The world chess body, FIDE, has rolled out its plans for an online team championship showdown starring top players, starting May 5. The $180,000 FIDE Chess.com Online Nations Cup, co-hosted by the chess playing platform, has two retired greats - Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik, as captains of teams Europe and India respectively - and Viswanathan Anand, among others, on board. However, it will be missing the biggest name in world chess today - reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen. The world body is yet to announce the exact composition of players for the tournament. Carlsen's team, however, confirmed to ESPN that he 'does not plan on playing' the FIDE event.
Indeed, FIDE's tournament is due to start two days after the conclusion of Carlsen's tournament, a 16-day blitz tournament titled 'Magnus Invitational'. The first edition of this tournament currently underway has a prize pool of $250,000, the highest ever sum of money for an online chess tournament. Carlsen organised it after FIDE stopped the Candidates tournament in Yekaterinberg following Round 7 after Russia shut air traffic given the coronavirus pandemic.
The event features, in addition to Carlsen, five out of the eight players from the Candidates, top-ranked blitz player Hikaru Nakamura as well as chess' newest phenomenon, 16-year-old Iranian Alireza Firouzja. Firouzja, who has confirmed his participation for the FIDE tournament too, beat Carlsen at the Banter Blitz Cup earlier this month before being defeated by him at the Magnus Invitational on Monday -- a win that Carlsen was unreserved in his joy over, confessing that he had 'wanted to crush' Firouzja.
The idea of an extraordinarily successful athlete with access to funds and following is an uncomfortable one for most sports federations. It could, in effect, mean diminished control over the player and a prospective rival power centre. Though it's too early to look at long-term implications of Carlsen's move to put together a super tournament of his own, there is precedent to suggest that FIDE may have cause for concern. In 1993, Kasparov, the then world champion, broke away from FIDE and formed a rival organisation, Professional Chess Association, which ran its own cycle of World Championship matches. Kasparov's clout and standing as being head and shoulders above the competition added a lot of interest to the matches that involved him. The split in the chess world lasted for 13 years before the title was unified in 2006. Carlsen, presently on a record 121-game unbeaten streak, carries a similar star power. In 2011, after moving to the top of the rankings, he had refused FIDE's offer to play the Candidates over the format of the event, preferring a double round robin style. For the first time in 51 years, a double round robin format was used at the 2013 Candidates, which had Carlsen participating and winning the event and later that year beating Anand to his first world title. Candidates tournaments continue to stick to that format today.
FIDE, however, denied that the Online Nations Cup is, even if in a small way, a response to the Carlsen-organised tournament. "No, it's not that really. We have a massive online strategy planned," FIDE director general Emil Sutovsky told ESPN. The Online Nations Cup will have six teams representing Russia, USA, Europe, China, India and the Rest of the World consisting of four players each competing in rapid play format. Players will begin with 25 minutes on the clock with 10 seconds of extra time after each move and each team must include at least one female player. To keep in check any attempts at cheating during the FIDE online event, participants will be monitored by arbiters via a video conference call along with their computer screen, webcam and room being supervised for any external assistance.
With almost no live sport taking place in the world, the world chess body also looks at this as an opportunity to take chess to a wider audience. According to Chess.com, an estimated 16 million games are being played every day since the lockdown began, nine million of them on their playing platform alone.