Chess events abroad: Same old faces but still exciting

JANUARY 15 ― While the year-end saw the Johore and Penang International Opens and the Philippines managing two back to back Grandmaster (GM) International Open Championships in Quezon City, there were of course the traditional major events played worldwide over Christmas and through to January.

In Australia there was something for everyone with numerous weekenders and rapids. The highlight of course was the Australasia Masters, both a GM Round Robin and an International Master event organised by popular Melbourne promoter (and Australian Chess Federation vice president) International Master Leonid Sandler, to give local talents the opportunity to get title norms.

This was followed by the Australian Open in Sydney and sadly the dates of this post-Christmas event overlapped with the New Zealand Open which is now an annual event and opened the new year.

India has made huge strides in recent years, becoming the dominant world force in World and Asian Youth events, but the key perhaps to its success has been the intense competition created with their organisation of numerous strong International Opens.

Like in the Philippines, now also copied in Malaysia, India chooses to hold back to back events and often it is three in a row! So at the end of December we saw the Chennai Open and then the Delhi Open.

For the Swiss, after the Zurich Open to celebrate Christmas, the Basel Open traditionally opens the new year and how can one forget the long-running Groningen Festival in the Netherlands which ends the year.

The English have one of the longest running events too with the Hastings International Chess Congress and the Swedish have now joined them with the Rilton Cup in Sweden which also spans the old and new years.

The Qatar Open has joined the big UAE Opens of Dubai and Abu Dhabi but now Al Ain is the richest of the Emirates with its Open, now the third in succession, held over Christmas; for them, this is the off season when its citizens are on holiday.

At the elite level, Tata Steel, renamed from Corus and even earlier from Wijk aan Zee where it had long been held, is now going on with many of the top players in the world refreshed after the Christmas holidays and eager to fight.

This will be followed a week later with Grenke Chess Classic in Baden-Baden, Germany with another stellar field from a mix of the majority of the Tata participants joined by other top players.

Tata Steel standings after Round Four. ― Pictures by Peter Long
Tata Steel standings after Round Four. ― Pictures by Peter Long

At the time of writing this column, Tata has just completed Round Four going into a rest day and already there is so much to write about!

Even before Tata started, there was a great deal of excitement as Magnus Carlsen in the Masters event would be playing his first tournament since retaining his World Championship Match after defeating Viswanathan Anand.

Everyone is wondering if he can go back to dominating these super tournaments as he had done so often before when a world championship challenger.

The man who stunned both Carlsen and the rest of the chess world with his 7-0 start at the Sinquefield Cup on his way to a comprehensive victory is also playing and Fabiano Caruana, now the No. 2 ranked player in the world, is expected to be a big threat with his consistency.

On the other hand, the man he had displaced, 32-year-old Lev Aronian (just 10 years older!), who had in the last four years been considered the man most likely to challenge Anand and then Carlsen would be keen to prove that his best results are not behind him after a run of indifferent form in the last year which saw him drop several places down the world rankings.

Giri and Caruana look like safe bets to challenge Magnus Carlsen.
Giri and Caruana look like safe bets to challenge Magnus Carlsen.

There is also Wesley So who had risen to prominence in the last year and a half with a huge ratings increase on the back of winning practically every Open he played in North America; results that catapulted him into the Top 10.

So had also been in the news due to his switching allegiance to the USA from his native Philippines and that was followed quickly by his decision to quit college to focus on becoming world champion.

An equally young man, Anish Giri, who has long been ranked higher than So, had also in this period made a jump to be comfortable with the elite he has already been competing against for some years.

The safe money would be on the former prodigy of Nepalese-Russian heritage born in St Petersburg who is now well established as the top player in the Netherlands although his ambition for the fight when playing top players has been questioned.

Tata is surprisingly without a single representative from Russia this year but has the Women's World Champion Hou Yifan together with her countryman Ding Liren who is tipped for great things by many.

No one can ever ignore the immense talent of Vassily Ivanchuk who when he is in the mood is capable of beating any and all and lo comers and behold he is indeed the early leader!

So the question is whether he will continue playing to run away with the event or flame out; both are equal probabilities as Ivanchuk has shown in the past on numerous occasions.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.