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On Chess: World Champion Carlsen returns to St. Louis for unique exhibition matches

Magnus Carlsen (left) will face off against Ding Liren in the Champions Showdown. That match is just one of dozens of great pairings to watch during the event, which starts Nov. 9.
Provided | Saint Louis Chess Club
Magnus Carlsen (left) will face off against Ding Liren in the Champions Showdown. That match is just one of dozens of great pairings to watch during the event, which starts Nov. 9.

The Champions Showdown has become a staple in each year's chess calendar. The best players in the world return to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis  — but with a twist!

The two world-renowned, rock-star events that St. Louis hosts are the Sinquefield Cup and the new Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, played back to back in August. These super tournaments are part of the Grand Chess Tour, the most prestigious chess circuit with which serious chess fans are familiar.

The Showdown, because it isn't part of any greater circuit, has always been a more experimental place for top level chess. Players coming to this event have had to face different challenges, including Chess 960 (sometimes called Fischer Random, in which the pieces start in random orders in the back rank), Basque Chess (in which the players face against each other on two different boards at the same time with alternating colors), and many variations of time controls. This year, the Showdown goes old school: match formats, rapid and blitz time controls, and no increment or delay.

The field is star-studded, with arguably the eight best players in rapid and blitz coming to play. Unlike the round-robin tournament format, where they get to play against every other player, the competitors will have one-on-one matches. One player against the other, mano a mano, throughout the entirety of the event. In essence, the matches are separate from each other – the result of match A won't influence match B.

And now, for the line-up. Reigning U.S. Champion, Wesley So, will be facing Cuba's No. 1, Leinier Dominguez; Blitz World No. 2, Hikaru Nakamura, will face off against former World Champion, Veselin Topalov; USA's No. 1, Fabiano Caruana, will match up against two-time World Blitz Champion, Alexander Grischuk. 

If this were not enough, we will have the return of reigning World Champion, Blitz world No. 1, Magnus Carlsen, facing off against China's top player, Ding Liren. This match holds particular interest as Ding  has worked with Carlsen before, and Ding is one of the select few players already qualified for the Candidate's tournament, an event that will determine Carlsen's next opponent in the World Championship match.

The big difference between the Champions Showdown and other tournaments is the absence of increment and delay. This means that the players start each game with a fixed amount of time (30 minutes the first day, 20 the second, 10 the third and only five on the last day). If a player runs out of time, it’s the same as being checkmated. Tournaments with similar time controls are rare; when time pressure kicks in, there could be pieces flying off the board as players hurry to not lose on time. 

Will we be seeing a more sportsman approach from the players, or will the world’s best players be seen toppling pieces off the board and making wild expressions during time scramble? Watch for yourself; the showdown begins Nov. 9 at 1 p.m. at the Saint Louis Chess Club and online at uschesschamps.com

The prize pool is very inspiring. Each match will have a $60,000 prize for the winner and $40,000 for the loser, for a total $400,000 prize fund. The action will, as usual, be broadcast live by the commentary team of Jennifer Shahade, Maurice Ashley and Yasser Seirawan. However, considering the time control, I would highly recommend watching this tournament live at the club.

Alejandro Ramirez became a FIDE master at age 9, an international master at 13, and earned his grand master title by the age of 15. That achievement set Ramirez as the first Centro-American to earn the elite grand master title and, at the time, the second youngest grandmaster. Ramirez is the coach of the Saint Louis University Chess Team and a regular member of the Saint Louis Chess Club commentary team in both English and Spanish.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Alejandro Ramirez