Last month, eight of the world’s top chess players were isolated in Ekaterinburg, competing for the right to play a title match against the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, in Dubai in November. On 26 March, the Russian government announced that international flights would cease the next day. The organisers, who had already faced complaints over the decision to hold the tournament (one competitor had withdrawn), halted proceedings so the players could get home safely.
A week later, Carlsen arranged an online tournament for eight players with $250,000 up for grabs (first prize $70,000, second place $45,000). It started on Saturday, 18 April. Nothing of this order has been tried before. Chess has been slow to capitalise on the vogue for e-sports and streaming culture, as sponsors have been put off by the possibilities for computer assistance and disconnection controversies.
But the Magnus Carlsen Invitational could change all that. Carlsen sent the other competitors the kit they have to use, and they are subject to heightened surveillance of the machines and the rooms they’re playing in. The company with exclusive broadcast rights to the tournament, Chess24, is owned by the Play Magnus Group, in which Carlsen’s family owns a 16 per cent stake. Press briefings have indicated that there are plans to raise a further $500,000 for events later in the year. Carlsen told GQ that he had been ‘thinking about such a tournament for quite some time … but these special times have served as a catalyst.’
The initial prize money has been put up by ‘patrons of the sport’. I asked the event’s press officer if this meant that Unibet, which sponsors Carlsen, was involved. ‘It’s possible,’ he replied. Norwegian law prohibits gambling companies, other than the state-owned monopoly, from sponsoring events. Carlsen last year led a failed attempt to convince his national chess federation to accept sponsorship from Unibet’s parent, Kindred, in return for lobbying to change the law. A previous tournament sponsored by Unibet was officially called No Logo Norway Chess. ‘I will not promote Unibet with branding in Norway,’ Carlsen said in January. ‘This is a global partnership and we adhere to Norwegian law.’ In other jurisdictions he will wear Unibet’s logo.
The new initiative is consistent with bigger ambitions. Play Magnus has developed mobile apps for chess training: Tactics Frenzy, Magnus Trainer and the eponymous Play Magnus, where the strength of your computer opponent is based on Carlsen’s at different ages – 14 is already grandmaster strength. The company has acquired other similar outfits in the last year, has raised significant capital, and is well positioned to make the most of any expansion of top-flight chess online.
Carlsen has dominated world chess over the last two years: unbeaten in more than 100 classical games since mid-2018, he won the world rapid and blitz titles in December. (Classical games typically allow each player two hours of thinking time for 40 moves or so. In rapid games, each player starts with 15 minutes and receives an additional 10 seconds for each move made: games last around 20 to 25 minutes. Blitz takes things up another notch: games complete within 10 minutes.)
His standing means that he can carry a major tournament series and he has repeatedly hinted that he may choose not to contest the FIDE title he last defended in London two years ago. (FIDE is the body responsible for chess played over the board rather than over the internet.) Carlsen told Chess24 then that he preferred a different format, playing lots of rapid games: ‘You just up the stakes, you increase the chances for errors and I think it makes it more exciting and it gives a more real picture of the best players.’
That’s what he has gone with here. The Magnus Carlsen Invitational consists of daily mini-matches of four rapid games, with a tiebreaker if it’s two-all. We’re nearly halfway through a round-robin fortnight of at least 112 games. (Carlsen is currently leading.) Then, over the first weekend in May, the top four will play off for the big money, with two semi-finals followed by a final.
The contestants, besides Carlsen, are five of the players from Ekaterinberg, including the two who were leading when play was suspended, and two speed specialists. One of them, Hikaru Nakamura, has been Carlsen’s closest rival at the faster forms of the game. But just before the tournament, the other, Alireza Firouzja, a 16-year-old Iranian who recently decamped to Chartres, beat Carlsen in a 16-game online match, again organised by Chess24. Each player had only three minutes to complete their moves, while livestreaming their thoughts. The format is known as ‘banter blitz’. The spectacle consists less in the verbal wit on display, or even the partially articulated calculation, than in the emotional ‘boilover’. Firouzja outpaced Carlsen, repeatedly spotting tactical tricks and hitting his touchscreen just a little bit quicker than his rival – who’s now approaching 30 – could input his moves with a mouse.
Nakamura, at 32, is the oldest contestant. We may be seeing the generation that grew up online taking the game in a lighter direction, away from its roots in gruelling, drawn-out contests. Ian Nepomniachtchi is something of a celebrity in other popular e-pursuits, including the World of Warcraft spin-off Hearthstone. A number of chess grandmasters also play poker.
The Magnus Carlsen Invitational has live broadcast deals with Norwegian and Russian TV, and a highlights package agreed for Germany. Chess24 is running live commentaries in nine different languages, including Chinese and Russian. Site registrations have apparently increased by between ‘200 and 300 per cent’ since early March (I’ve been a member since 2018). The tournament is also going out on YouTube and Twitch, where the commentary team are having to adjust to a worse class of troll.
In a recent investment round, the chairman of Play Magnus spoke of ‘the commercial opportunities in this enormous market’. Veteran fans have heard similar claims before, but maybe this time it really is different.