The Norway Chess tournament concluded last week. This was the first leg of the newly inaugurated ‘Grand Chess Tour’ which links the Norway Chess Classic, Sinquefield Cup, and London Chess Classic with 8 of the top 10 players in the world (as of January 2015), a prize fund of $300,000 per tournament, and an additional $150,000 prize fund to the top three finishers of the tour using a 10-9-8…1 point system with bonus points awarded to the first and second place finishers of each tournament.
The first tournament of the tour highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the concept. Having almost all the top players in the world in the same tournament led to interest and anticipation for each round's competition. Despite the misfortune of an out of sorts World Champion Magnus Carlsen losing four of his nine games, the prospect of a compelling finish was in sight. Veselin Topalov had a point and a half lead in the next to last round when he lost to Anish Giri. Former world champion Viswanathan Anand won his game to pull to within a half point of Topalov and was due to play Topalov with the Black pieces in the last round.
This would have been compelling if it was the last round of a World Championship match or if there was a large prize on the line. As it worked out there was a difference of 3 grand tour points and $25,000 on the line. Topalov played a safe game to attempt to gain a draw to secure first place while Anand was content with to clinch second place and the result of their 'game' was an 18 move draw that barely lasted a half hour. Compare the articles before the round to the articles after the round and it seemed like the air had been let out of a balloon.
The tour allows each tournament to select one wild card player. Norway Chess decided to have a local player selected from a qualifying tournament which was won by Grandmaster Jan Ludwig Hammer, who proceeded to finish last despite beating World Champion Carlsen in the last round. Because Norway Chess decided to have a local player as their wild card (they had a local GM in the first two editions of this tournament) and the tour restricts participation to the top ranked players in the world Sergey Karjakin (a top 15 player and winner of the first two Norway Chess Classics) was not able to defend his title.
The Grand Chess Tour’s leading spokesperson is former world champion Garry Kasparov, who made an unsuccessful attempt to win the presidency of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) earlier this year. A big winner in the Tour is the London Chess Classic which has not been able to consistently attract more than a handful of the worlds elite players and switched in format and number of players yearly since its inception in 2009, even becoming a 16 player rapid event for 2013.
Kasparov has repeatedly stated that the Grand Chess Tour is not meant to compete with the FIDE World Championship and Candidates tournaments. I have my doubts since Kasparov’s previous attempts at chess organization (Grandmaster Chess Association and Players Chess Association) started with the same good intentions but soon morphed into an all-out power struggle with FIDE over the control of the World Chess Championship. Perhaps being 15 years removed from being the world champion has dulled Kasparov’s ambitions but his forays into Russian politics which started with Moscow protest against president/dictator/ pick your phrase Vladimir Putin and morphed into Wall Street Journal editorials urging at the least a Cold War and at the most a third World War give me pause. As currently constituted, the Grand Chess Tour looks to be on a collision course with the FIDE world championship cycle in the near future.
In order to participate in this year’s Grand Chess Tour a player must commit to playing in all three events. If this requirement holds true next year when there are four events I wonder how Magnus Carlsen will feel about playing in four super tournaments as well as the defense of his world title. This same issue will face his challenger who will also have to compete in the Candidates tournament. It seems likely that many of the top 10 players in the world would pass at the small chance of winning the Candidates tournament and playing a match for the world championship for the guaranteed payouts of the Grand Chess Tour.
Ultimately it will be Carlsen that determines the short term success of the Grand Chess Tour. The tour will be successful as long as he participates but he must also be more competitive than he was at Norway Chess. After Carlsen lost three of his first four games and it became clear that he was going to be a non-factor the tournament seemed to lose a lot of its appeal. Carlsen has given a boost to chess with his youth and meteoric rise the same way that Tiger Woods brought golf to a new level almost 15 years ago. Woods is five years removed from his public embarrassments and six years removed from his last major win and golf has struggled to reclaim the excitement that has left with Woods’ success. Carlsen is the face of chess and everyone that wants to make money off the sport is trying to cash in on his popularity but if he fails to contend in these tournaments I doubt the Grand Chess Tour will retain any of its current excitement.