Magnus Carlsen versus Fabiano Caruana. The world No. 1 against the world No. 2. The world champion against the runner-up.
The Clutch Chess International could not have hoped for a bigger final. And the planet’s two best players ensured that the match would not be forgotten in a hurry.
Of the 12 games, there were just three draws. All the other nine games had a winner.f
Contrast that with the world title match the duo had played in 2018 in London. All the 12 games, in the classical format, were drawn, and the championship had to be decided by tie-breakers.
The stakes were much higher then of course. Carlsen and Caruana had played that match facing each other across a table. The Clutch Chess International was played online — the coronavirus ruled out any other possibility — and the games were of much shorter duration. But what really made it interesting was the new format.
The point system in Clutch Chess, conceived by US grandmaster Maurice Ashley, is vastly different. Normally in chess, you get one point for a win and half a point for a draw.
In Clutch Chess the points depend on the stage of a match. For the uninitiated, a chess match is made up of a series of games played between two players, something like a cricket Test or One-Day International series.
In Clutch Chess, the matches are played over two days, a bit like a football game's two halves. Six games are played on day one, and six on day two.
For a win in the first four games, a win is worth one point while a draw would get you half a point — just like a normal chess tournament. This point system will apply for games 7-10 as well. But in games five and six, a win will get you two points and a draw one.
Then, in the last two games, a win is worth three points and a draw 1.5. That means on each day, the wins scored in the last games carry more points.
The point is you just cannot afford to relax going into the final stage of the tournament even if you have done much better than your opponent. The challenger could still come back, as if from three match points down in a Grand Slam tennis final.
That is what Carlsen did. The Norwegian genius had to win the 12th game, while his American rival needed only a draw.
The tournament, organised by the US-based Saint Louis Chess Club, was the second Clutch Chess tournament. It featured the elite of world chess and carried a total prize fund of $265,000.
In the semifinals, Carlsen had defeated Levon Aronian of Armenia, while Caruana overcame fellow American Wesley So. The four winners, earlier, had knocked out Jeffrey Xiong (US), Leinier Domingeuz (US), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France).
Before the international edition, there was a US tournament, too. That was won by So after beating Caruana in the final.
Caruana, of course, avenged that defeat in the semifinals of the Clutch Chess International. And though he could not stop the unstoppable Carlsen — whose domination of world chess is so complete — in the final, he made it an exciting match.
After watching that final, from COVID-19-hit Mumbai, grandmaster Pravin Thipsay was convinced that Clutch Chess could offer plenty to the mind sport. “I found the format pretty interesting,” he says. “I think this could even be tried in physical tournaments, once the COVID-19 crisis is over and we return to some kind of normalcy. I was also impressed by the quality of chess from both the players.”
He feels the unique point system not only tests a player’s chess skills, but also his temperament as well. “That makes a tournament more interesting,” he says. “I also like the additional financial rewards for winning a game (you could earn $3,000 for a win).”
From Chennai, another city that is also reeling under the impact of the coronavirus, grandmaster B. Adhiban was following the event closely. “I enjoyed watching those games,” he says. “Though I feel the usual system is interesting enough, the new format has a lot of potential, too.”