One of the most important events in the chess calendar – The World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships – started on Sunday in the Polish capital Warsaw. More than 250 strongest world players accompanied by their trainers and staff, descended on the PGE Narodowy Stadium, the home of the Polish national football team
Magnus Carlsen, who just defended his fifth world title in classical chess and who is the defending rapid and blitz champion, is looking for another hat-trick, wanting to finish the year with all three titles under his belt. Aiming to bring him down is a field made up of world heavyweights including the 2021 challenger for the title Ian Nepomniachtchi, 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja (whom Carlsen recently named as the most likely person to motivate him to defend the chess crown for the sixth time), American Hikaru Nakamura who won bronze (in rapid) and silver (in blitz) medals in the last edition of this event, as well as the three-time world blitz chess champion Alexander Grischuk and the local favourite and chess super-star Jan-Krzysztof Duda, to name a few.
In the women’s section, the winners of the 2019 women’s rapid and blitz tournaments – Humpy Koneru and Kateryna Lagno – are also looking to defend their titles. Most of the former women’s world champions in rapid and blitz, including Anna Muzychuk, Antoaneta Stefanova, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Valentina Gunina and Nana Dzagnidze are also taking part.
This FIDE organised event also hosts an impressive one million USD prize fund, with 700,000 going to the open championships, and 300,000 for the women’s championships.
The first competition to start is the World Rapid Chess Championship which is held in two sections – open and women’s and will last for three days. The first day consisted of five rounds in the open and four rounds in the women’s section.
The Open tournament
After the first day and the first five rounds of the World Rapid Chess Championship, there is not a single player with a maximum score, suggesting how close the games and the players are. The lead is held by just three players on 4,5/5: local Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Georgia’s Baadur Jobava. Behind them are 13 players on four points, led by Ian Nepomniachtchi.
With a freshly shaved face and in his familiar tailored and branded suit, Magnus Carlsen gave an imposing performance on the first day of the rapid, confirming why he holds the world title in all three categories – classical, rapid and blitz. In his familiar style of trying to get blood out of a stone (and succeeding in it!), Carlsen started with a victory in a game that lasted 104 moves. Despite his opponent – Georgian GM Merab Gagunashvili – holding the world champion to an equal position for 100 moves, in a theoretically drawn endgame where Carlsen had just a rook and a bishop and Black had a rook, the world champion managed to break his opponent’s nerves leading him to blunder.
Carlsen continued in his uncompromising style in the second game – not being satisfied with an even position as Black, he embarked on creating threats to his opponent Samvel Ter-Sahakyan who skilfully avoided them to the very end. The game lasted until the two kings were the only remaining pieces on board, forcing Carlsen to come to terms with a draw. Unfazed by this setback the defending champion scored three more victories – against the seasoned Aleksey Dreev, the promising Indian prodigy Bharathakoti Harsha and the great Alexei Shirov (who finished the day on 3.5/5).
Although arguably the biggest star of the event, Carlsen is probably not the favourite. That title goes to Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who is well-known and liked in his native Poland. Playing on home turf seems to have given wind in Duda’s sails as he confidently defeated his opponents in the first four rounds. The winner of the 2021 World Cup also had luck on his side, as he managed to get out of a hopeless position against Baadur Jobava in Round Five, by ‘selling him’ what one commentator described as a ‘cheap trick’ in the final stages of the game. By splitting a point, both Jobava and Duda ended on 4.5/5, sharing first place with Carlsen.
Ian Nepomniachtchi – who suffered a crushing defeat in the recent match for the title of world champion – showed that he is in high spirits and motivated, as he finished the first day as the leader of the tier of 13 players with four points. Nepomniachtchi started with three wins but was slowed down in Round Four by the exceptionally talented 17-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov (who in the 2019 edition of the world rapid championship backed Carlsen into a corner in a game that eventually ended in a draw). Nepomniachtchi then drew in Round Five with Anton Korobov (also on 4/5).
The 18-year-old naturalized Frenchman Alireza Firouzja has also started day one strongly. The rising star who – next to Carlsen – is probably most under the weight of expectations following the world champion’s recent comments, has four points.
The list of players on four points also includes Alexander Grischuk as well as a heavyweight from the earlier chess era – Boris Gelfand who is showing he is in good form as he has scored three victories and made two draws. The lucky joiner of the group of players on 4/5 is Anish Giri who in the fourth round won a completely lost position thanks to an incredible oversight by his opponent.
Hikaru Nakamura – who won the bronze medal in the 2019 World Rapid Championship – is on 3.5 points as is the former contender for the world title, Fabiano Caruana.
The Women’s tournament
Superstars Valentina Gunina and Alexandra Kosteniuk are in the lead after the first day of the women’s world rapid chess championship, having scored four victories out of four games.
“I feel I’m in good shape, but it’s just the start and it’s early to say something,” commented Gunina, who in Rounds 1 and 3 played two sisters Zeinab and Turkan Mamedjarova and defeated them both.
Alexandra Kosteniuk – who this year won the inaugural Women’s Chess World Cup and has previously held the titles of women’s world and European champion – has shown confidence and stability in her games on the first day of the rapid. She finished the day on a high note, scoring a victory on board one over one of the top players, Polina Shuvalova.
The top two are followed by a quartet of players on 3.5/4: Nana Dzagnidze, Vaishali Rameshbabu, Nataliya Buksa and Anastasia Bodnaruk.
Vaishali Rameshbabu place in the top ranks might be a surprise to those who don’t follow women’s chess closely. The 20-year-old (the sister of the Indian chess prodigy Praggnanandhaa) is seeded 49th in the tournament but has been on the rise lately. She scored three victories, including an instructive one over one of the tournament favourites, Mariya Muzychuk, and a draw against another heavyweight, Nino Batsiashvili.
The winner of the previous women’s world rapid tournament (in Moscow in 2019) Humpy Koneru finished day one with 2.5/4, with just one victory and three draws.
The top-seeded player, and current women’s world blitz champion, Kateryna Lagno suffered a shocking defeat in the second round, losing to Evgenija Ovod, who is lower-rated by more than 300-points. The defeat was unsettling for Lagno and it remains to be seen how it will impact her performance and final result.
The winner of the 2019 bronze medal, Ekaterina Atalik, and the 2017 bronze medallist and the strongest German woman player, Elisabeth Paehtz, are on 3/4 and in a solid position ahead of the second day of the women’s rapid.
Finally, the World Rapid did not get off to a good start for the second-seeded Aleksandra Goryachkina and the Muzychuk sisters. The women’s world’s number two and the 2018 world rapid bronze medalist, Goryachkina, started solidly with two victories but was slowed down with a draw, and then stopped in Round Four by Anastasia Bodnaruk: after accepting a thematic piece-sacrifice on g5, Goryachkina fell under a crushing attack. The Muzychuk sisters cannot be happy with their first day: Fourth-seeded Mariya (who is also a former Women’s World Champion) has 2.5/4 while her sister Anna (sixth-seeded, who is also the former women’s rapid and blitz champion) is on fifty percent.