Norwegian chess superstar Magnus Carlsen was back in the headlines during the Christmas holiday week, less than a month after winning his third World Chess Championship in New York. Now he was battling to defend and regain championship titles in rapid- and blitz chess in Qatar as well, and he got off to a rocky start that’s keeping spectators in suspense.
Carlsen won the sixth game in the FIDE World Chess Rapid Championships on Tuesday, against Benjamin Bok of the Netherlands, but lost the seventh game against Vassily Ivanchuk, a Ukrainian chess legend who was said to play extremely well against Carlsen. State broadcaster NRK’s chess commentator Askild Bryn said it was still possible for Carlsen to win the tournament, but a victory hinged on a “very good” ending both on Tuesday and Wednesday. Carlsen edged closer with a victory in the eighth game over Dimitry Jakovenko as play continued and then he beat Alexander Grischuk, the current world champion in blitz chess. The day ended, however, in remis (a tie) with Levon Aronian.
“I should have stood fine, but I messed things up,” Carlsen told NRK when it was all over. “I don’t think it was ever any crisis … but my play wasn’t good enough. I can’t afford to give away so many points.” He ended Tuesday’s competition with seven points and in 8th place after 10 of 15 games. The last five play out on Wednesday.
A “very good” ending is necessary because Carlsen also only played to a remis in the first game on Monday against Surya Shekhar Ganguly of India and then he lost to Levan Pantsulaia of Georgia. He won the last three rounds of the day, though, against Henriquez Villagra Cristobal of Chile, Diego Flores of Argentina and Ernesto Inarkiev of Russia. Then Carlsen was smiling again, and told NRK that it “it was fun to play now. It gradually became a fine game … in the end it became easy for me.”
After the loss in the second game, there were also 13 rounds left, which Carlsen called “positive.” He admitted he wasn’t playing “nearly well enough,” though, and said “there’s something that’s not functioning. I’m lacking a good feeling.”
So were some of those closest to him, who worried that Carlsen simply wasn’t in good shape. Newspaper Aftenposten noted that Carlsen hadn’t lost in rapid chess (in which players get 15 minutes each plus 10 seconds extra per move) since 2014, against former World Champion Vishy Anand in 2014. On Tuesday, midway through the 15 scheduled rounds of rapid chess due to end on Wednesday, Carlsen was struggling more than normal.
‘Very important to me’
“We are a bit in doubt about his form,” chess expert Jon Ludwig Hammer told Aftenposten after the first day of the week-long tournament in Doha, Qatar. Hammer had actually tweeted that the Monday began in “crisis,” but later said that “we really should give him another day before we make any drastic evaluations.”
Many of those who follow Carlsen closely stressed that the player was grinning and even sparked laughter when he arrived to play one round by running down the steps from his family’s box and jumping over a fence into the arena. “He’s smiling and looks satisfied,” commentator Tarjei Svensen told NRK. “That’s a good sign, it shows that he has control.” Carlsen has also said that even after winning his third World Chess Championship title last month, the rapid- and blitz championship titles were “very important” to him. “I hope I come out even better when things begin to get close,” he told NRK.
After the rapid chess segment come 21 rounds of blitz chess on Thursday and Friday. That’s when players will only have three minutes per game plus two seconds extra per player per move.
Carlsen, who’s become a national hero in Norway, is the reigning world champion in rapid chess as well as classic chess, and was considered the favourite heading into this year’s competition in Doha, Qatar. Not only has he been all but expected to defend that title, he’s favoured to win back the championship in blitz chess from Gristsjuk of Russia. The Russian won that title away from Carlsen in 2015, after the Norwegian had become the only person to ever hold all three titles at once.
The now-26-year-old Carlsen has a talent for keeping spectators in suspense, and he made a strong opening in the 8th game. His father Henrik Carlsen told Aftenposten that his son had taken some time off to watch some football on Monday and he still seemed to be in good humour on Tuesday. “Things may look a bit doubtful now,” Hammer said, “but he can take over the lead and then everything will go fine.”