Magnus Carlsen, in white shirt, leans back on his chair as Fabiano Caruna on the other side of the table contemplates the chessboard
Magnus Carlsen faces Fabiano Caruana at last week’s Freestyle Chess © Lennart Ootes

World No 1 Magnus Carlsen duly won last week’s Freestyle Chess invitation at the Weissenhaus resort in north Germany, though not without a scare, as the Norwegian, 33, was within one game of a quarter-final elimination by the rising talent Alireza Firouzja.

In Freestyle, also known as Fischer Random or Chess 960, the back rank pieces are arranged randomly and symmetrically, thus defeating book memory of openings.

Carlsen survived, and went on to defeat Fabiano Caruana in the final. The pairing, a repeat of their 2018 title match, had a dramatic start as Carlsen opened 1 g2-g4!, which would be the dubious Grob in normal chess, but is good here because White’s h1 queen immediately threatens to capture Black’s b7 pawn. 

The event had a generous $200,000 prize fund, available in $20 bills, but even that may be just the start. At the prize-giving, the billionaire sponsor Jan Buettner, who made his fortune from AOL Europe, pledged a repeat in 2025 and also stated that his ambition was a global Tour of five events in different continents, each with $1mn prize money. Small wonder that Fide, the world chess body, is rumoured to have approached him to stage and back the 2024 world championship at classical chess, where China’s Ding Liren will meet his challenger from the Candidates, to be played at Toronto in April.

Ding himself had a dire performance last week, losing 10 games, drawing three and winning none. In an interview after the tournament, he talked of lack of motivation for chess and of being in hospital twice during his seven months away from the board last year. Exactly what ails him is unclear, but the upshot is that whoever wins the Candidates will be a heavy favourite to be the next world champion.

The Weissenhaus event was showcased in spectacular style. A confession booth during play, television close-ups, heart-rate monitoring, post-game interviews and expert running commentaries, plus a time limit designed to produce scrambles, all added to the glitz. The four younger players were eclipsed by the veterans, as the oldest player, 41-year-old Levon Aronian, finished third to Carlsen and Caruana.

Freestyle has fans, but it will remain a niche sideline unless the huge prize funds become reality, and possibly even then. Its major selling point, the absence of memorised openings, is a negative for the average player who relies on his limited but adequate book knowledge as a road map to reach a playable middle game and ending. 

Larger numbers watched Wijk aan Zee, without Carlsen, than tuned in to Weissenhaus. How many of them became converts to Freestyle or were just curious about its imaginative format remains to be seen in 2025, as will the success of sponsor Buettner’s plans for a new multimillion-dollar Tour.

Puzzle 2560

Jan Gustafsson vs Spartak Grigorian, Bundesliga 2022. White to play and mate in six moves, everyone a check.

Click here for solution

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