The 8th edition of Altibox Norway Chess was the first super tournament to return to over-the-board chess since the Candidates Tournament was suspended in the end of March, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Originally scheduled for June and as a 10-player round-robin, the tournament was held from 5-16 October as a 6-player double round-robin, because of travel restrictions.
With World Champion Magnus Carlsen, World number two Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian, the top three seeds were all world-class players and former tournament winners – Carlsen in 2019 and 2016, Caruana in 2018 and Aronian in 2017. The field was completed by two of the world’s most promising young players, Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Alireza Firouzja, as well as by the Norwegian number two and 2017 Junior World Champion, Aryan Tari.
The coronavirus pandemic of course had a serious impact on the tournament. Players and staff from outside Norway had to quarantine for 10 days prior to the tournament (the Norwegian quarantine rules allowing for outside activities, the nice weather, as well as the organisers providing bikes and goody bags made this period not too unpleasant). Chess pieces and boards were disinfected before every game, visitors wore masks in the playing hall and Antibac disinfectant and hand sanitizers was widely used by the players, staff and volunteers. However, since everyone had undergone quarantine (the two Norwegians had self-isolated at home) and been tested twice, the players were able to play their games without having to wear masks, and without a Plexiglas above the board. This was very much welcomed by the players, who were all visibly very happy to be back at the board after such a long hiatus. While Caruana and Aronian had both played a few games in the Bundesliga shortly before flying out to Norway, Carlsen’s last classical event had been Tata Steel Chess, all the way back in January.
As for the tournament itself, chess fans all over the world could hardly have hoped for a more exciting event. While the format of draws in classical games being decided by an Armageddon game remained the same as last year (when Norway Chess became the first super tournament to try out this new format), the point system was slightly adapted this year. A win in a classical game was worth 3 points (with 0 for a loss), while a draw in the classical game followed by a win in the Armageddon was worth 1.5 points, and a loss in the Armageddon 1 point.
This system, combined with an incredibly fighting field of players, led to a very competitive event, as out of the 30 classical games, only 11 (plus those today) ended in draws. Fabiano Caruana had taken the early lead after beating Tari and Duda in their classical encounters in the first two rounds, but round 4 was a huge turning point in the tournament as Magnus Carlsen beat Caruana for the first time in a classical game after over 2 years, and 19 consecutive draws.
There followed a first rest day, during which Levon Aronian won a cake decorating competition in the showroom of our sponsors HTH, and then the tournament once again made global headline news as Magnus Carlsen’s 125-game unbeaten streak was broken by Jan-Krzysztof Duda after a wild game. This profited Aronian who took the lead at the halfway mark, but the very next he lost his game against Caruana, while Firouzja took out Tari and thus became the new leader. Round 7 was another highly fighting day, with both top games ending in draws, and Firouzja emerging out of the day one point clear of Carlsen. With three rounds to go, Aronian and Caruana were also both still within striking distance. Round 8 was another turning point, as Carlsen was the only player who managed to win his classical game, and thus he was now the one with a 1-point lead over Firouzja going into the second rest day. In a perfectly timed turn of events, the players were set to meet in a possibly decisive clash in round 9, as a win would guarantee Carlsen tournament victory with a round to spare. What started out as a quiet and equal game soon became the tournament decider, as after having been put under huge pressure by Carlsen throughout the game, Firouzja blundered in a drawn pawn endgame and had to resign on the spot. Magnus Carlsen thus defended his Altibox Norway Chess title and was crowned winner with one round to spare.
In the last round, all that was left to play for were the remaining two podium spots, as well as the money of course, with a total prize fund of NOK 1.810.000 at stake. But what a round it was! Levon Aronian beat Magnus Carlsen with the black pieces, but that was only good enough for third place as Alireza Firouzja also won his game against Duda and clinched second.
Congratulations to Magnus Carlsen on winning Altibox Norway Chess 2020 and see you all next year!
‘This tournament is not only the first in a long period of time, but also maybe the most exciting since years, because it’s really very interesting to follow. We have a big festival of chess here, in all senses. It’s a fantastic tournament and I guess we all wish it will never end.’ -Vladimir Kramnik
“It’s been a very fun couple of weeks chess wise. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback on the tournament format, which wasn’t too different from the format we introduced last year. It’s always great to have the best chess players, their team members as well as the rest of the crew gathered in Stavanger. I believe we’ve managed to create a nice atmosphere at the venue, despite the social distancing! The challenge of organizing such a high profile event during covid-19 certainly was an added challenge and a learning experience. However, we are very pleased we managed to go through with the event and now we look forward to celebrating the players and thanking them for staying in Stavanger for three and a half weeks!” –Benedicte Westre Skog