Norway Chess 2016: A commentator’s preview


By GM Jan Gustafsson
Illustrations by Andres Wadalupe


Congratulations to Sergey Karjakin!

Now that we know the next challenger for Magnus Carlsen, the conversation has moved on to evaluating his chances against the champ. A lot of people have opined that everything Karjakin can do, Carlsen can do better.

That theory doesn’t apply when it comes to winning Altibox Norway Chess, though.
Karjakin 2 Carlsen 0.

Will that gap narrow this year? Who else has a chance? Let’s have a look.

1. Magnus Carlsen

The World Champion could use March to lean back and watch the others fight it out to earn the right to challenge him, Lion King-style. That should help his chances of finally winning one on his home turf, but will it be enough to overcome the home disadvantage?
I’ve long believed that in chess, playing at home is no good. The added pressure and obligations are not compensated by the adrenaline boost loudly cheering crowds produce for the local heroes in other sports. Then again, Karjakin just won in Moscow.

Prediction: Magnus is the favourite in every tournament he plays. 4th time is a charm!

2. Vladimir Kramnik

Big Vlad might no longer be the Lion King, but a look at his number 2 spot in the world rankings should be enough to convince us that he has plenty of teeth left.

Not having been able to play the Candidates and fight for another shot at the crown must have pained him, but on the plus side he got plenty of rest – even more than Magnus, since Kramnik also skipped Wijk aan Zee and Gibraltar earlier this year.

Prediction: His bank of opening ideas should be full, but is he rusty or rested? The first rounds will tell us. This one could go either way.

3. Anish Giri

Giri might have had the toughest March of them all. His 14 draws in the Candidates have inspired the Internet to come up with all kinds of #GiriJokes. Not all of them funny, though. Calling him the Artist because he likes to draw or suggesting his rapping name should be 50percent? Ok, these are actually pretty funny.

Anish had the last laugh already by tweeting that he has to draw some conclusions now. I’m a fan of the guy, and as the president of the Chicken Chess Club I already feel like a giant hypocrite for bringing up the topic. The best way to shut up the haters would be to win a game in Norway. Early.

As for his chances, he has never won a supertournament, but he is only 21 and keeps getting stronger.

Prediction: +1 or +2, but not enough for first.

4. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The Frenchman with two names (TM Viktor Korchnoi) spent the Candidates analysing the games of his colleagues. Witnessing all the 1.c4 e5 played there, he expressed concern that everybody has refuted his pet weapon, the Sicilian Najdorf. I doubt it. Maxime’s preparation tends to be stellar and not having to show his hand for a while should work in his favour. Now firmly established in the top 10 and having gained a lot of experience in last year’s Grand Chess Tour, he will be a force to be reckoned with.

Prediction: MVL will contend for first place.

5. Levon Aronian

The brilliant Armenian had to relive his personal nightmare in the Candidates. Good start, weak finish, no World Championship match for one of the dominant players of this generation. Just as in the previous Candidates Tournaments.

Levon very openly admitted his heartbreak at the final press conference over there. I hope he recovers quickly. The chess world is a better place with Levon Aronian in good form, as Kasparov said. The same goes for the post-game press conferences.

My interest in Levon doing well is mainly of a selfish nature. If he stops playing in supertournaments, he could easily put the rest of us pundits out of business by starting to commentate on them. Good thing he’s only 33.
Prediction: His wounds are too fresh and Levon will struggle in Norway. Let’s hope he proves me wrong!

6. Sergey Karjakin

Carlsen’s challenger for the crown.

The reigning World Cup winner.

The two-time Norway Chess winner making his return. There’s plenty to talk about.

Which will be needed, because frankly, Karjakin is chess commentator’s kryptonite. He just makes it very likely to miss dinner! There is something in his play that gets him stuck in a bad endgame at least a couple of times a tournament. So put yourself in our shoes: it’s 9pm, dinner closes at 10 and Karjakin’s game is the last one running. We know he won’t lose, the guy is superhuman at defending endings. What you gonna do? All that commentators’ talk about basketball (yay!), cricket (brrr), TV shows and getting stuck on lonely islands is clearly Karjakin’s fault and his fault alone.

Prediction: Karjakin will need a moment to adjust to his new status. I expect him not to contend for the top places, but end up somewhere mid-table.

7. Pavel Eljanov

The Ukrainian has always been a bit of a role model for me. Not a wunderkind, but a serious worker who just keeps getting stronger. After his fantastic play in the 2015 World Cup he’s earning some well-deserved shots in top events – Wijk and now Stavanger.

Prediction: Eljanov will stick to his guns and play solid, classical chess. He should score around 50%. He’s good.

8. Pendyala Harikrishna

Another guy who just keeps getting stronger. Aged 29 and no longer prodigy age, Hari has put together a long series of great results that have taken his rating to 2765 levels, even challenging Vishy Anand’s spot as Indian Number 1!

His rise, terrorising opens and team competitions all over the world, was so sudden I don’t even have a cartoon Hari yet. It’s coming!
On the rare occasions he gets into trouble on the chessboard, he has shown an almost Karjakinesque ability to dig his way out of it. The one big doubt I have is if his black openings will be good enough in this company to avoid that scenario from happening a lot.

Prediction: Hari is still a rookie at this level. He will be put under pressure, which will cost energy. I expect a small minus score.

9. Veselin Topalov

While his catastrophe in Moscow (-5, the only player to finish with a negative score) might be what’s freshest in our memory, this is the defending Norway Chess Champion!
Topalov has been outspoken about his reduced work regimen in the last couple of years and about having no problem accepting that his time might have passed.

Then again, his results in Norway have been getting better every year.
Does the Stavanger air have a Benjamin Button effect on the Bulgarian?

Prediction: His outings in London and Moscow are cause for concern. The air will help him to get close to 50%, but no more.

10. Nils Grandelius

The qualifier is the Swedish number one, who convincingly edged out Jon Ludvig Hammer, Hou Yifan and Aryan Tari to earn the last spot.

I gotta admit, I don’t know much about Nils. I do know that he plays sharp, exciting chess and is capable of playing wacky Sicilians like 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 or the Dragon.

The rating gap to the rest of the field is big. I’ve been in a similar spot before and it’s all about starting well! If that doesn’t work, the gang will smell blood. Super GMs hunt in packs, so don’t get that target on your back early or you will be facing surprise openings to make you work extra hard every day.

Start well and they might look elsewhere for a wounded animal and play the Berlin. Then again, Nils might be less fatalistic than me and just consider this a fantastic learning opportunity either way.

Prediction: Gotta nail that start! Then 3-3.5/9 is realistic. If that doesn’t work, the going can get tough.

That’s it. My track record with chess predictions is about as good as Giri’s win rate in Moscow my Norwegian, so there should still be hope for everybody!
No matter what happens, Altibox Norway Chess 2016 should be a lot of fun! It certainly will be for me, as it’s another chance to work with the one and only Peter Svidler in the commentary booth.

See you in Stavanger!