After more than six months of mousing his moves on a computer screen, the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, finally got back to a wooden chessboard on Monday at the traditional Altibox Norway elite tournament in Stavanger. By Wednesday evening’s third round the 29-year-old from Oslo had extended his world record unbeaten streak to 124 games, with his last defeat coming in July 2018.
Carlsen and the United States world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, are both in the leading group going into their crunch pairing together on Thursday afternoon (4pm start, live on norwaychess.no). The scoring system has three points for a win, and the third round front runners are Levon Aronian (Armenia) and Caruana (US) 7, Carlsen (Norway) 6, Alireza Firouzja (ex-Iran) 5.5.
Carlsen, on a record 121-game unbeaten streak from before the pandemic and with nine major online tournament victories since, was careful with the unfamiliar medium in his opening round game against Aronian, drawing in 30 moves before unleashing his speed power in the Armageddon replay (White 10 minutes. Black seven, draw counts as a black win).
Carlsen’s first round Armageddon win counted for 1.5 points, but the early leaders were the youngest competitor Firouzja, 17, and Caruana, who both won their classical games playing Black. In round two Carlsen drew his classical game against Firouzja, then won on time from an earlier lost position in a tense Armageddon. Both were down to five seconds when Firouzja fumbled a rook move and flagged in a dramatic end captured on video.
“I feel like I missed too many things today. It’s about the opponent as well, since he has a very tricky style, he always plays for some little tactics. I feel that today was not great, so I still have a way to go,” said Carlsen.
Carlsen again rode his luck in round three as Black in a Richter-Rauser Sicilian against his fellow Norwegian and the lowest ranked player, Aryan Tari, 21. Although Tari is Norway’s No 2 and was world junior champion in 2017, the pair had never previously met in a classical game. Carlsen stood worse, but when his opponent chose the wrong plan he surged back with a counter which won a rook.
The tournament’s 2020 format is dictated by the coronavirus pandemic. There are six players instead of the usual 10, while the four non-Norwegians, all quarantined for 10 days, come from EU/Schengen area countries.
Caruana, who has dual US/Italian citizenship, lost his 2018 title match in London to Carlsen in the speed play-off, and has played a bit part during the Norwegian’s nine-tournament online haul, but he has prepared deeply for the slower classical games which suit him better.
The first of two Carlsen v Caruana games, with the world champion White, will be in round four. Judged by Caruana’s first three games in Stavanger, Carlsen may well face some heavy opening prep cooked up by the American’s Uzbek aide and former Fide champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov.
This date, 8 October, coincides with the $42m Oslo Stock Exchange debut of Carlsen’s tech company Play Magnus, which incorporates a playing app, the Chessable move trainer, and the chess24 website. The funds will help back an online programme for 2020-21 whose centrepiece is an expanded version of last summer’s Carlsen Tour which attracted record internet audiences.
Stavanger ends on 16 October, when Caruana will depart immediately for Yekaterinburg, Russia, and for another quarantine before the Candidates tournament to decide Carlsen’s 2021 challenger resumes on 1 November. That event was halted at halfway in April due to the virus.
Players and officials in Stavanger are tested daily at the venue, in cooperation with a medical centre. A doctor and an infection control specialist are on site. Norwegian TV is covering the play from a closed broadcast area. Players are not wearing masks, but the traditional pre-game and post-game handshakes are forbidden while the table width has been increased to one metre.
Live coverage is attracting the army of fans who now follow Carlsen. The official site’s highlight is a lively and knowledgeable commentary stream from the former world champion Vlad Kramnik and the all-time No 1 woman, Judit Polgar. The two legends blend together easily, speak good English, and bring a wealth of entertaining and high class insight to the games.
3692: 1 d6+ Kf8 2 Rg6! and Rg8 mate soon follows. If 1…Kd8 2 Rh8+ Be8 3 Bb5!