Norway Chess preview: Old faces and new opportunities clash in Stavanger

Two former world champions return to challenge the current one.

Image via Piqsels

Set to take place between May 30 and June 10 in Stavanger, the Norway Chess tournament is one of the most prestigious chess events on the calendar, featuring the top players of the world as invitees.

This time around, it will be overshadowed somewhat by the Candidates Tournament, the event that will determine the challenger of world champion Magnus Carlsen just a couple of days after Norway Chess concludes. Most of the chess world will be awaiting that event with bated breath, though the presence of Carlsen and a couple of unexpected faces should add quite a bit of intrigue to the mix in Stavanger, too.

Carlsen’s quest for 2900 continues

There’s no question whether Magnus Carlsen is the best chess player in the world right now, and it’s really just the all-time GOAT considerations where Garry Kasparov’s name might come up as an alternative suggestion. Still, 2022 sees a lot of question marks swirl around the Norwegian: it remains unknown (and according to the man, unlikely) whether he will defend his title again in the next match, casting a massive cloud over the upcoming Candidates Tournament with his indecision.

There is also his incredible quest for smashing the seemingly impossible 2900 rating barrier. Currently, Carlsen is on 2864 points, with only two other players past the 2800 mark: Ding Liren at 2805.5 and Alireza Firouzja at 2804. Not only does this highlight the edge Carlsen has on the chasing pack, it also shows the difficulty of his task; even wins against his closest rivals would only net him very little in terms of rating points. Having won the past three Norway Chess events in a row, he’s expected to top the field again for a fourth time.

Just consider the recent Tata Steel Masters tournament. The Norwegian crushed the field with a 9.5/13 result against super-grandmasters, and all he got for it was 3.1 points. He then proceeded to lose it and then some in a single game. Drawing against 2466-rated IM Geir Sune Tallaksen Ostmoe in the Norwegian League cost him 4.1 points by itself. The task is not going to get any easier the closer he gets to 2900.

Not quite retired: Topalov, Anand, and Wang Hao

Some of the biggest chess names (and former world champions) of the past are making unexpected returns at Norway Chess. Much to the surprise of fans around the world, Veselin Topalov, Viswanathan Anand, and Wang Hao are all returning to the table at this event. They will form the bottom three of the ratings charts at this tournament—not that 2751, 2744 and 2730 are particularly low, given that all three are still in the world’s top 20 players. It’s just how stacked this field is.

Neither Topalov nor Anand announced a formal retirement from competitive play, but the two former world champions have not played at elite events for years at this point. Topalov’s last classical tournament was back in early 2020 at Gibraltar. Five-time world champion Anand was also seen more often in a commentator role rather than a competitor in the last couple of years.

Of the three, GM Hao is the only player who announced his retirement from competitive chess in 2021 after the conclusion of the second part of the Candidates Tournament, citing “health issues” that most likely related to a stomach ulcer. Whether his return is permanent remains to be seen.

There’s little doubt their invitations are at least in part due to the blanket ban on Russian players in the tournament. The organizers announced in early March that they will support the sanctions against Russa by not inviting any of the country’s grandmasters to the event, regardless of their stance on the conflict in Ukraine.

The two Candidates who dare to compete…

You wouldn’t fault the players looking to challenge Carlsen for the world championship title to stay away from this event. The Candidates Tournament is set to begin just a couple of days after the conclusion of Norway Chess, and it could prove to be a disadvantage to compete in another elite-level tournament just a few days before it starts. Whether it’s exhaustion or showcasing your opening preparation, the Candidates participants showing up here are taking quite a risk, but they also add a lot of prestige and intrigue to the event. After all, they’ll face Magnus at one point or another in the event.

The players in question are Richárd Rapport and Teimour Radjabov. Rapport qualified for the event through the FIDE Grand Prix in memorable fashion, reaching a record-high sixth place in the overall rankings list. He will be the third-highest rated player in this tournament. Meanwhile, Radjabov got the wildcard spot at the Candidates due to an unusual set of circumstances: he refused to compete at the previous Candidates Tournament because of the coronavirus.

He was vindicated in the end, as the organizers had to stop the event midway through because of lockdowns in Russia and they were forced to split it into two parts, finishing it up a year later. To compensate Radjabov for his stance (which turned out to be more than reasonable), he received the wildcard invitation to this year’s event. Currently, he’s No. 12 on the world rankings, right behind the surging Hikaru Nakamura, who will also be at the tournament.

…and those who missed out on the big stage

Norway Chess will also provide an opportunity for some of the elite players in the world to find consolation for missing out on the Candidates this cycle. Wesley So, Anish Giri, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave can at least look forward to winning a prestigious tournament even if they already forfeited their chance to challenge Carlsen for the world championship title.

All four players were present at the FIDE Grand Prix tournaments and were expected to make deep runs, but that hasn’t come to pass. Instead, it was Rapport and Nakamura who clinched the two spots on offer. Though So did win Leg Three, it was a futile victory, being too far behind in the overall standings to reach top two. While winning here wouldn’t be anywhere near as impactful as winning the Candidates Tournament (something none of them managed to do despite having made it that far in the past), it would be a great way for them to start gearing up for the next world championship cycle.