is that players whose attempts to stir up play fail often tend to lose heart and play worse, and that may have been true of Alexandr Predke here as he succumbed quite quickly. That meant that Vidit had overhauled Nakamura and taken first place on his own, a first-class ticket to Toronto and the first prize of US$80,000. Vidit too received a warm round of applause in the commentary room and seemed dazed at the magnitude of his achievement.

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    A finishing burst of three successive wins wasn't enough to take Anish Giri to the 2024 Candidates Tournament

    Third place was shared by five players: the luckless Andrey Esipenko, Arjun Erigaisi, Vincent Keymer, Parham Maghsoodloo and Anish Giri. No Canadian tickets for them, of course: they’ll have to stay at home and watch the Candidates on the internet like the rest of us, unless they can engineer qualification via the Grand Chess Tour or by having a high enough rating on 1 January 2024.

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    Parham Maghsoodloo spoilt Nikita Vitiugov's unbeaten record in the final round

    There was no joy for England in the final round. Nikita Vitiugov lost (his one loss of the event) to Parham Maghsoodloo with Black. Meanwhile Shreyas Royal, needing a win to achieve a GM norm, drew with 2589-rated GM Dennis Wagner. But still an excellent performance, of course, his TPR being 2573. Like Vaishali, another norm near miss in the women’s event, the acquisition of a GM title is only a matter of time. Another IM in the field, incidentally, Shawn Rodrigue-Lemieux of Canada did qualify for a GM norm with a fine TPR of 2622, as did Ramazan Zhalmakhanov of Kazakhstan, whose TPR was 2665.

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    Manx representative IM Dietmar Kolbus finished last but was happy just to be playing in the 2023 FIDE Grand Swiss

    The last round results of the Manx representatives were a loss for Li Wu, so he finished with 3½/11, while IM Dietmar Kolbus drew with Brazilian GM Alexandr Fier in the final round for a score of 1½. Just playing in such stellar event was a wonderful experience for both of them which they will remember all their lives. And, who knows, they might do it again in two years’ time. At the closing ceremony tournament organiser Alan Ormsby announced that the Isle of Man would again be bidding to hold the next Grand Swiss competition, in 2025.

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    Richard Rapport left his best until last at the FIDE Grand Swiss

    Richard Rapport had a poor tournament by his high standards, but he managed to reach 6/11 with the following win against Chopra Aryan which showcases his typical flair for the unusual.

    Women’s Grand Swiss

    With Anna Muzychuk already qualified for the Candidates and Rameshbabu Vaishali’s place secured in the previous round, there was just one Candidates slot left to play for in the FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss. The main contenders were Batkhuyag Munguntuul, who was on 7 and paired with Rameshbabu Vaishali, and four players on 6½, namely Leya Garifullina, Tan Zhongyi, Antoaneta Stefanova and Pia Cramling, in order of their post-round-ten tie-break positions.

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    Leya Garifullina abandoned her hopes of qualifying for the 2024 Women's Candidates almost without a fight

    Of these, Leya Garifullina surprisingly abandoned her attempts to reach the Candidates very early on in proceedings when she played a rather lame repetition to reach a draw with Lela Javakhishvili after only 15 moves: this, despite having the best tie-break of the 6½ group (opponents’ rating average) and the white pieces.

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    For one fleeting moment, Tan Zhongyi's hopes of Candidates qualification lay in the hands of Gunay Mammadzada - but the chance went begging

    Perhaps encouraged by this apparent cop-out, it was the member of the 6½ point sorority with the second-best tie-break who struck the next blow, though it could so easily have gone horribly wrong for her. Tan Zhongyi defeated Gunay Mammadzada in a sharp Najdorf Sicilian via a powerful kingside attack. But the Azerbaijani IM unaccountably missed a clear shot to turn the tables on move 24. Had the result been reversed then Munguntuul would have taken the Candidates place.

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    Batkhuyag Munguntuul's chances of Candidates qualification foundered as Rameshbabu Vaishali held her to a draw

    This piled pressure on Batkhuyag Munguntuul, who now needed a win to get ahead of Tan Zhongyi as her potential tie-break was not as good. But she faced the redoubtable Rameshbabu Vaishali on a roll. The opening was a Ruy Lopez in which Munguntuul, playing White, chose a suspect line which allowed an early ...Nxe4 tactic which solved any opening problems that Black might have had and entailed a queen exchange. For a while it looked like Vaishali might win yet another game, but she failed to capitalise on her edge and allowed Batkhuyag Munguntuul to draw, undesirable though that result was for the Mongolian player as it cost her a chance of qualifying for the Candidates as well as a GM norm. Her consolation is that she qualifies for the Women’s Grand Prix.

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    Pia Cramling's experience and resourcefulness steered her through to a draw with Anna Muzychuk

    The other two Candidates hopefuls, still in play, couldn’t now catch Tan Zhongyi. Also left to resolve was the matter of who finished first. The game which decided the latter was Pia Cramling versus Anna Muzychuk, who needed a win to tie with Vaishali for first place. That she didn’t succeed in doing so was down to Pia Cramling’s experience and resourcefulness. The opening was a QGD Sem-Slav and in the early middlegame Black held an advantage which was converted into an extra pawn. However, the remaining pawns were on the kingside only and White managed to draw with some ease.

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    Rameshbabu Vaishali, already qualified for the Candidates, clinched first place outright in the final round

    Anna Muzychuk’s draw meant that Rameshbabu Vaishali was the outright winner of the event and Indian joy was palpable. A truly wonderful achievement for India as a country, to have their players win both events: one, as 15th seed (Vidit) and the other, the 12th seed and not yet a grandmaster. In fact, Vaishali’s draw in the final round means that she still hasn’t yet reached the 2500 threshold. She remains a tantalising 2.9 rating points off the magic number. But it’s merely a matter of time: she will become a GM soon enough.

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    Antoaneta Stefanova finished in a tie for 5th-8th on 7/11 in the FIDE Women's Grand Swiss

    Antoaneta Stefanova, still in play, now knew she could not qualify for the Candidates, but she was still in with a chance of tying for third place with Tan Zhongyi if she could win her game against Stavroula Tsolakidou. However, she could make no progress, the game remaining level throughout and drawn on move 43.

    That’s a wrap. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my reports as much as I have writing them. This might not be my last word as I’ve yet to cover the prizegiving and buffet that closed proceedings. That will await my return to England. But in the meantime thanks for reading and best wishes to you all.

     
  • FIDE Grand Swiss: Round 10 Report

    Published: 05 Nov 2023

    John Saunders reports: round 10, the penultimate round of the 2023 FIDE Grand Swiss and Women’s Grand Swiss, was a remarkable feast of chess as the top seven boards in the open tournament ended decisively, while six of the ten top boards in the Women’s Grand Swiss ended similarly. At the end of the round, Hikaru Nakamura, Vidit Gujrathi and Andrey Esipenko lead the FIDE Grand Swiss on 7½/10, while three further players, Arjun Erigaisi, Alexandr Predke and Vincent Keymer are tucked in behind the leaders on 7, with everything to play for in the final round. In the FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss, Rameshbabu Vaishali remains the sole leader on 8/10, Anna Muzychuk is on 7½, and Batkhuyag Munguntuul is on 7. The fact that Anna Muzychuk is already qualified for the 2024 Women’s Candidates’ Tournament in Toronto next April means that Rameshbabu Vaishali knows she too is now certain of one of the two qualification spots for the same event as only one player can now reach her score.

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    The Four Knights Defence wasn't the most promising opening for the Nakamura-Caruana game but we were in for a surprise.

    The much-anticipated all-American clash between Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana produced a fascinating game. Later Nakamura played down the opening, the Four Knights’ Defence, Scotch variation, as “cheesy” and “lame” in the post-game interview, and also downplayed his prospects of qualifying for the Candidates’ – “for me it’s just another tournament” – but for the fans this was heady stuff. Caruana doesn’t lower his flag easily but Nakamura seemed to be channelling the late, great Bobby Fischer in the way he employed a deceptively innocuous opening to outplay one of the world’s very best players. Nakamura also gives a great interview, so don’t miss it.

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    Andrey Esipenko and Parham Maghsoodloo started the game with a friendly smile and chat but then got down to some serious business

    Andrey Esipenko versus Parham Maghsoodloo was a Catalan, with Black risking too much by adopting a strategy which involved giving up the two bishops and weakening his kingside dark squares. By move 25 White has established a firm grip on those squares. There were a couple of junctures where Black might have been able to get back into the game had he played the most precise but the general direction of travel of his position was downwards, with the dark squares finally being his downfall as envisaged earlier.

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    Bogdan-Daniel Deac needs to check Vidit Gujrathi's name card for how to spell his name

    Vidit Gujrathi made it a triumvirate of leaders going into the final round by defeating Bogdan-Daniel Deac from the black side of a Moscow Sicilian. White was caught out by a bold g-pawn advance in front of Black’s king, followed by a pawn capture on e4 underpinned by some clever tactics. Black’s extra pawn persisted and was consolidated by further accurate play, and Vidit gradually ground down Deac.

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    Vincent Keymer's all-out approach was enough to dispatch Vladimir Fedoseev

    Vincent Keymer joined the group of three just behind the leaders by beating Vladimir Fedoseev. The opening was a Queen’s Indian and Keymer launched a bold pawn storm in front of his castled king – not unlike Vidit’s in this round of barnstorming chess – which worked like a dream, with White establishing a murderous knight on g6. Black had some counter-threats against the white king but they were easily parried and White’s more potent attack inevitably broke through to win.

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    Some creative play from Arjun Erigaisi ended the challenge of Samuel Sevian (photo: Anna Shtourman)

    Samuel Sevian played the white side of a Semi-Slav, Noteboom variation, against Arjun Erigaisi. White built up what looked like a healthy kingside initiative with queen and minor pieces, and also had an extra pawn, but closer examination revealed that the quality of Black’s one passed pawn, a move away from queening, was a more important factor in assessing the position than White’s greater quantity of lesser value pawns. White hastily pushed through a passed pawn of his own to create threats but its arrival on the seventh was too late compared to Black’s imminent coronation at the other end of the board. This was a most imaginative effort from Erigaisi.

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    Alexandr Predke exploited a serious miscalculation made by Yuriy Kuzubov (photo: Anna Shtourman)

    Alexandr Predke became the third member of the second score group when he defeated Yuriy Kuzubov in a Queen’s Gambit Declined, Exchange variation. Black seemed to be doing fine until he played a careless 22...Qg5 allowing White to take the c6-pawn, possibly because Black had overlooked the fact that, after his retaliation with 23...Bxh3, White had the devastating intermezzo 24 R7f5! after which Black never recovered.

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    The loneliness of the long-distance grandmaster: Hans Niemann was ground down in 94 moves by Anish Giri

    Anish Giri, having won in round nine after six straight draws, obviously regained the taste for winning games, or else was infected by the sudden outbreak of DCS (Decisive Chess Syndrome) which was going on around him. He played Hans Niemann and the opening was an English/Grünfeld with Giri playing Black, and nothing much happened until Black infiltrated the opposite camp with a rook around move 25. That yielded only a slight edge, but by manoeuvring Black gradually increased his advantage until Niemann cracked around move 50 and Black went two pawns ahead. It still took a long time to win but Giri did so on move 94.

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    Shreyas Royal drew against Sandro Mareco and will have a second shot at a GM norm in the final round - but he needs to win

    Nikita Vitiugov moved into the third score group by beating Manuel Petrosyan, while Shreyas Royal drew his game with Sandro Mareco, which means he requires a win in the last round to achieve an 11-round GM result. Manxman Li Wu drew with Black against Vahap Sanal – I think he may also need a win for an IM norm. Dietmar Kolbus lost to secure his spot at the bottom of the table, though I’m sure he has thoroughly enjoyed his tournament nonetheless.

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    Abhimanyu Mishra, aged 14, played some imaginative chess to beat the legendary Vasyl Ivanchuk, aged 54

    The strength in depth of the FIDE Grand Swiss, and its gruelling nature, finally took its toll of two of the oldest and most distinguished competitors in the field. Alexei Shirov lost to Vladislav Artemiev, while Vasyl Ivanchuk was beaten by the world’s youngest grandmaster, Abhimanyu Mishra, in a style which might have reminded Ivanchuk of his own younger self.

    FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss

    Going into the last round Rameshbabu Vaishali has 8/10, Anna Muzychuk 7½, and Batkhuyag Munguntuul is on 7. Also with a chance of qualifying for the candidates and major prizes are four players on 6½: Pia Cramling, Tan Zhongyi, Antoaneta Stefanova and Leya Garifullina.

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    Rameshbabu Vaishali looks pleased to have beaten Tan Zhongyi and qualified for the 2024 Women's Candidates in Toronto

    Rameshbabu Vaishalis form in this event has been a revelation. Today she reeled off her third win in four games against one of the competition’s toughest competitors, former women’s world champion Tan Zhongyi. The opening was a Richter Sicilian in which Black failed to find a safe haven for her king. Things started to go wrong around move 25 when the white queen had various threats to Black’s vulnerable queenside, having stymied Black’s kingside counterplay. White won a queenside pawn whilst beating off the remains of Black’s kingside play. A second and then a third pawn disappeared and it was all over. Once other results came in it was clear that Rameshbabu Vaishali had secured one of the two coveted Women’s Candidates’ tournament slots with a round to spare by virtue of her nearest challenger Anna Muzychuk already being qualified and only one other player left who could reach her score. She is also within a couple of rating points of completing her qualification for the GM title. It was pleasant to see her younger brother watching her game from time to time during the afternoon, to see if his elder sister would be accompanying him to the Toronto Candidates for which he too is qualified.

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    Anna Muzychuk kept up her pursuit of first prize in the FIDE Women's Grand Swiss with a win against Deysi Cori Tello

    Anna Muzychuk’s pursuit of first place also continued in style as she defeated Deysi Cori Tello. Playing White against a Pirc/Hedgehog, Anna Muzychuk’s opening looked a little risky as she gave up a pawn for what seemed nebulous compensation. However, Black’s further play was rather weak and White climbed back into the game, winning back the pawn, and exploiting Black’s collapse in time trouble.

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    Frustration for Leya Garifullina as she missed a great chance to defeat Antoaneta Stefanova

    Antoaneta Stefanova also looked to have collapsed in time pressure, against Leya Garifullina, losing a pawn and looking to be destroyed on the black squares around her king, but Garifullina made a mess of it, was forced to swap queens and then found her dark-squared bishop trapped after which she was somewhat fortunate to be able to draw.

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    Batkhuyag Munguntuul, still unbeaten, defeated Mai Narva and takes on Rameshbabu Vaishali in the last round

    Mai Narva, after a fine run of form scoring 3½/4 against four GMs, came down to earth with a bump against Batkhuyag Munguntuul. Playing White against a Caro-Kann, Narva tried a rather optimistic sacrifice which left with nothing special apart from being two bishops for a rook down. She also two pawns but they were no match for the two bishops working in tandem. Eventually the endgame morphed into queen versus rook and pawn, but Munguntuul made steady and impressive progress to win.

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    Eline Roebers pulled off a fine sacrificial win against Elina Danielian

    Two players with similar forenames, Eline Roebers and Elina Danielian, went head to head in a sharp struggle. The opening was a Pirc Defence, Austrian Attack, with Roebers first pushing Black back on the queenside and then opening up the kingside with an attractive two-pawn sacrifice.

    The final round starts tomorrow at the earlier time of 14.00 GMT.
    Follow the action with GM David Howell and Jovanka Houska on iomchess.com
     

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John Saunders reports: in just under a month’s time there begins the newest, and potentially most exciting, qualification event in the 2019/2020 World Chess Championship cycle – the inaugural FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss tournament, to be played over 11 rounds in the Isle of Man. The primary purpose of this tournament is to fill one of the eight places in the Candidates’ Tournament to be held in the first half of 2020. It features a phenomenal field of 160 leading players who aspire to the title and an eye-popping first prize of $70,000, with a total prize fund of $432,500. The latter detail has also attracted the two biggest names of all, Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, who head a competitor list featuring 26* players rated 2700 or more.

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Magnus Carlsen receives the trophy and cheque from sponsor Isai Scheinberg at the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

The opening ceremony is scheduled for October 9th, round one is on 10th October and the last on 21st October with a rest day after six rounds on 16th October (see the full schedule here). The venue is the COMIS Hotel and Golf Resort which is halfway between the Isle of Man’s capital, Douglas, and the airport at Ronaldsway, with a journey of around 7 kilometres in each direction. The tournament director is Alan Ormsby (Isle of Man), the chief arbiter IA Alex Holowczak (England), the Fair Play officer is IA Andrew Howie (Scotland), with Chess.com’s onsite commentary being provided by GM Daniel King (England) and IM Anna Rudolf (Hungary).

If you’re thinking that this event looks a lot like the annual autumn Chess.com Isle of Man Masters, you’d be right. You could think of it as doubling for the sixth in the annual series of super-strong swiss tournaments held here. However, along with the similarities there are some significant differences other than it being an official eliminator. Both have a field of around 160 competitors but, whereas the usual Isle of Man Masters is open to all, this year’s Grand Swiss isn’t. It is composed of 100 qualifiers, based on a rating average from 12 lists (July 2018 to June 2019), topped up with 16 holders of world and continental championship titles, one qualifier from the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP) tour, three nominees of the FIDE President, and 40 wildcards nominated by the organisers, IOM International Chess Ltd.

One similarity with earlier Chess.com Isle of Man Masters’ tournaments is the sheer strength of the entry. In its recent iterations, the Masters has established itself as the strongest regular swiss-paired chess tournament in the world, with only the multi-award-winning Gibraltar Masters coming close to its strength in depth. In 2017 the Masters sported 12 players with 2700+ ratings, headed by Carlsen, Caruana and Kramnik, and, despite the 2018 event missing the big names of 2017 because of a clash with the Carlsen-Caruana world championship match, the pool of 2700+ rated players increased to 19. The 2019 Grand Swiss sees this number jump to 26*. Of course, strong players don’t end at 2700 and it is perhaps the battalion of 87* players rated between 2600 and 2700 in the field that underlines the extraordinary strength in depth, making it arguably the most impressive line-up in a swiss-paired tournament ever. Another way to appreciate the strength of the line-up is to consider that Baadur Jobava of Georgia, one of the world’s most exciting and popular GMs, is ranked 101st in the field.

THE BIG NAMES

Magnus Carlsen

They don’t get any bigger than this name. Why is he playing? Two simple answers: the money and the practice. You can decide for yourself which order to put those factors in. Magnus seems to play chess for fun as well as blood, and over the last year he’s returned to his very best form, winning tournament after tournament, one or two by unfeasibly large margins.

The world champion had an amusing take on his participation in the Chess.com Grand Swiss when chatting with commentator Jan Gustafsson during the early rounds of the Chess World Cup. He told Gustafsson, “for the life of me I cannot figure out why I’m allowed to play in it!” Gustafsson sought confirmation of what he was saying: “do you feel you shouldn’t be allowed in the World Cup and the Isle of Man and tournaments where you can qualify for playing you?” “Yeah, I think it’s pretty obvious that I shouldn’t, but I don’t have any morals, so it’s OK!” Tongue in cheek, naturally. I’d be surprised if many chess fans would agree with him that he shouldn’t take part in qualifying events since most of us love to see him play, especially when his opposition is someone other than the same dozen or so elite players whom he always plays in closed super-tournaments. Far from being immoral, it’s very sporting of him that he’s prepared to put his reputation on the line in this way.

Carlsen’s classical chess performance this calendar year says it all: 25 wins, 37 draws and not a single loss. His only wobble has been at faster forms of the game at Saint Louis in August where he was well down the field in the GCT (Grand Chess Tour) Rapid and Blitz, making an almost unprecedented minus score, and then lost a tie-break after recovering his form to tie for first with Ding Liren in the (Classical) Sinquefield Cup. Having already chosen to sit out the FIDE World Cup currently underway in Khanty-Mansiysk, one imagines his batteries will be fully recharged for the Grand Swiss, where he doesn’t have to worry about quick chess (another difference with previous IoM tournaments: the Grand Swiss tie-break rules don’t include a provision for play-offs).

Like his fellow countryman and former mentor Simen Agdestein (who famously quipped “we used to own this place!” after winning the 2003 Monarch Assurance Isle of Man Masters), Magnus feels at home on Manx (former Viking) soil, having won the 2017 tournament here with a score of 7½/9, including a win over Fabiano Caruana. A reminder of another difference with previous editions of the Masters: the 2019 tournament is over 11 rounds. Those extra rounds probably favour Magnus as he tends to be a strong finisher, as exemplified at the Sinquefield Cup when, after seven consecutive draws, he awoke Kraken-like to despatch Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the final two rounds.

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Fabiano Caruana v Magnus Carlsen in round 8 of the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

Fabiano Caruana

Like Magnus, Fabi is not concerned with qualifying for the world championship as he gets one of the eight berths in the Candidates’ tournament by virtue of being the beaten finalist in the 2018 London match. That said, I feel bad about referring to him as ‘the beaten finalist’ as he only succumbed at the rapid tie-break phase. It’s probably not much consolation to him but I think he is the only player ever to have taken part in a match for the undisputed world title who currently holds an unbeaten record in classical games at that level (but no wins either, of course).

He too had a quip for the press when asked if his participation would ruin other people’s chances of qualifying: “well, someone has to ruin them!”

Fabi’s motivation for playing will be much the same as Magnus’s, but he’s not enjoyed anywhere near as much success in 2019 as the world champion, and not played as many classical games. His first standardplay game of the year didn’t happen until March and resulted in a loss to Peter Leko in the Bundesliga. Later that month he scored +4, =7, -0 in the US Championship to finish 2nd= behind Hikaru Nakamura. He scored a creditable 6/9 (+3, =6) in the GRENKE tournament in April but that was only good enough for second place behind Carlsen’s incredible 7½/9. At the big Altibox Norway tournament in June – if we only count the classical games – Caruana scored 5/9 to tie for third with Wesley So half a point behind Carlsen and Ding Liren, with the Chinese player scoring a win against him. Later the same month Caruana scored 6/11 at the GCT Croatia tournament which gave him a share of third place with Levon Aronian, a point adrift of Wesley So in second and two points behind Carlsen. The tournament included his third individual loss of the year, to Ian Nepomniachtchi. His last classical outing prior to the Manx tournament was the Sinquefield Cup, where he could only manage 5½/11, with a win against Aronian counterbalanced by another loss to Ding Liren.

Caruana has lost 20 rating points in 2019, and one gets the impression that the more likely change at the top of the rating will be Ding Liren claiming second spot from Caruana than the American supplanting the man at the top. Indeed, on the day I started writing this article, I noted that Ding Liren had annexed the second spot on the live list, albeit by a fraction of a point and only for a day. As regards Caruana’s track record in the Isle of Man: he’s played here twice, in 2016 and 2017. In his first outing he finished first equal with Pavel Eljanov on 7½/9, sharing the big money equally, though adjudged second on tie-break. In 2017 he made a great start, defeating Vlad Kramnik in what was the toughest ever first-round pairing in a swiss event, but ultimately came unstuck against a rampant Carlsen in the penultimate round. 6½/9 was still a pretty good score but Fabi will be looking to take his revenge on Carlsen in 2019.

ABSENT FRIENDS

Before going on to discuss who else is in the Grand Swiss field, perhaps we should stop to consider at least one player who isn’t. Over the last year the top of the rating list has developed into a triumvirate, with Ding Liren joining Caruana as pretender to Carlsen’s crown. The Chinese player has become incredibly hard to beat at classical chess and, just recently, proved he also can get the better of Carlsen in a tiebreaker. He has also beaten Caruana in two classical games so far in 2019. Ding Liren is not playing in the Isle of Man but is instead competing in the FIDE World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk. The knock-out event provides two berths into the Candidates’ tournament, but it is unlikely that Ding Liren needs to worry about his World Cup result since his high rating will almost certainly get him into that competition anyway (with four more monthly rating lists to be taken into account he is well ahead of Anish Giri and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov). We haven’t seen Ding Liren play in the Isle of Man to date. He was slated to play in 2018 but his unfortunate cycling injury earlier in the year made it too difficult for him to take part.

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One absent friend in 2019 is the retired Vladimir Kramnik, who in 2017 found himself facing Fabiano Caruana with Black in after the controversial first-round random pairing experiment (photo: John Saunders)

More absent friends: the following is a list of the other nine players listed in the top 30 of the September 2019 rating list who are not playing in the Grand Swiss in the Isle of Man: Ian Nepomniachtchi, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Teimour Radjabov, Vladimir Kramnik, Richard Rapport, Dmitry Andreikin, Veselin Topalov and David Navara. Of the ten missing names, Kramnik has now retired from tournament play, while his old foe Topalov is no longer actively competing for the world title. Richard Rapport is playing in neither the World Cup nor the Grand Swiss, but all the other players you see named in this para are competing in the FIDE World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk.

There are two other ways of gaining a place in the Candidates. Two places go to the best scorers in the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix, which still has two of its four events to be played, and one place goes to a wildcard nominated by the Candidates’ tournament organiser (incidentally, this cannot just be anyone the organiser fancies: it is closely defined under the rules, thus: [the wildcard] must participate in at least two of the three qualifying tournaments – World Cup, Grand Swiss and Grand Prix – and be either the highest non-qualifier in the World Cup, Grand Swiss or Grand Prix, or in the top 10 by average rating from February 2019 to January 2020).

Before moving on to look more closely at the Isle of Man contenders, let’s summarise the current situation as regards Candidates’ tournament places:

1 – Fabiano Caruana (definite place as 2018 title runner-up)

2 – (probably) Ding Liren (high rating)

3 – 2019 World Cup winner

4 – 2019 World Cup finalist

5 – 2019 Chess.com Grand Swiss top scorer other than those already qualified)

6 – 2019 FIDE Grand Prix Winner

7 – 2019 FIDE Grand Prix runner-up

8 – Wildcard selected by the Candidates’ tournament organiser

MORE BIG NAMES PLAYING IN THE ISLE OF MAN

More pertinently, here is a list of the world top 30 players who are taking part in the Grand Swiss in addition to Carlsen and Caruana. In current rating order: Anish Giri (Netherlands), Wesley So (USA), Viswanathan Anand (India), Leinier Dominguez (USA), Yu Yangyi (China), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Vladislav Artemiev (Russia), Pentala Harikrishna (India), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland), Nikita Vitiugov (Russia), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), Peter Svidler (Russia), Wang Hao (China), Wei Yi (China) and Bu Xiangzhi (China). (Updated 30 September: Anish Giri and Leinier Dominguez have now withdrawn)

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Giri, Anand, Karjakin... I'll leave you to spot a number of the big name prizewinners shown here from 2018, some of whom will be back again this year (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

Some gluttons for punishment are competing in both the FIDE World Cup and the Grand Swiss. Here are the leading names attempting this improbable double: Giri, So, Aronian, Dominguez, Grischuk, Artemiev, Yu Yangyi, Karjakin, Nakamura, Wojtaszek, Harikrishna, Duda, Svidler, Vitiugov, Wei Yi, etc. Note that the final of the World Cup is scheduled for 30 September to 4 October, leaving just four full days to travel from darkest Siberia to our little jewel of an island in the Irish Sea. But at least the two finalists will be secure in the knowledge that they have thereby qualified for the Candidates’ tournament by reaching the final. Whoever the finalists turn out to be, there must be a possibility that they decide to give the Isle of Man tournament a miss at that point since qualification would be in the bag. Others scheduled to play in both events who are eliminated prior to the final will have a little more time to travel and prepare themselves for the Grand Swiss. I note that a couple of ‘riders’ have already fallen at the first fence in Khanty-Mansiysk, notably the joint winners of the 2018 Isle of Man Masters Radoslaw Wojtaszek and Arkady Naiditsch.

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The 2018 Chess.com Masters was a family double act: Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland) won the title while his wife Alina Kashlinskaya (Russia) won the top women's prize and scored a GM norm (photo: John Saunders)

WHO’S GOING TO WIN IN 2019?

...Carlsen. Next question. Well, OK, he’s at least the hot favourite, particularly over a gruelling 11 rounds but of course you cannot discount Fabiano Caruana who is a class act and due some success in 2019 after a lean year by his standards. Besides those two, I look at the other names, distinguished as they are, and don’t quite see anyone going toe to toe with them in the hurly-burly of a Swiss-paired event. The extra two rounds compared with the usual Isle of Man Masters’ schedule could make quite a difference. One recalls Alexander Grischuk’s comment last year that the tournament came to an end just as it seemed to start, with his game in the ninth and last round against MVL (which he won) being the tournament’s only pairing amongst the top ten rated participants. With eleven rounds to play, that surely can’t happen this time, but high finishers will need to maximise their scores in earlier rounds against players in the 2600-2700 bracket, which will require something more incisive than the cagey strategy often employed in closed events.

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At the 2018 Isle of Man Masters, Vladislav Artemiev, then aged 20, was paired against Kramnik and Anand in successive rounds, scoring two draws (photo: John Saunders)

As regards who claims the Candidates’ slot, it is anyone’s guess. If I were a betting man, I might be tempted to have a flutter on Vladislav Artemiev who was impressive at last year's Isle of Man tournament and then romped home in the 2019 Gibraltar Masters a few months later. He has enjoyed a very good year in 2019. The other players I’d be inclined to back are the ones with a good track record in swiss tournaments. Hikaru Nakamura springs to mind, also Nikita Vitiugov and maybe Wesley So. On the other hand, looking back on previous results here, it is noticeable that Vishy Anand was only half a point shy of Carlsen in 2017. Maybe, very late in his career, he’s getting the hang of Swiss tournaments and we could be about to see a successful Indian summer for the greatest Indian of them all. If it happened, it would be a massively popular result.

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Vishy Anand playing Wang Hao in the last round in 2018. Could Vishy make it an Indian summer in 2019? (photo: John Saunders)

YOUNG STARS

The tournament provides a younger generation with a chance to shine, with a couple of them maybe in the running for the Candidates’ qualifying place. The world’s highest rated junior 20-year-old Wei Yi of China seems to have been around for a long time and this tournament could provide his breakthrough into the elite. Ditto, the world’s second highest rated junior, Jeffery Xiong (USA), aged 18, who is improving fast. He made an impact on his Isle of Man debut in 2017, losing only to very big names (Carlsen, Caruana, Adams), going on to show his increasing strength and solidity in 2018, finishing an unbeaten 3rd=. Also playing are the world’s 4th, 5th and 7th highest rated juniors: the runaway winner of the 2018 world junior championship Parham Maghsoodloo (Iran, aged 19), Samuel Sevian (USA, aged 18) and Alexey Sarana (Russia, aged 19).

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An all-American clash from 2018, as Jeffery Xiong took on Hikaru Nakamura. Result: a draw (photo: John Saunders)

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Nihal Sarin (left) at the 2017 prizegiving with his rival Praggnanandhaa (right) (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

Younger still, and already a highly experienced GM, is India’s Nihal Sarin, aged 14, who makes his third trip to the Isle of Man. As a 12-year-old he scored 5/9 (including a draw with Emil Sutovsky) and then improved to 5½/9 in 2018 (including a last-round draw with Wesley So). What impressed me most about him as a 12-year-old was his self-confidence and his good-natured (and insanely fast) bullet chess sessions with his friend and rival Praggnanandhaa (who’s not playing this year). I took a photo of him gazing boldly up at the world champion at the prize-giving. I reproduce the photo here – notice the clenched fist! Since then he’s become a seasoned pro, and is currently causing ripples at the World Cup, having won his first-round tie 2-0 against the highly rated Peruvian player Jorge Cori. Sarin will have some company of his own age group in the Isle of Man as the equally formidable prodigies D Gukesh (India) and Vincent Keymer (Germany) are playing here once again.

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Gukesh faces England's Gawain Jones at the 2018 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters (photo: John Saunders)

WILDCARDS

The three young players referred to above are amongst the tournament’s forty wildcards. It is clearly a good idea to leaven the mixture of players and not simply have legions of 2600+ rated pros all the way to the bottom of the list. It provides extra interest and opportunities for promising players. Without such an arrangement there might not be any female players in the field at all. Unfortunately, the tournament is likely to clash with the Women’s World Championship match, hence Ju Wenjun (China) and Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia) are unable to take part, while the world’s highest rated woman player Hou Yifan is concentrating on her second year of studies at Oxford University. Thus, the wildcard option is the only way to ensure female participation. There is a $32,500 women’s prize fund, with a first prize of $10,000. Women’s world number ten Harika Dronavalli (India) is the top rated female competitor, with her main rivals being Sarasadat Khademalsharieh (Iran), former women’s world champions Antoaneta Stefanova (Bulgaria) and Anna Ushenina (Ukraine), Alina Kashlinskaya (Russia), who did so well at the 2018 Isle of Man tournament, Pia Cramling (Sweden), Lei Tingjie (China), Dinara Saduakassova (Kazakhstan) and Elisabeth Paehtz (Germany).

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GM Harika Dronavalli (India) is the highest rated woman player in the 2019 Chess.com Grand Swiss line-up (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

 

LOCAL INTEREST

British interest in the event will focus on England’s David Howell, Gawain Jones and Luke McShane who rank 29th, 33rd and 39th in the rating order of competitors. Jones and McShane will be coming from Khanty-Mansiysk where they made it through to the second round but no further. Mickey Adams lost in the first round at the World Cup, and he is not competing in the Isle of Man. English wildcards in the Chess.com Grand Swiss include IM Brandon Clarke, who has played most of his chess in Australia over the past two or three years but who won the British Championship Major Open in August.

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IM Jovanka Houska (England) recently won the British Women's Championship for the ninth time (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

Another is IM Jovanka Houska, fresh from winning her ninth British Women’s Championship in Torquay in August, who will be another contender for the top women’s prizes. The Isle of Man has its own representatives: island residents Li Wu (England), IM Dietmar Kolbus (Germany), Keith Allen (Ireland) and Baard Dahl (England) will be keeping the three-legged Manx flag flying in this strongest of tournaments. I wish them all the best of luck – they are going to need it.

All the action will be available on Chess.com, with Daniel King and Anna Rudolf broadcasting from a special commentary suite at the venue which will have seating for onsite spectators. Note: there is no access to the playing area for onsite spectators.

OTHER EVENTS

Incidentally, the congress features the usual Major and Minor events. Check out the details on the website if you want to play. They are being played in a separate building at the venue. They start at the same time as the Grand Swiss but with a brisker time control.


* All rating data is from the September 2019 FIDE list, with the competitor as it stood on 11 September 2019

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