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How Did 'Champions Showdown' Players Pick Their Opponents?
Magnus Carlsen vs. Ding Liren will headline the event. Image: CCSCSL.

How Did 'Champions Showdown' Players Pick Their Opponents?

Every November the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (CCSCL) lets its hair down with their "Showdown" event. This year it will be four concurrent Showdowns, and like the Wild West, only one man will survive from each battle.

Unlike a real Western showdown, the "loser" remains alive and even takes home $40,000. Each of the winners will depart with $60,000. (But chess fans hope they don't hear "Draw!" too often.)

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After the more serious St. Louis events like the U.S. Championships, U.S. Junior Championships, Sinquefield Cup, and other classical events, this year's "Champions Showdown" will be the strongest in history. The event will be November 9-14. Back are the one-on-one matches last seen in 2015 (when GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Hou Yifan beat GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Parimarjan Negi, respectively).

This time, no less than eight super-GMs, including the world champion, are on the docket. The matchups will be: GM Magnus Carlsen vs. GM Ding Liren; GM Wesley So vs. GM Leinier Dominguez; GM Fabiano Caruana vs. GM Alexander Grischuk; and GM Hikaru Nakamura vs. GM Veselin Topalov.

Each of the four one-on-one matches will take place over four days, and will comprise 10 rapid games and 20 blitz games with the following schedule:

  • Day 1: G/30 Rounds 1-4
  • Day 2: G/20 Rounds 1-6
  • Day 3: G/10 Rounds 1-8
  • Day 4: G/5 Rounds 1-12

All but Carlsen-Ding will be Thursday-Sunday while the world champion's showdown will be Saturday-Tuesday.

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GM Magnus Carlsen at the 2016 World Championship. Did he inadvertently select his next challenger a year early? | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

In two interesting twists sure to dominate chess coffee tables this weekend, the four invited players got to hand-pick their opponents, while the club also decided to play the mixed-time-control event without any increment or delay.

Why did the players choose the opponents that they did? And what do they think of playing without increment? Chess.com asked the four "inviting" players for their thoughts.

Carlsen-Ding (Career record in classical: two draws. No rapid/blitz games.)

These two have played the least of any of the showdowns. Carlsen told Chess.com that he selected Ding due to his spectacular mating attack last week.

"I saw his recent game from the Chinese league and thought, 'Wow, that guy can play," Carlsen said. The champ was really congratulating himself retroactively for choosing such an exciting player; the game in reference took place this past week, well after the matchups had been made.

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GM Ding Liren has played in St. Louis before. Here he's seen as the wildcard selection in the 2016 Sinquefield Cup. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

But he's not wrong -- everyone will want to see how the top Chinese player and world number 10 will follow up after this gem (see here for our news report on this game).

As GM Alejandro Ramirez pointed out, Ding has also worked with Carlsen before and since Ding has already qualified for the 2018 Candidates' Tournament, there is a chance this could be a world championship preview.

As for the lack of increment, Carlsen said, "Hopefully by the time we get to the quicker games I'll be in a rhythm and thus be able to avoid time scrambles shambles."

So-Dominguez (Career record in classical: one win, one draw, one loss each. No rapid/blitz games.)

The recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations continues as the current U.S. Champion selected the top Cuban player.

"Well I heard Leinier was visiting the U.S. and he seems like a very nice person and I haven't played him since I was a kid in 2014," So told Chess.com. "I guess his name is relatively new here and he is an excellent chess player so I thought it would be nice to invite him and let U.S. audiences get to know him better. Lots of chess-playing Cubans [are] in the U.S. and we need to relate to them as part of our community."

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GM Wesley So will give Americans and the world 30 chances to see his opponent in action. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

In fact all three of their games were in 2014 when the "kid" was 21. Although he did beat Dominguez on the Cuban's home soil at the Capablanca Memorial that year, it's possible So subconsciously still wants to eviscerate this bad memory:

On the lack of increment, So said, "I have not played like this in years, so it is something you have to wrap your head around. Time controls are different almost every tournament I play these days and it seems adjusting to various time controls has now got to be part of every players prep. Don't care for that too much but I understand we need to develop the audience and appeal to people who don't get why chessers need to think so long."

So will again have to adjust a few days after the Champions Showdown as on November 18 he will face Carlsen in the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship -- increment will be back "on" again.

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The winner on November 18 will go on to play GM Alexander Grischuk on November 21. If that's Carlsen, that could mean that across three Speed Chess Championship matches and the Champions Showdown, he will have played more than 120 rapid/blitz games that mattered in the span of about three weeks, and dozens more against GM Eric Hansen that don't count!

Caruana-Grischuk (Career record in classical: Grischuk leads +3-2=7. In rapid/blitz Grischuk leads +4-3=3.)

What prompted Caruana to invite a man with a plus record against him and who has won two World Blitz Championships?

"I thought Grischuk would be one of the most attractive players to play against, because he's one of the strongest players in the world, he's especially noted for his strength in fast time controls, and he has a style that leads to sharp games. We've had a lot of up-and-down battles and I wanted to test myself against one of the best."

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GM Fabiano Caruana was the one player to pick someone whom he has minus record against. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Here's one of their up-and-down blitz battles from earlier this year. It's not clear who was chasing who at some point:

Caruana had a small case of selective memory when talking to Chess.com about the time control.

"I can't even remember the last time I played without an increment or delay. I trained a lot with these time controls before the match so I feel more confident about it, but it's going to be very unpredictable. I expect a lot of games ending with someone flagging, even in completely drawn or even winning positions."

It was actually only a little more than two years ago that the 2015 Sinquefield Cup featured a lack of increment in the first time control. That led to a crazy time scramble in Caruana-Carlsen that the champ called "more sport than science." You can relive that moment here:

Nakamura-Topalov (Career record in classical: Six wins each and seven draws. In rapid/blitz Nakamura leads +11-2=5.)

Nakamura did not wish to reveal his reasons for picking Topalov as an opponent, but a deep dive into their personal history shows that he's enjoyed excellent recent success against the Bulgarian.

While their slow chess history is at a deadlock, the largest disparity of faster time controls exists in this match. Nakamura has used the last two seasons of the Grand Chess Tour's rapid and blitz events to amass a nice lifetime advantage over the former world champion.

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GM Veselin Topalov will be the elder statesman of the field. How will that impact him in potential time scrambles? | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

In addition, Nakamura whitewashed Topalov in last year's blitz portion of the Champions Showdown, going 4-0.

Perhaps more importantly for Nakamura, his personal 2-0 record against Topalov in the 2016 Candidates' kept the American with at least some chances in that event. Overall, in their last seven decisive games across all competencies, Nakamura has won all seven.

As for the lack of increment, well, Nakamura did write a book entitled "Bullet Chess: One Minute to Mate." Presumably, that can't hurt, and neither can the 13-year age difference (29 vs. 42) or Nakamura's 89.2 winning percentage in bullet on Chess.com across 8,560 games.

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This will be a good event for GM Hikaru Nakamura to double up on the Red Bull. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Live coverage of the Champions Showdown begins at 1pm Central time daily on Thursday, November 9 (except the final day on November 14 when there is an 11 a.m. start). You can see all of the commentary and games at the official site or (when available) on Chess.com's Twitch channel and Chess.com/TV.

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