Two world champion chess players study the board
Ding Liren and Magnus Carlsen, the current official world champion and the current world No 1, in a playoff round at the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, 2019 © Alamy

Magnus Carlsen, the world No 1, and Ding Liren, the official world champion, will meet this weekend for the first time since the Norwegian, 33, abdicated his crown after a 10-year dominance. Ding’s reign of 10 months has been contrastingly unsuccessful, with three mediocre performances by the 31-year-old, plus a long period away from the board for an unspecified illness. They will meet at Freestyle chess. What’s that?

It used to be called Fischer Random after its legendary world champion inventor, and is also known as Chess 960 and Chess 9LX. Now the variant where all the back-row pieces start on random squares has a new name, Freestyle Chess, and is being launched this weekend at a $200,000 event at the Weissenhaus luxury resort on the German Baltic coast.

Both Ding and Carlsen are in the eight-player elite field, along with the US’s Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian, the brilliant Frenchman Alireza Firouzja, plus three leading teenagers Dommaraju Gukesh (India), Vincent Keymer (Germany) and Nodirbek Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan).

Chess fans are likely to be more interested in the results than in the games. The super-elite led by Carlsen are thrilled at Chess9LX because the positions arising from the very first moves are totally new and minimise the need for hours of preparation for each opponent. The generous prize funds for the variant are also an incentive. The Weissenhaus event offers $70,000 for the winner, and total prize money of $200,000.

Lower level club and tournament players, in contrast, have shown little enthusiasm, as the general view is that the normal game is hard enough.

Previous 9LX tournaments were played at a one-hour rapid time limit, but this one will have rapid for the first two days only on Friday and Saturday, when a seven-round all-play-all will decide the seedings for the main knockout. There the format will be the best of two games at classical time rates, with a rapid decider if the score is 1-1. Carlsen describes the event as “a dream come true”.

One view of the tournament is as a generational battle, with 20-year-old Firouzja and the three teenagers against their mature opponents with an average age in their early thirties. For many fans, however, the centre of interest will be Carlsen and Ding, who are certain to meet in the rapid on Friday or Saturday and could also be paired in the knockout classical if Carlsen is the top and Ding the bottom seed.

Carlsen and Ding are scheduled for two more meetings soon. Both will appear at Germany’s Grenke Classic at Karlsruhe in March, a formerly popular annual event which has not been staged for five years due to the pandemic. Then they will be paired at classical chess at Norway’s annual elite invitation at Stavanger in May, where Ding will need improved form to avoid a drop in the classical rankings. In between, the Candidates at Toronto in April will decide which of Ding’s eight potential challengers will qualify for the chance to meet him for his world title later in 2024.

Puzzle 2558 

Samuel Sevian v Wojciech Przybylski, Titled Tuesday 2021. White to move and win.

Click here for solution

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