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.
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
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.
Fabiano Caruana v Magnus Carlsen in round 8 of the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Vishy Anand playing Wang Hao in the last round in 2018. Could Vishy make it an Indian summer in 2019? (photo: John Saunders)
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).
An all-American clash from 2018, as Jeffery Xiong took on Hikaru Nakamura. Result: a draw (photo: John Saunders)
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.
Gukesh faces England's Gawain Jones at the 2018 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters (photo: John Saunders)
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).
GM Harika Dronavalli (India) is the highest rated woman player in the 2019 Chess.com Grand Swiss line-up (photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)
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.
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.
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