"The internet is here to stay" - That's how Magnus Carlsen broke the news of hosting a full tour of online events to his Twitter followers on Thursday. He was announcing a fresh programme of four super tournaments, with a combined prize fund of $1million (including the recently-concluded Magnus invitational), but that six-word tweet could be of far greater significance.
Chess is one of the few sports to make a seamless switch to an online avatar in the world of social distancing and Carlsen, the world champion, has been the driving force - ten days ago he won the $250,000 online invitational event he hosted and which was named after him. Now comes phase two.
Starting May 19, Carlsen and 11 other top players will compete in the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge (May 19- July 3, $150,000) followed by the Online Chess Masters (June 20- July 5, $150,000), Legends of Chess (July 21- Aug 5, $150,000) and eventually the grand final (Aug 9-20, $300,000). The top four players of each tournament are guaranteed a place in the next one and the grand final will be played between the winners of the individual tournaments. The Lindores event is expected to see nine of the world's top 20 players.
"The [Magnus Carlsen] Invitational was a lot of fun and we had great feedback from the players, our broadcast partners and viewers. While physical chess tournaments and sports are still either cancelled or postponed, bringing an entire chess tour online is what I feel is right for chess now," Carlsen was quoted as saying on chess24.com. The Invitational was the first online chess tournament to be broadcast on TV. It received coverage on Spanish, German, Russian, and Czech TV and was covered live on Norway's biggest commercial channel.
All this would suggest that, despite Carlsen's reticence, there's a serious parallel chess tour in the making. The world chess body, Fide, however maintains that it does not see Carlsen's enterprise of organising his own slew of online events as necessarily stepping on their toes. "We think it's great for chess. Fide retains all its rights related to official events but if a private event attracts such huge funding and publicity, we can only be positive about it," Fide director general Emil Sutovsky told ESPN.
Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, who's been in the sport for over three decades now and is likely to be a top choice for Carlsen's 'Legends of Chess' tournament in July along with Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik, too doesn't view Carlsen's ambitions as confrontational to Fide yet.
"Well, yes it may cause people to speculate that having his own line of events sets up the infrastructure for something bigger in the future but at the moment I don't believe he's challenging Fide's authority in any way," Anand told ESPN. "I can't see why he would want to do something like that. My own impression is that Fide is happy to see any chess happen at this point because it keeps the sport alive for fans."
Russian great and former World No. 1 Vladimir Kramnik feels the danger lies elsewhere. "It's good to have more events, no doubt. But the problem with serious online tournaments is eventual cheating possibilities. Only once that issue is fully addressed can we have a significant event. A few more such entertaining tournaments being organised would be nice but maybe that should be it for now," he told ESPN.
Fide has its own tournament, the Steinitz Memorial, a three-day online event starting on Friday that Carlsen will be a part of. It will be followed by their social project 'Checkmate Coronavirus', where millions of chess fans are expected to participate in a month-long competition. Fide also plans to host the Chess Olympiad online this year with the final playing day falling on July 20, which happens to be international chess day. It is also likely that the World Corporate Chess Championship which was to take place in October in Barcelona could turn into an online event.
"We work closely with Carlsen's entourage to ensure there are no clashes in dates," Fide's communications officer David Llada told this reporter. "In fact, they were kind enough to change the July 20 start date of one of their events since that's the day that commemorates the founding of Fide and is important to us. Our relationship with Carlsen is excellent. Only two days ago his father Henrik represented him at the Fide Council meeting held online. World champions have been honorary members of the Fide presidential board but never actually took part in any meetings like it's happening now."
Last week though, Carlsen appeared to take umbrage over the revelation of his reluctance to play under the same financial terms as the other participants at the Fide Online Nations Cup. He responded - seemingly in jest - that since he'd been 'outed as greedy', next time he'd ask for 'at least triple' of what he'd demanded then.
The chess24 website, which was partly acquired by Carlsen last year, says that it is paying for the eye-popping prize fund. "The prize money is coming from chess24, the digital home of Magnus Carlsen, and one of the companies within the Play Magnus Group where Magnus is a shareholder, pays the prize money and manages the rights, partnerships, sales and distribution related to the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour," its CEO Sebastian Kuhnert said. He called the Tour an "innovative way to raise attention for chess and the products within the Play Magnus ecosystem" which covers all aspects of e-sports and e-learning related to chess through its products.