Global chess events boom while the game in Britain reels from Omicron
Global chess is flourishing despite the pandemic, whereas in Britain cancellations and postponements are rife. The Christmas period has highlighted the contrast, as thousands of players flocked to watch Magnus Carlsen in action or even play in the same tournament with the iconic world champion, at the same time as the UK’s longest running congress, previously stopped only by the second world war, cancelled its 2021-22 version because of the dangers of Omicron.
Carlsen was expected to retain his World Rapid (15 minutes) title in Warsaw on Tuesday, following his match victory in Dubai last month at slow classical chess, but instead there was a shock result. Nodirbek Abdusattorov, 17, of Uzbekistan, became the youngest ever world champion as he first defeated Carlsen and then beat Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi in a play-off after they tied on 9.5/13.
Now Carlsen will try to retain his World Blitz crown on Wednesday and Thursday. Play starts at 2pm GMT both days, is free and live to watch with fast-moving and expertly commented action, and should be good holiday entertainment for chess fans.
Blitz is three minutes for each player for the entire game, plus a two seconds per move increment. There are nearly 300 players in the open and women’s events. David Howell, who finished well in the top half of the Rapid with 8/13, is the only English entrant.
Carlsen’s main blitz rivals are expected to be the five-time US champion Hikaru Nakamura and the 18-year-old world No2 Alireza Firouzja. All three were already in action before Christmas in a mammoth online event. First prize was a single Bitcoin, which coupled with the lure of playing in the same tournament as Carlsen, attracted 17,000 entrants. The time limit was fast blitz, two minutes per player for the entire game.
There was a bizarre denouement when, less than an hour into the scheduled two hours and with Nakamura leading, Firouzja second, and Carlsen around sixth, the lichess pairings server crashed. The tournament was suspended, and will be completed later in January when the players’ schedules allow.
Hastings was planned to start on December 29, but had to be cancelled in mid-December as Omicron numbers grew. First staged in 1920, it has been the chess world’s longest running annual event. In the 1930s, a decade when four world champions played there, Hastings was the most prestigious annual tournament in chess.
The London League has postponed all its January fixtures until June, while the Four Nations League has cancelled its January weekend, giving the options of a shortened season with March and May weekends still to come, or of delaying fixtures until the summer.
There are some bright spots. The ECF’s online events are popular, and can be recommended for anyone who would like to try competitive online chess. Several strong tournaments have been staged or are scheduled in north-east England, which is at the moment the unlikely epicentre of over-the-board play in Britain.
Ian Nepomniachtchi v Sanan Sjugirov, Russian teams 2015. White to move and win. The recent world title challenger is two pawns down, so drastic action is needed.
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