So, I don’t know if any of you have been following the Magnus Carlson Chess Tour, but my father has and by proxy I’ve been keeping an eye on it. Until about a week ago, I was not passionate about chess, but the finale of that competition was so riveting (yes, I know, it’s chess) that by the end, I was completely emotionally invested.
But first, let me set the scene.
The Current Chess Scene
The traditional image of chess is two serious guys sitting across from each other and spending forever on each move. In other words, a terrible spectator sport. This is why I have a lot of respect for live chess commentators. They have the unenviable task of trying to energetically analyze a match that can have half hours go by where literally nothing happens…live.
That’s where formats come in. Classical chess is well…the classic. I think there might be a time limit of ten hours, but practically speaking there is no time limit. Rapid Chess is much shorter. There are several variations, but the one I am referring to gives each player 15 minutes, with ten seconds to make a move, and Blitz Chess cuts that down to 3 to 5 minutes. These formats change up the nature of the game, and different players shine in different formats, but the point is Rapid and Blitz are significantly more entertaining to watch live, and that’s excellent news.
Chess has been making a grand resurgence as of late. The Quarantine has brought a lot of new players who learned in the boredom of their solitude and now they understand enough to actually watch matches. Luckily for these spectators, the Quarantine may have frozen the traditional and official competitions, but Chess is one of those games that loses little by going online. So all the Chess Grandmasters had to do to keep their community thriving was to battle each other over the internet.
And that’s what they have been doing.
The Tension Builds
There was a tournament last week called the Magnus Carlson Chess Tour. Magnus Carlson is a Norweigan Grandmaster and the current top chess player in the world. As expected he was in the finals of the competition named after him. Also in the finals was Hikaru Nakamura. Nakamura is an American Grandmaster ranked sixteenth in the world in classical chess, fourth in Rapid Chess, and First in Blitz. Clearly, he is more dangerous the tighter the time increment which was good for him.
The Final was a duel set over several days. Each day would be a “set”of four rapid games, gaining a point for each victory, or half a point for a draw. If at the end of the four games, their points were tied, then they would play two five minute Blitz games, and if there was still a tie…it would go to Armageddon.
I know, I know. It’s a dramatic game, but basically it means the player with the white pieces gets five minutes, and the player with black gets four, but white must win. If it is a draw, black wins. The first to win four sets, wins the whole match.
There were a lot of eyes on this one. Both Nakamura and Carlson have been doing a lot to popularize the game on the internet by teaching, steaming and all around fueling the chess resurgence.
The internet plays up their supposed dislike of each other, but Nakamura has a history of struggling against Carlson. He’s “that one guy” for him. So, Carlson went into that match as the clear favorite.
Which was why it was so shocking when Nakamura beat him the first day. And then almost beat him again the next day, but Carlson pulled through to victory.
At this point, people knew this was going to be an interesting duel. After the hard draws and close calls of Set Three, Nakamura scored again, making the overall score 2 to 1. Carlson returned the favor the following day, evening the score again 2 to 2.
Then Set Five came around. They tied all four Rapid games, Carlson won the first Blitz game, and then Nakamura won the second, pushing them both into their first Armageddon game of the finals. Because Carlson qualified better getting to the finals, he was allowed to choose the colors. Now usually, Grandmasters choose black because despite the tighter time control, it is significantly easier to draw as black then to win as white. But Carlson had been struggling with the clock all day, so he chose white with its extra time. That meant that he had to win, but Nakamura did the unexpected and beat Carlson as black, winning the day.
The score was 3 to 2. If Nakamura won Day Six, he would win the entire duel and set the chess community on fire. I held my breath, but he lost. Carlson soundly brought the score to 3-3.
The Final Set
The seventh set. Whoever won the day would win an extra 60,000 dollars.
With high stakes and bated breaths, Carlson took the early lead with black. They drew their next game, but Nakamura evened the score with white. After the final Rapid game ended in a draw. Nakamura won their first Blitz, meaning all he had to do was tie the next one and he would win, but Magnus won again, evening the score again.
After a week of hard chess, it not only came down to the last day, it came down to the last game. Carlson got to decide the colors again, and learning from the last Armageddon, he chose black. At the time, I had driven to the local creamery, so I watched this finale eating ice cream in my car. But no amount of sugar could soothe my tension. I’m always riled up by a good story, and the constant back and forth of that day, of that whole week, was something out of a sports movie.
So I watched and for a moment, a brief moment, I thought Nakamura might actually win, but no. The number one chess player in the world has that title for a reason. Armageddon ended in a draw, making Magnus Carlson the winner of the Magnus Carlson Chess Tour. The expected result, but what a way to get there!
I sat on a teeter totter of emotions all week, and by stirring up my passions, I am suddenly back into chess, a game I had not regularly played since I was very young. So, I guess this is a thank you to Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlson for making me emotionally invested in chess again.