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Most professional sports are offline for now, although outliers like professional darts players and Belarus’ soccer team soldier on. Sports networks are mostly replaying old footage.
Thanks to world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, it’s the perfect time to become a fan of professional chess—a sport that involves no concussions and helps improve concentration and creativity. On Monday morning, more than 25,000 people streamed the first ever online professional chess tournament, which Carlsen organized when official chess had to suspend its tournaments around the world.
Sound boring? The best players in the world, including arguably one of the best players of all time, are accidentally knocking over furniture live on camera, mutely yelling at themselves for a bad move, revealing their quarantine hairdos, and playing fast, tense matches.
Eight of the world’s top players are vying for a $250,000 pot in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, which plays until May 3. The games appear live for free on Chess24, whose traffic has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic.
As the coronavirus was spreading around the globe in March, the official organizers of professional chess—FIDE—went forward with the candidates tournament in Russia to determine who would challenge Carlsen in the 2020 world championship. Some players were displeased and out of sorts about having to show up and play under such circumstances.
Halfway through the tournament, Russia announced it would stop flights out of the country, so FIDE abruptly halted the games to give players a chance to get home. The federation plans to resume the tournament whenever it becomes possible to play in person again.
With no chess on the horizon, Carlsen and his team set up their own tournament in a matter of weeks, and on their terms. They came up with a format of rapid games that makes the tournament much more exciting to watch than usual classical tournaments, especially for chess newcomers.
Players start with 15 minutes on their clocks, as opposed to the typical 90 minutes of classical games. Classical games can easily go four hours or longer because players gain time on their clocks as they make moves, and sometimes players will ponder a move for an hour. Carlsen has advocated for official tournaments to incorporate more rapid games.
The Carlsen tournament began with the attention centered on the hot chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja (usually just called “Alireza”), a 16-year-old Iranian, who a few days before upended the chess world when he beat Carlsen in an online blitz tournament.
Carlsen is the world’s best in blitz, and recently he has been in the best shape of his chess career, having almost two years without a loss in classical games. The Chess24 chat for viewers watching the fireworks showed a split between love for Carlsen (“Magnus proving why he is the world champion”) and love for the newcomer (“Congrats Alireza for putting up a great fight against the world champion”).
Alireza played for Iran until last year, when Iran tried to block him from participating in a tournament with Israeli players. Now Alireza is a chess refugee, living in France, and considering changing his nationality.
Other Iranian players have left Iran for the same reason. Iran banned female grandmaster Dorsa Derakhshani, the second-highest rated female player in Iranian history, from its team for not wearing a hijab, and in 2017 she moved to St. Louis, the new center of American chess. She now plays for the United States. Iran also banned her brother for playing an Israeli.
The other players Carlsen and his team selected for this tournament: Fabiano Caruana (“Fabi”), the American who nearly wrested the championship from Carlsen in 2018 and is ranked No. 2 globally; Ding Liren, a Chinese player who is No. 3 globally; Ian Nepomniachtchi (“Nepo”), a Russian player at No. 4 globally; Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (“MVL”), a French grandmaster who is currently ranked fifth in the world; Hikaru Nakamura, another top American who has a massive following on livestreaming platform Twitch and is known for his speedy internet chess; and Anish Giri, a Dutch player ranked No. 10.
After games finish, the players pop in and out of the game commentary, which has the laid-back quality of friends talking on a porch. After one match Fabi appeared and described his life in quarantine in the U.S., which consists of going to the grocery store and playing chess.
Chess24 has commentary on the matches in nine languages. Top chess players Jan Gustafsson, Peter Svidler, Lawrence Trent, and Alexander Grischuk lead the Chess24 English commentary and are hardly serious for more than two minutes. Grischuk always shows up late to the games, inviting endless jabs, and various children of commentators stumble in and out.
“Grischuk following up for the Jinx season 2,” said Gustafsson when Grischuk showed up late and Carlsen promptly lost a game to Alireza. Svidler then suggested some part of Carlsen losing might be “psychological.”
“Once again, a hot take by Peter Svidler,” Gustafsson deadpanned.
Someone asked Grischuk about how Carlsen and Alireza’s rivalry might play out.
“Who knows what will happen with the world and if there will be any chess rivalries going on,” the Russian grandmaster said dryly.
Carlsen, visibly frustrated about losing to the teenager, recovered and won the day’s match against Alireza. The matches are best-of-four rapid games, and if players need a tiebreaker, they play an armageddon game (where one player wins if it’s a draw, and the other player starts with more time to play). After seven rounds of matches, the top four players will advance to a semifinal the first weekend of May.
Dress codes were looser than official tournaments: Alireza has worn the same sweatshirt every day with a pair of shorts, while Carlsen and Liren kept things sharp with button-up shirts with jackets. Fabi crowded into his computer’s camera during his games: “Just glasses and hair,” commented Gustafsson.
It’s the first tournament of its kind, and everyone was adjusting: Technical glitches plagued the first day, with an arbiter incorrectly telling Nakamura mid-game against Carlsen that the clock was off and to abort the game. Nakamura, who was already in a losing position when the arbiter interrupted, ignored the message but graciously conceded defeat to Carlsen despite the interference.
Chess24 has assured viewers it’s taking measures against cheating (extra cameras to monitor players, specially issued computers) and the grandmasters commentating said it’s not worth it for the world’s top players to cheat—a whiff of cheating, even without evidence, means losing invitations to tournaments.
But some players don’t think old-fashioned chess tournaments are going away anytime soon. “I couldn’t even imagine playing a classical game online,” said Fabi after one of the matches.
The games start every day at 10 a.m. Eastern.