Chess: Magnus Carlsen in Olympiad action as world No 1 targets record rating

Magnus Carlsen, newly retired from world title matches, is in Chennai this weekend for Friday’s opening round of the 186-nation Olympiad, where, due to Carlsen’s elevated rating, Norway are the No 3 seeds behind the US and India.

Round one Olympiad results (selected): India 4-0 Zimbabwe, Angola 0.5-3.5 US, Lebanon 0.5-3.5 Norway, Spain 4-0 Wales, England 4-0 Cyprus. Women: Tajikistan 0-4 India, Ukraine 4-0 South Africa, Iraq 0-4 Georgia, Libya 0-4 England. For full results, Gawain Jones won in 19 moves.

The five-times champion has underperformed in previous Olympiads, and India, with four fast rising teenage grandmasters, seem more likely bronze medallists. Games are live and free to watch online from 10.30am daily. Carlsen will aim for the individual top board gold and a boost to his new ambition of a world record 2900 rating.

Earlier, Carlsen won six blitz games in a row at the Zagreb leg of the US-backed Grand Tour, his first event since his announcement that he would not defend his crown in 2023. His surge was checked on the final day when he lost his last two, including one to Alireza Firouzja, the 19-year-old who he has identified as a future rival. After going clear, Carlsen ended up with a 22.5/36 total and edged first prize by half a point.

As ever, his comments were objective and self-critical: “I felt my play was pretty shaky throughout most of the day, but I won a bunch of these very nervy time-trouble duels where nobody really knew what was going on”. The 31-year-old Norwegian holds the Tour record of 27/36 points, achieved at Kolkata 2019, along with several other high totals.

Carlsen’s chess future is still unclear. His plan after giving up his crown is to aim for a record 2900 rating, a stratospheric level which he has twice missed by fewer than 20 points. If, freed of the drudgery of match prep, he could now unleash his full creative powers and achieve the chess Everest within a year or two, that would surely cement his status as the clear all-time No 1 ahead of Garry Kasparov.

In reality, the technical and personal obstacles are significant. The online rapid/blitz Tour is a major diversion of his energy from over-the-board classical chess. For 2900, he needs what he has been missing recently, consistent 75% totals and sustained winning runs against 2790 opponents. The classical calendar is smaller than it was, and two of what used to be his best events, Shamkir and the Grenke Classic, have ceased. His ratings chart for the past decade is a 2850 plateau, with peaks and dips 25 points or so either side.

Long ago, Alexander Alekhine dominated his rivals in 1930-31, Bobby Fischer crushed them in 1970-71, and Garry Kasparov reached his peak of 2851 in 1999. In 1999-2002, Kasparov played 10 classical super tournaments, won nine of them, tied first in the other, and lost once in 115 games. Those exceptional performances were all achieved before the current era of super-computers and of opening prep deep into the middle game, so 2900 for Carlsen could legitimately be claimed as a modern equivalent at a higher, more sophisticated level.

The question is whether, after achieving so much, his ambition still really burns bright. A decade ago, in his early 20s, he was often asked how long he would continue, and his reply was to the effect that he would not be like Kasparov or Anatoly Karpov, who continued to seek success in their 40s. If his new attempt at 2900 stalls, then gradually winding down and playing more poker and padel tennis may start to seem attractive.

Carlsen is well known to prefer a world championship format where rapid, blitz, and even one-minute bullet play a part, with the aim to find the best all-round competitor rather than the best at slow classical chess.

Asked in an interview this week if he had thought of coming back to the world championship cycle and playing the Candidates again, Carlsen said: “I have never ruled out a return in the future. If some changes are made to the world championship, then anything can happen.”

Back at the Olympiad, England are seeded 10th, and hope for a top-six finish. Several of the team are in good current form, and the recent track record is promising: fifth at Baku 2018, the last Olympiad before the pandemic, second to Russia in the 2019 World teams, and gold at the recent World 50+ and 65+ teams.

In the absence of China and Russia, the 162-team women’s Olympiad looks close between India, Ukraine and Georgia. England, led by the popular commentator Jovanka Houska, are seeded 21st, and will hope for a marker for future years when current ECF policies to encourage more girl players should bear fruit. She Plays to Win provides free online coaching for girl newcomers.

Shreyas Royal, 13, scored his best result yet at the Sparkassen Open in Dortmund. The London teen tied for third with 7/9 among 185 players, defeating a GM by a fierce attack.

3826 1…Qxg1+! 2 Bxg1 Bg2 mate.