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Gukesh Beats Carlsen As Keymer Takes Early Freestyle Chess Lead
Keymer drew Carlsen in round one then won his next three games to take the sole lead. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Gukesh Beats Carlsen As Keymer Takes Early Freestyle Chess Lead

Colin_McGourty
| 62 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Dommaraju Gukesh beat the GOAT, GM Magnus Carlsen, after whom the 2024 Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge is named, as a new Chess960 super-tournament began in Germany. He also took down World Champion Ding Liren, who lost all four games, while it was local hero GM Vincent Keymer who topped the table with 3.5/4 on a day dominated by the young talent currently storming the top of world chess. 

Day two, featuring the final three rounds of the rapid tournament, begins on Saturday, February 10 starting at 7 a.m. ET / 13:00 CET / 5:30 p.m. IST


What's In A Name? The Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge

It's always good news for chess when a new super-tournament emerges, and this $200,000 extravaganza was brought into being by 59-year-old Hamburg-born entrepreneur and chess fan Jan Henric Buettner, who made a fortune on the sale of a stake in AOL Europe. That also explains the venue, Weissenhaus, which was a small settlement on the Baltic coast north of Hamburg that he bought and developed into a luxury resort where rooms will set you back $500 a night. 

Carlsen and Buettner combined to create a new super-tournament. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

What do you do when you want to host a new chess tournament? Buettner went straight to the world number-one, Carlsen, whom he met at the Qatar Masters, and the Norwegian got the chance to pitch an idea: Chess960, but classical. Carlsen's point was that shuffling the pieces on the back-rank at random before the game, first codified by 11th World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, requires more time for thought, but until now only rapid events had been held. 

Carlsen elaborated at the opening press conference:

"There is no concrete preparation the way it is in normal chess when you can memorize 20 moves and it's hard to even get a game—in this format, you always get a game!" 

In this format, you always get a game!

—Magnus Carlsen

"We are breaking new ground in terms of how [Chess960] is played... It hasn't been taken seriously, in the sense that you're given ample time to think, and it hasn't been presented as a serious tournament, and I think that is the future of this format."

Buettner agreed to give it a go, and, with advice from Carlsen, invited some of the world's top players, including World Champion Ding and a healthy mix of youth and experience. It seems the reigning FIDE World Fischer Random Champion Hikaru Nakamura was invited, but turned down the offer, perhaps focusing on the upcoming Candidates Tournament.

Then it was just about details, such as the name of the event, with the decision taken to rename the chess format once again. "Fischer Random" had already acquired the more neutral name "Chess960" (for the number of possible starting positions), before the Saint Louis Chess Club decided to mix Arabic and Roman numerals into "Chess9LX." Now, in an attempt to be more transparent for newcomers to the game, we have "Freestyle Chess" and, in a nod to arguably the "greatest of all time," who invited the players, we get, the Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge. It is what it is.

The same goes for the color-coded jackets of the players...

...and the way the position is drawn using 958 balls (the normal chess position, and the same position with queens and kings swapped, are excluded).

But enough intro, it's time to get down to the action, with a snowy Weissenhaus witnessing a dramatic day that saw a local hero top the table, the world champion fail to get off the mark, and youth dominate experience.  

Rapid Standings After Day 1 (Rounds 1-4)

Gukesh Beats Two World Champions As Ding Suffers

On day one, however, the experiment with classical Chess960 hadn't yet begun. That's because the two-game classical matches will start Sunday, with the main knockout event. Before that we have a much more familiar rapid warm-up—25 minutes per game, with a 10-second increment per move, to decide the pairings for the knockout. The winner of this round-robin will face the player who finished last, 2nd place will take on 7th, and so on, when the main tournament begins. 

Another twist was that we didn't exactly see the players thinking from move one since, as in previous Chess960 events, the players were given a chance to consult with other players in the 10 minutes before the games began. 

English GM David Howell was one person who didn't approve of that approach. 

Nevertheless, a 10-minute group think wasn't enough to solve the position, with the likes of GM Fabiano Caruana missing the chance for an unusual piece sacrifice on move three.

The tournament began badly for the youngest participant, 17-year-old Gukesh, as he lost a tough fight to GM Alireza Firouzja, and then in round two he looked to be on the ropes against brilliant play by Carlsen.

But Gukesh, who famously grew up not using a chess engine for many years, confessed afterwards that, despite computers claiming he was lost, he'd never thought he was worse at any point in the game. That meant there were no psychological hurdles to jump as he went from a bad position, to an equal one, to beating the world number-one in spectacular style. Just when it looked as though we were in for a technical grind he whipped up a mating attack with his knights. 

That game is our Game of the Day, and has been analyzed by GM Rafael Leitao below:

GM Rafael Leitao GotD

Gukesh had passed the G.O.A.T. challenge with flying colors. 

"I really love 960, apart from the results—just thinking from move one is something that I really enjoy!" said Gukesh after the day was over, and that enthusiasm perhaps helped him also win the next game against GM Levon Aronian, when he gave his opponent some huge chances.

Not everything went right for Aronian on the chessboard, but who else could wear the jacket like he did? Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Then he ended a day when he'd already beaten the world rapid champion by beating the classical title holder, Ding. That game featured a beautiful exchange sacrifice, though one Ding should have rejected.

It was a nightmare day for Ding, whose woes had begun when, after a hard fight, he collapsed against Caruana with the disastrous move 26.Be5??

The way Ding lost to Caruana set the pattern for the day. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

You didn't need to be Caruana to spot 26.Re3+, picking up the bishop. The world champion, who struggled in Wijk aan Zee, is yet to get off the mark in Weissenhaus, and it's not as if things are about to get any easier! He starts day two with the first encounter with Carlsen since taking over his crown.

The good news for Ding is that even 0/7 in the rapid wouldn't prevent him coming back to win the knockout and take the $60,000 top prize. Of course to do that, he's going to need to improve his play. 

Keymer Stars On Home Soil

Gukesh's 3/4 was enough to match another ferocious young competitor, GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov, who beat Ding and Firouzja and remained unbeaten, but not Keymer, who had a day to remember as he scored 3.5/4. It all started with some sharp counterattacking opening play to make a draw against Carlsen in round one. As Keymer commented: "Comfortably drawing Magnus with Black in the first round is a really good start to the tournament."

Carlsen's reaction after the Keymer game was memorable! Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

That start was bolstered by what he called "a huge fighting win" against Aronian, before he got to win a brilliant attacking game against Ding. The German had scented blood, commenting: "For some reason Ding seems not to be at his best currently... and that’s also why I went for maybe a rather risky approach in the opening with Black. I felt like I’m not playing something extra bad, but something very complicated, and it worked out in the end." 

Keymer, like Ding, went for an exchange sacrifice, explaining all the factors in favor of it: "First of all, I get the pawn, which is not nothing, and then this bishop on b2 gets kind of bad, because I get to place all my pawns on black [squares], and I will have a very beautiful light-squared bishop on c8." That, and the weak white king, made it very difficult for Ding to play, and the rest went almost like clockwork.

"As long as you win, life's great!" said Keymer, and he ended the day with a third win in a row, taking down Caruana in a tense battle. The German GM spotted some clever tactics in the middlegame to up the pressure, and ultimately punished the U.S. star's helpless knight on e8.

That spoiled the record of the one veteran who had been scoring relatively well, with Keymer noting a difference in how the youngsters and the leader of the experienced stars, Carlsen, were approaching the analysis of the opening position:

"He had a very different approach to ours, because we were trying to make normal things happen, and he was trying to find crazy, genius ideas. I think probably if you check with an engine an engine will give some genius, brilliant ideas, but that’s kind of the thing that we can’t make work ourselves, at least for now."  

[Carlsen] was trying to find crazy, genius ideas.

—Vincent Keymer

Gukesh and Keymer's down-to-earth approach brought dividends on day one. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Carlsen had prepared seriously for the tournament, including skipping Wijk aan Zee for the first time in many years to go on a training camp in Spain. One sparring partner was Howell.

How had the training gone? "I’ve tried to play some training games, but that didn’t go so well, so I kind of gave up on that," said Carlsen, when asked by Howell himself after the Chessable Masters final, but the world number-one did have something to cheer about at the end of the day. He got a first win by inflicting a third loss in a row on Aronian, who was perhaps unable to recovered from a hair-raising 100-move draw against Abdusattorov in the first round of the day.

Aronian didn't recover from surviving a ferocious attack, getting a winning position, then failing to beat Abdusattorov. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In the final round, the commentators blamed Aronian's second move!

The move invited White's bishop on h1 to attack the black king position, and Carlsen accepted the invite. It was all over by move 19. 

That win meant Carlsen returned to 50 percent alongside Caruana, and can still fight for the top spots in the rapid. Aronian, like Ding, will be pinning his hopes on a recovery in classical chess. 


The Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge takes place February 9-16, 2024 in the Weissenhaus Private Nature Luxury Resort, Germany. All games are Chess960. It starts with a seven-round rapid tournament to decide pairings before a classical knockout tournament with two-game matches. A tie is decided by two 15+10 rapid games, then, if needed, two 5+2 blitz games, and finally an armageddon game. The prize fund is $200,000, with $60,000 for 1st place.

How to watch?
You can watch the Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge on Chess.com/TV. You can also enjoy the show on Twitch and catch all our live broadcasts on YouTube.com/Chess24. The games can also be followed from our Events Page.

The live broadcast of the day, hosted by IM Tania Sachdev, GM Peter Leko, GM Niclas Huschenbeth, and WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni.


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