The Top 10 Chess News Stories Of 2018
Photos: Maria Emelianova, Ugra Chess, Eric Rosen.

The Top 10 Chess News Stories Of 2018

PeterDoggers
PeterDoggers
Dec 31, 2018, 3:15 AM |
36 | Other

Time flies. That's always the feeling when another year comes to an end—and it was definitely a great year for chess.

Caruana winning the Candidates' (and a few more tournaments!), Nakamura winning the Grand Chess Tour (and the Speed Chess Championship!), the double gold for China at the Batumi Olympiad (and the double classical titles for Ju Wenjun!) and the Carlsen-Caruana world championship that led to a record number of views on our Twitch channel—those were some of the highlights of 2018.

But there was much more, of course. In fact, the Chess.com content team posted 408 news posts, and that's just the ones in English. We would like to thank you for staying involved and providing a total of 23,747 comments under the news articles in 2018!

Before we go to our own choice, here's a different top 10: our news stories ranked by number of comments.

  1. GM Solozhenkin Suspended For Making Cheating Accusations; Fellow GMs Protest (1290 comments)
  2. Visually Impaired Player Gets Lifetime Ban For Cheating (390 comments)
  3. AlphaZero Crushes Stockfish In New 1,000-Game Match (380 comments)
  4. Caruana Wins FIDE Candidates' Tournament (340 comments)
  5. Carlsen Wins 2018 World Chess Championship In Playoff (317 comments)
  6. Nakamura Smashes Speed Chess Records, Defeats Hou Yifan (312 comments)
  7. World Chess Championship Game 12: Carlsen Offers Draw In Better Position To Reach Tiebreaks (267 comments)
  8. Live Now: The New Computer Chess Championship (266 comments)
  9. Indian Women's GM Objects To Hijab, Boycotts Chess Event In Iran (233 comments)
  10. Nigel Short To Run For FIDE President (230 comments)

Carlsen Caruana match 2018Possibly our photo of the year: Carlsen and Caruana at the final press conference, where facial expressions say more than a 1,000 words. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Our stories were mostly written by directors of content FM @MikeKlein and @PeterDoggers, but also by our director of international content and social media NM @SamCopeland, our executive editor @Pete, our director of Indian social media IM @Rakesh, our Africa correspondent @Alessandro_Parodi, our women's chess correspondent IM @JovankaHouska, our Russia correspondent and translator @Marignon, the Norwegian chess reporter @TarjeiJS, our chief chess officer IM @DanielRensch and even our CEO and co-founder @Erik.

Like last year, today we're giving a list of what have been the top 10 biggest, most important news stories of the year. But first, let's see what else happened, i.e. some of the (many) stories that just didn't make it but deserve a mention here anyway.

It was the year of the rapid rise of chess streams. Even the world champion joined the party! Arena Kings, a new event very suitable for streaming, had Daniel Naroditsky (finals) and Andrew Tang (overall season) as early winners.

Chess.com is currently working with close to 100(!) partner streamers, who all take regular spots at Chess.com/TV, including GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Jon Ludvig Hammer, Gata Kamsky and Ben Finegold, to name a few.

One of our most famous partner channels is that of the Chessbrahs, who were discussed extensively in this interesting article about the rise of chess among eSports.

Carlsen streaming on the PRO Chess League's Super Sunday.

Speaking of Chess.com, it's safe to say that 2018 was a very big year for this website as well. The company acquired Komodo and organized some fun matches against Hikaru Nakamura and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave as part of many other plans with the engine. Chess.com also emphasized its interest in computer chess by launching the Computer Chess Championship (all events were won by Stockfish so far).

In November, the news came out that Chessbomb and Chess.com had joined forces so that you can now also follow all the top events from our site. What gave us the biggest "rush" was, of course, Puzzle Rush, the addictive tactics game that went viral and is now discussed everywhere and played all over the world, from beginners to the strongest grandmasters.

Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave Puzzle RushLevon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave playing Puzzle Rush during one of the dinners at the London Chess Classic in early December. | Photos: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

It was a great year for America's Sam Shankland, who not only managed to clinch his first U.S. championship ahead of the "holy trinity" Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So—but after that Shankland also came first at the Capablanca Memorial and the American Continental. By that point, he had become the world number 27 with a beautiful 2727 Elo rating!

Another player who was in the news a lot was Ding Liren of China. While already undefeated in chess for 10 months, he injured himself at the Norway Chess tournament but a fractured hip didn't stop him from winning a cooking competition together with Viswanathan Anand.

Our video of the cook-off in Norway.

Ding resumed playing a few months later, and continued where he had left it: not losing games. That ended when he reached the nice round number of 100, thereby breaking Mikhail Tal's 95-game streak from the 1970s.

We saw examples of synergy between football (soccer) and chess, with Girona FC getting chess lessons from GM David Anton, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold playing a game against Magnus Carlsen and the new FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich being in touch with FIFA president Gianni Infantino to implement some joint projects.

The one news article that got the most comments (1,290!) wasn't a nice story. The FIDE ethics commission had suspended Evgeniy Solozhenkin for making unsubstantiated allegations of cheating, published in different articles on the internet. A group of grandmasters wrote an open letter in support of Solozhenkin, and this author was inspired to write a blog.

The end of the year saw the release of more AlphaZero games, and the machine-learning chess project inspired much discussion among computer chess fans. 

And there were the biggest themes in life: those of love, and death. Starting with the more positive stories, we first had Harika Dronavalli's beautiful wedding in August, and then a month later a marriage proposal in the playing hall of the Olympiad. They also got married recently!

Sadly, the chess world lost a number of personalities: IM Nino Khurtsidze, Evgeniy Vasiukov, Aloyzas Kveinys, Bradley Scott Cornelius & IM Lorenz Maximilian Drabke, and recently WIM Ruth Haring and Eduard Dubov

With that, it's time to start discussing the top 10 news stories of the year.

10. The downfall of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

He was the head of the World Chess Federation since 1995, and many chess fans couldn't imagine a FIDE without Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Kalmykian businessman who claimed to have been abducted by aliens and who considered dictators Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Assad among his friends.

However, in 2018 his reign came to an end, after more than two decades. The problems started in November 2015, when Ilyumzhinov appeared on a sanctions list of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.  At the end of April 2018, UBS bank in Switzerland closed FIDE's bank account because of that. Shortly after, Ilyumzhinov announced a dubious ticket for the presidential elections that included a fake name.

Ilyumzhinov DvorkovichThe Russian Chess Federation switching support from Ilyumzhinov to Dvorkovich more or less predicted the future of chess politics. | Photos: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com & Kremlin.ru.

When the Russian Chess Federation switched its support from Ilyumzhinov to Dvorkovich, the writing was on the wall and soon the reigning president withdrew from the elections. For the first time in 23 years, the chess world would have a new leader.

9. The new FIDE president: Arkady Dvorkovich

The sanctions and the bank problems had led to an internal fight in FIDE, which directly led to Georgios Makropoulos, the deputy president, announcing his candidacy. Nigel Short joined the battle as well, before it would be clear that their main rival would be Arkady Dvorkovich and not Ilyumzhinov.

The campaign period was one of back-and-forth accusations. Somewhat ironically, Makropoulos launched an anti-corruption committee that nobody ever heard of afterward, and his team accused Dvorkovich of bribery. In an exclusive interview with Chess.com, Dvorkovich criticized FIDE fundamentally by noting that "[t]he whole system requires major reshape, major change. It should be brought closer to the well-established standards of corporate governance."

Arkady Dvorkovich, the new FIDE PresidentArkady Dvorkovich, the new FIDE President. | Photos: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In the style of Donald Trump, FIDE treasurer Adrian Siegel (as part of the Makropoulos camp) accused the Dvorkovich camp of fake news, and soon they took Dvorkovich to the FIDE ethics commission while declining to answer Chess.com questions to all three candidates. 

At a tumultuous FIDE Congress, Dvorkovich first survived the session at the ethics commission and then convincingly won the elections, shortly after Short had withdrawn at the last minute, asking the delegate to vote for Dvorkovich. The FIDE leadership remained in Russian hands, and with the appointment of grandmasters like Granda ZunigaZhu Chen, Emil Sutovsky, Viktor Bologan and Judit Polgar (alongside Short himself!) and the announcement of a Candidates' Tournament for women, FIDE's future does look brighter than long before.

8. The success of the PRO Chess League

The second season of the PRO Chess League exceeded all our expectations. What used to be an online club championship for American teams quickly transformed itself into a worldwide league in which the very best players participate. It's safe to say that "everyone is talking about the PRO Chess League" during the first months of the year.

With its very own new website, the season took off on January 18 (a rest day at Tata Steel) with 32 teams, among them the Norway Gnomes headed by Magnus Carlsen. Other top GMs included Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Leinier Dominguez and Le Quang Liem. Later in the season we also saw e.g. Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano CaruanaVishy Anand and Wesley So.

The season saw its first-ever All-Star Game (with $5,000 in prizes), a weekly fantasy contest and two "Super Saturdays." On the first (February 24), Carlsen finished on a perfect score and Twitch attracted 220,000 unique viewers (almost half as many as the 440,000 viewers that watched the entire inaugural season of the PRO Chess league).

The icing on the cake was marvellous final weekend on April 7 and 8, when the semifinals and finals took place at the Folsom Street Foundry, a historic esports venue in San Francisco. Players were flown in and battled it out in a beautifully lit room on laptops with spectators watching the season's final moments. The Armenia Eagles took first in overtime and won $20,000, as Zaven Andriasyan won in game three of his sudden-death blitz match with Wang Yue.

7. The renewed popularity of chess960

2018 was also the year when we saw a renewed popularity of chess960, also known as Fischer random chess. This form of chess, where preparation doesn't play a role and players need to think from the very first move, had an annual top GM tournament in Frankfurt and Mainz in the early 2000s but then was kind of forgotten again. Several events took place this year.

In January Chess.com organized its first chess960 championship which was won by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The event was inspired by the decision of the Reykjavik Open organizers to hold a Fischer random tournament on the rest day, on March 9, which would have been Bobby Fischer's 75th birthday.

Sergey Grigoriants, second in the Chess.com tournament, won a trip to Reykjavik and played there. The tournament in Iceland was the first European Fischer Random Cup, won by Aleksander Lenderman—with the best European player Richard Rapport taking the cup.

That was a month after the first, really big over-the-board chess960 event which took place in February in Norway when Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura played an unofficial world championship match. Carlsen won 14-10. The overall conclusion: chess960 turned out to be super exciting and interesting!

Carlsen and Nakamura watching the screen where the Position of the Day is appearing. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.Carlsen and Nakamura watching the screen where the position of the day is appearing in their chess960 match in February. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Later in the year we saw the St. Louis chess club following suit. They organized a number of chess960 matches, in which the one and only Garry Kasparov played Veselin Topalov to make his debut in this format.

Rumor has it that further, significant chess960 events can be expected in 2019. Fischer passed away almost 11 years ago, but Fischer random is alive and kicking.

6. The rise of Indian chess

2018 was a great year for Indian chess, full of promises for more good years to come. We're not even talking about Vishy Anand's victory at the Tal Memorial, only three months after he had clinched the world rapid title in Riyadh (but that was last year), nor the strong efforts of the All India Chess Federation to prepare its teams for the Olympiad, and its success in bringing Anand and Humpy Koneru back in the national teams.

No, this is about risings stars, and a brand new tournament.

This summer both Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu and Nihal Sarin became grandmasters. "Pragg" was briefly the second ever youngest GM in history (and made it to ESPN) until Javokhir Sindarov appeared on the scene. Less than two months after Praggnanandhaa, Nihal got the highest title too. D. Gukesh didn't manage to break Karjakin's record in Sitges, but will surely become a grandmaster as well in 2019.


Nihal and Pragg interviewed at the recent Sunway Sitges Chess Festival.

Both Nihal and Pragg participated in the brand new Tata Steel Chess India rapid and blitz tournament in November in Kolkata. As Anand remarked at the opening ceremony, it was all that was missing in a country that has produced so many talents in recent years. Many open tournaments and other types of events are being organized, but there just wasn't a super tournament yet. Nakamura won the rapid, and Anand himself the blitz.

Yesterday, Nihal showed further promise by finishing shared 12th with 11.5 points as the 139th seed at the world blitz

5. Double gold for China at the Olympiad

India is doing well, but China is ahead in terms of creating world class grandmasters and, for instance, claiming medals at Olympiads. After scoring its first gold in the open group at the Tromsø Olympiad in 2014, China repeated and doubled that success this year with a victory in both the open and women's sections.

In the open group, China edged out chess giants the U.S. and Russia, the top two seeds, on tiebreak after scoring 2-2 against the Americans in the final round. The women's section ended even more dramatically, with Ju Wenjun beating Alexandra Kosteniuk in the last game to finish in the playing hall, China-Russia thus ending in 2-2 and China winning on tiebreak here as well, ahead of Ukraine.

Double gold for China at the Batumi Olympiad Double gold for China at the Batumi Olympiad. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com. 

The other big story of this Olympiad was Poland's amazing run in the open section. The team defeated Russia 2.5-1.5, France 3-1, Ukraine 2.5-1.5, then tied Azerbaijan and Armenia 2-2 and then also beat top seed USA 2.5-1.5!

The tournament lasted two rounds too long for rising star Jan-Krzysztof Duda and his teammates, who lost to China and drew India to finished just out of reach of medals, on fourth place. With both sections being decided on tiebreaks, an old discussion about improving the format was revived again.

4. Two three world titles in one year for Ju Wenjun

Not many chess players, or sports persons in general, will be able to claim that they earned two world titles this year—in the exact same discipline of the sport! China's successes this year also included the achievements of women's world number-two Ju Wenjun, who became world champion in a match, and then defended her title in a knockout tournament.

On May 18, Ju won her world championship match with compatriot Tan Zhongyi with a score of 5.5-4.5. She became the 17th women's world champion, after Vera Menchik, Lyudmila Rudenko, Elizaveta Bykova, Olga Rubtsova, Nona Gaprindashvili, Maia Chiburdanidze, Xie Jun, Susan Polgar, Zhu Chen, Antoaneta Stefanova, Xu Yuhua, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Hou Yifan, Anna Ushenina, Mariya Muzychuk and Tan Zhongyi. See this nice profile of Ju, by the way.

In our report we wrote: "Sadly for her, there's a chance that Ju will become the women's world champion who held her title for the briefest period. This match took place later than was originally scheduled, and the next world championship, a knockout tournament, is scheduled for November."

Ju Wenjun Khanty-Mansiysk 2018Ju Wenjun retained her title in November in Khanty-Mansiysk. | Photo: Ugra Chess.

While the new FIDE leadership announced a change in the women's world championship cycle (introducing, for instance, a Candidates' Tournament), the (last?) knockout tournament took place in November in Khanty-Mansiysk.

The tournament ran at the same time as the Carlsen-Caruana match and therefore didn't get the attention it deserved, but Ju's victory was truly outstanding. In the semifinals she defeated Russia's strongest female grandmasters Alexandra Kosteniuk and Kateryna Lagno, and this time she is sure that she can enjoy her world title for long, because she will defend it only against the winner of the 2019 Women's Candidates'.

At the end of the year, Ju added a third title: she won the World Rapid Championship in St. Petersburg, with an undefeated score of 10/12, earning $40,000.

3. Nakamura wins Grand Chess Tour and Speed Chess Championship

The Grand Chess Tour has established itself as an important series of tournaments in the chess calendar, with the world's best chess players participating. Despite the absence of Carlsen this year, the tour (which will be even bigger next year) provided wonderful and hard-fought tournaments culminating in a great season's final in London.

The nine "fixed" participants were Fabiano Caruana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Sergey Karjakin, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Alexander Grischuk, Levon Aronian and Viswanathan Anand.

It was So who started the tour with a victory at the Your Next Move tournament in Leuven, ahead of Karjakin, MVL and Nakamura. The next week, So was also leading the Paris Grand Chess Tour after the rapid, but thanks to a strong performance in the blitz, Nakamura took over and ended up winning the event. Like more top GMs, he needed a vacation after that!

Hikaru Nakamura London 2018Nakamura during the finals in London. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Eight weeks later, Nakamura continued where he left it and also won the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz to comfortably qualify for the London finals. At the subsequent Sinquefield Cup—the only GCT event Carlsen participated in this year—the win was shared among Aronian, Carlsen and Caruana after which Caruana won a playoff vs So for the fourth spot to London, besides Nakamura, Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave.

In London, Nakamura left no doubt who was the best speed chess player of the four, as he defeated first Caruana and then MVL, both in the rapid and blitz portions of the matches.

Nakamura wins Speed Chess 2018Nakamura beat So in the 2018 Speed Chess final.

That was only 10 days after Nakamura had won the 2018 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship, beating So in the final after he won against Aronian in the semifinal. Earlier in the year, Nakamura had eliminated Vachier-Lagrave and Hou Yifan. It's a pity that also in this event Carlsen didn't participate, but that was his choice. What is clear is that he and Nakamura are in a class of their own in especially blitz.

2. Caruana Wins Candidates' Tournament

If the world championship match is the biggest event of the year, the Candidates' Tournament is a close second. What a wonderful tournament this is, every two years! It breathes history just by its length (14 rounds!), and history is made there, by definition. Drama guaranteed.

The 14th world champion Vladimir Kramnik didn't play a significant role for tournament victory, but he was definitely responsible for some of the most exciting games in the tournament. His victory over Levon Aronian was an instant classic.

Aronian resigns vs Kramnik at the Candidates 2018 | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.comAronian resigns vs Kramnik at the Candidates' 2018. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

When Aronian also lost to Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana, it started to become clear that, although he scored so many big victories in his career, the Armenian GM once again failed to perform at his best when it mattered. Meanwhile, Caruana was in the lead halfway the tournament.

It was almost a Hollywood scenario when the hero of the story, Caruana, first missed a win against Ding Liren (and an opportunity to lead by a full point) and then lost to Sergey Karjakin, who thereby joined the American in first place. However, in the end everyone agreed that Caruana's victory was fully deserved as he finished so strongly with two wins, against Aronian and Grischuk, even though he only needed a draw in the final round.

Caruana with an American flag at the CandidatesCaruana was given an American flag when he won his last game at the Candidates'. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Caruana gloriously won the Candidates', and duly won his next two events as well: Grenke and Norway Chess, both ahead of Carlsen. It was a fantastic first half of 2018 for Caruana, who would soon start preparing for the biggest battle of his life.

1. Carlsen Beats Caruana, Retains World Title

The most important event of our sport is still the classical world championship. With its wonderful history, starting with Steinitz-Zukertort in 1886 and the dozens of thrilling, two-player matches for the highest title that followed, it is still considered to be the ultimate intellectual challenge on the 64 squares.

With such a major event, the announcement of the location gets its separate news item. Early August we found out that London would once again be the venue, where Garry Kasparov had played three times for the title: half of his 1986 match against Anatoly Karpov, his 1993 PCA match against Nigel Short and his PCA match with Vladimir Kramnik where he lost the title.

Organizer World Chess received lots of criticism for its "chess dating app" which was billed as a way to find an opponent for a game of chess, but in fact little more than a chess-themed version of an already existing "hookup app" for finding a casual sex partners.

Caruana Carlsen London 2018 World ChampionshipCaruana Carlsen at the start of game 12 in London. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In an exclusive interview with Chess.com after the Candidates', Caruana stated that his chances in the match would be "about 50-50." As far as the classical chess was concerned, that turned out to be closer than the truth than many chess fans liked.

The 12 draws broke the record of number of draws at the start of a title match, which used to be Kasparov-Anand, New York 1995 where the first eight games ended undecided. But despite the absence of bloodshed, the classical part was definitely fascinating for the avid chess lover.

The match started right away with a missed win for Carlsen, whose hesitation to finish off his opponents as shown earlier in the year was still there. The next to come close to victory was Caruana, but to find that winning line in the endgame of game six was inhuman, at least without anyone whispering in his ear that there was a win!

Carlsen won all three rapid games today to win the 2018 world championship and retain his title. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.Carlsen with medal and trophy at the London closing ceremony. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Other fascinating fights were game eight and game 10, while game 12 was about to get really interesting as well when Carlsen suddenly agreed to a draw in a better position. Like in 2016 against Karjakin, he had faith in his rapid skills, and rightly so.

While big names such as Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik were critical of Carlsen's decision in game 12, the Norwegian genius silenced everyone two days later. With remarkable superiority, Carlsen held the title for at least another two years as he defeated Caruana in three straight rapid games.

Epilogue

Besides all the news stories that have been discussed, it seems to us that this year has seen another important development for chess. 2018 was the year when the two faster versions of the game, rapid and blitz, have become at least as popular as classical chess, and might be on their way to become more important.

Starting from the world championship match, we know that it was decided in rapid, just like in Carlsen-Karjakin (2016), Anand-Gelfand (2012) and Kramnik-Topalov (2006). But this time it was the world champion himself who defended what happened there. Soon after the match he made the point that if there will be a change of the match format, he hopes to see rapid and blitz playing a bigger role because of the important of intuition and the absence of dominating opening preparation.

In fact, throughout the year, rapid and blitz took the spotlights while some of the classical tournaments (Shamkir, Shenzhen, the Carlsen-Caruana match and the classical part of the London Chess Classic) saw a very high draw percentage. The sheer number of quick-play events gives a good idea of how things are shifting.

We've seen rapid at the PRO Chess League, the Tal Memorial, the Leuven Grand Chess Tour, the Paris Grand Chess Tour, the Japhet Memorial in Jerusalem, the St. Louis Grand Chess Tour, the new Tata Steel Chess India tournament, Carlsen-Caruana, the London Grand Chess Tour and St. Petersburg.

Your Next Move Leuven GrandChess Tour. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.Rapid and blitz at the Your Next Move Leuven Grand Chess Tour. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Blitz events included the Speed Chess championship, our weekly Titled Tuesday tournaments (with some big names playing every now and then), Wijk aan Zee (where Carlsen defeated Giri in a playoff), Gibraltar (where Aronian defeated MVL in the playoff final after the latter had eliminated Nakamura), the Tal Memorial, the Norway Chess tournament (traditionally deciding the pairing numbers), the Leuven Grand Chess Tour, the Paris Grand Chess Tour, the St. Louis Grand Chess Tour, the Tata Steel Chess India tournament, the London Grand Chess Tour and at the end of the year, St. Petersburg where Carlsen retained his world blitz title.

Rapid and blitz used to be the small and insignificant siblings of classical chess and for decades, quick-play tournaments used to be rare. Until recently, the rapid and blitz ratings were hardly taken seriously.

2018 saw a major shift, in number of events, their importance and their popularity. The thousands of spectators each day at the World Rapid and Blitz Championships, in the last week of the year, showed the popularity of chess in Russia, and of fast chess in general.

For chess as a sport, this can only be good news. This author has always believed that classical, rapid and blitz all have their reasons for existence, and should be treated as different sub-sports (like e.g. long-distance skating, the 1500 meter and short-track). While rapid and blitz are more suitable for exciting online coverage for a wide audience (and online chess streams growing like mushrooms), their popularity can in the long run help classical chess becoming bigger as well.

The future for chess is bright, and it's just around the corner. All the best for 2019 on behalf of the Chess.com news team!

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