Mai 24, 2024

The Isle of Man’s Grand Chess Spectacle


Chess makes a welcome return to the Villa Marina in Douglas, Isle of Man

Preview: 2023 FIDE Grand Swiss & Women’s Grand Swiss

The Isle of Man plays host once more to the chess world’s crème de la crème, as the 3rd FIDE Grand Swiss and 2nd FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss tournaments are set to launch on 25 October

The return of these prestigious world championship qualifying competitions to the Isle of Man marks a momentous occasion. Over the course of 12 days, from 25 October to 5 November, the island in the Irish Sea will emerge as the epicentre of the chess world, hosting an elite assembly of top-tier players fighting for the prizes, prestige and a spot in the 2024 Candidates. 

Having debuted on the island in 2019, the tournaments are back in the familiar and distinguished setting of the Villa Marina, located along the island’s picturesque seafront in the capital city of Douglas. This venue hosted five editions of the Chess.com Isle of Man Masters tournaments between 2014 and 2018, as well as the 2005 British Chess Championship. 

Both open and women’s tournaments consist of eleven rounds, with one rest day after the first six rounds (on Tuesday, 31 October) and the final round 11 being played on Sunday 5 November, followed on the same day by the closing ceremony. Once again, the event enjoys the generous patronage of the Scheinberg family, with a prize fund to the tune of US$600,000, part of a seven-figure sponsorship package. The first three prizes in the open tournament are $80,000, $60,000 and $40,000 and, in the women’s tournament, $25,000, $17,500 and $15,000, respectively, with further prizes for those finishing below the top three places.

Alan Ormsby (Isle of Man) is the tournament director, IA Alex Holowczak (England) is the chief arbiter of the Grand Swiss and IA Ana Srebrnič (Slovenia) will serve as the chief arbiter of the Women’s Grand Swiss.

The biggest prize

The primary function of both tournaments is as world championship qualifiers, with the two highest-placed players from each going forward to the two 2024 FIDE World Candidates’ tournaments.

As in previous editions this is made a little complicated by the inclusion in the field of players who are already qualified for next year’s eight-player Candidates’ event who still wish to take part in the Grand Swiss.

The Isle of Man line-up features a handful of players who have already qualified for the Candidates via the recent FIDE World Cup competitions: Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa (India), Fabiano Caruana (USA) who were the runner-up and third-place finisher, respectively, in the month-long Baku knock-out competition. If they were to figure in the top two places in the Grand Swiss, the next player down from them on the final score table would qualify for the Candidates. Similarly, in the women’s competition, there are three players competing in the Isle of Man who have already qualified for the 2024 FIDE Women’s Candidates’ tournament, namely Aleksandra Goryachkina (competing under the FIDE flag), Nurgyul Salimova (Bulgaria) and Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine), so the same scenario applies if they also finish in the top two in the Women’s Grand Swiss.

A tournament for the world’s best

Only the world’s best can take part in the Grand Swiss, having had to compete within a rigorous set of requirements. This is all to ensure that the great majority of the competitors have a realistic chance of going further in the world championship cycle, plus a handful of continental and local nominees. The Grand Swiss features 21 players rated 2700+ and a further 73 rated 2600+. That leaves a further 15 to complete the field, of whom two are rated below 2400, being representatives of the host country. 

Very few Swiss tournaments in chess history have approached this level of strength in depth, with notable exceptions being the two previous Grand Swiss competitions, plus the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters won by Magnus Carlsen.

2023 FIDE Grand Swiss: The top ten contenders

The two highest-rated contenders are both Americans: Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. There is a sense that neither is under pressure to succeed, for different reasons. Caruana is already through to the Candidates, so he will be in the Isle of Man for the money and the prestige. Having narrowly failed to become world champion in 2018 – he became the only losing finalist in world championship history not to lose a classical game to the eventual winner – he went through a relatively fallow period of recovery but now seems to be flexing his muscles once again. Good results in the Superbet Bucharest Classic in May and the FIDE World Cup in August bode well for the renewal of his assault on the world championship. A victory in the Grand Swiss – which would be a second straight success in the Isle of Man, where he finished 1st= in 2019 – would be another morale booster going into next year’s Candidates showdown.


Hikaru Nakamura (left) meeting Fabiano Caruana in the last round of the 2019 Grand Swiss. They are the top seeds in the 2023 event (photo Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

Hikaru Nakamura’s reason for being relatively relaxed about his performance in the Grand Swiss is different. Two or three years ago his burgeoning career as a chess streamer seemed to indicate a dwindling interest in over the board play, or at least classical chess, but a strong showing in the 2022 FIDE Grand Prix saw him regain his status in the longer form of the game. His victory in Norway Chess 2023, ahead of both Carlsen and Caruana, took him to second place in the FIDE ratings for the first time since 2015. Nakamura’s experience and success in strong Swiss events – he has four Gibraltar Masters titles under his belt, including three consecutive wins from 2015 to 2017 – make him a strong contender in the 2023 Grand Swiss.

Alireza Firouzja, now of France and rated third in the tournament line-up, will be playing in the Isle of Man for the first time. At the time of the 2019 Grand Swiss, he was a star on the horizon. During that tournament, the director of the Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee Jeroen van den Berg told me that he had invited the young Iranian for the next edition of the legendary Dutch tournament. Firouzja scored a 50% score on that occasion, his first appearance in an elite event, but made rapid progress during the following two years, culminating in his victory at the November 2021 Grand Swiss tournament held in Riga, thereby qualifying for the 2022 Candidates Tournament. His progress since then has been steady, if not meteoric, with few classical chess appearances. At 20, the best is yet to come.


Alireza will make his first appearance in the Isle of Man (Photo: Grand Chess Tour/ Lennart Ootes)

Anish Giri is fourth in the Grand Swiss line-up. He has long been one of the most richly talented players in the world but at 29, in a chess world whose stars are getting ever younger, he may be close to his peak. This year has been successful for the mercurial Dutchman, with a win in the Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee Masters, beating the then current and soon-to-be world champions Carlsen and Ding Liren along the way. Then, for good measure, he added another individual win against Ding Liren in the Bucharest Superbet Classic in May, though he did not win that event. His playful posts on social media give the impression of someone who is satisfied with his current status and lifestyle but perhaps that masks a more serious attitude and a steely ambition to reach the top. Giri has played in the Isle of Man once previously, in 2018, as top seed level with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian, when he was unbeaten on 6/9 to finish 10th.

It is hard to believe that Dommaraju Gukesh (better known in the press as Gukesh D) is still only 17. And perhaps even harder to believe that he was only 13 when he scored 6/11, bracketed with 21 players rated in the 2600s, four years ago in the 2019 Grand Swiss here. In that time, Gukesh has soared past the 2600 level to an eye-watering 2758 on the September 2023 rating list – eighth place in the world, one place ahead of his great Chennai predecessor, Vishy Anand. The maturity of his play mirrors the extraordinary calmness of his bearing, both at the board and away from it. Since a slightly negative start to 2023 with 5½/13 at Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee, Gukesh has steadily accumulated rating points during the year in events in Menorca, Dusseldorf (including a win versus rival Praggnanandhaa), Stavanger (including a win versus Firouzja), Ankara and the FIDE World Cup in Baku. His victims in the latter competition included Wang Hao, who won the 2019 Grand Swiss, before losing in the fifth round to eventual winner Magnus Carlsen. With a trajectory as impressive as this, it seems only a matter of time before he challenges for the world title.


Still only 17, Gukesh has recently overtaken former world champion Viswanathan Anand in the rating list (photo: Lennart Ootes)

The 27-year-old Hungarian grandmaster Richard Rapport, who now represents Romania, is ranked fifth in the Grand Swiss line-up and 11th in the current world rating list. He has been a grandmaster since shortly before his 14th birthday. His year started with a 6½/13 performance in the Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee event. During that tournament, he defeated Ding Liren, but in April he found himself on the same side of the board as the Chinese player as he acted as his second for his successful conquest of the world championship against Ian Nepomniachtchi. Subsequently, his only classical chess has been in the Bucharest Superbet Classic where he made a plus one score with no losses. Rapport, who lives with his wife Jovana Vojinovic in Belgrade, is known for his aggressive style of play. Rapport didn’t take part in the 2023 FIDE World Cup but is one of five players from the 2022 Candidates tournament to take part in the 2023 Grand Swiss, so he will be attempting to qualify for his second successive Candidates’ event.

World number 15 Levon Aronian will turn 41 the day after the Grand Swiss ends, so I fear he will have to endure being referred to as a ‘veteran’ by me and other chess writers. The Armenian/US star made a par score at Wijk aan Zee to start the year, but showed he is still a force to be reckoned with in winning the WR Masters in Dusseldorf in March ahead of a stellar field, despite losing a game to Ian Nepomniachtchi. He did not take part in the FIDE World Cup in Baku. He will be making his third appearance in the Isle of Man, having scored a modest 5½/9 in the 2018 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters but a stronger 7½/11 in the 2019 Grand Swiss. Aronian took part in the 2007 FIDE World Championship tournament, but it is fair to say that his results in this and subsequent Candidates’ tournaments have been generally disappointing. He failed to qualify for the 2020 Candidates and finished last in 2018. Could the 2023 Grand Swiss mark his last hurrah as a credible candidate for the world title?


Levon Aronian drew with Magnus Carlsen in the last round of the 2019 Grand Swiss. They tied for 3rd place behind Wang Hao and Fabiano Caruana. Photo: John Saunders

Alexander Grischuk turns 40 a few weeks after the Grand Swiss ends, so he joins Aronian in the veteran category. Like the Armenian, Grischuk took part in the 2007 World Championship tournament in Mexico City but suffered a similarly disappointing result. His best performance in a world championship qualifier was in 2011 when he defeated Aronian and Kramnik in short matches before losing to Boris Gelfand in the match to decide the challenger to Vishy Anand. His classical chess appearances in 2023 have been confined to a team event in Sochi in June and the FIDE World Cup when he went out in the second round, defeated in rapid/blitz play-offs by the Iranian grandmaster Bardiya Daneshvar after two draws in the classical games. Grischuk will be making his third appearance in the Isle of Man: in 2018 he scored 6½/9, half a point behind the joint winners, and at the 2019 Grand Swiss, 7/11.

Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa (more commonly Praggnanandhaa or simply ‘Prag’), along with Firouzja and Gukesh, forms the teenaged triumvirate that threatens to take the chess world by storm. Just 18, the brilliant youngster from Chennai astonished the world in August when he fought his way through to the final of the gruelling, four-week FIDE World Cup in Baku. His list of victims along the way comprised Maxime LagardeDavid Navara and then Hikaru Nakamura (in a rapid play-off – probably an even greater achievement than beating the American quickplay wizard at classical chess). That wasn’t the half of it, literally, as he still had to overcome Ferenc BerkesArjun Erigaisi and Fabiano Caruana before coming face to face with Magnus Carlsen, who was trying to win one title that had eluded him as world champion. Prag held Carlsen 1-1 in the classical games before succumbing in a rapid shoot-out, but his achievement in reaching the final was sensational enough and reverberated throughout the world, particularly in India, where he was seen being borne aloft by cheering crowds on arrival home and on his return to school.


Praggnanandhaa looking self-confident at the 2018 Isle of Man Masters (photo: John Saunders)

Like Gukesh, Prag seems unaffected by all the ballyhoo going on around him. Perhaps his mere appearance in the Isle of Man is testament to this, since he is already qualified for the Candidates’ tournament, showing he is simply keen to get the chance to cross swords with the elite. Of which he is now definitely a member, of course. Prag first played in the Isle of Man Masters in 2016 when he scored an excellent 5½/9 as an 11-year-old, beating a 2645-rated GM in the final round. He made the same score in the significantly stronger 2017 Isle of Man Masters, taking a point off David Howell along the way, then 5/9 in 2018. With a win against current world champion Ding Liren under his belt already, Prag must already be focused on the world championship crown.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave completes the list of the ten highest-rated starters in the 2023 Grand Swiss. As someone very close in age to Magnus Carlsen – the Frenchman is a month older than the Norwegian – it would be easy to argue that MVL’s opportunities of challenging for the world title had come and gone, but perhaps it is more a matter of motivation than age. Some excellent results in 2021 and 2022 (first in the Shenzhen Masters and the Bucharest Superbet Classic) suggest he is still a strong contender. He has been less successful than others at qualifying for Candidates’ tournaments, but when his chance came in 2020/2021, as a replacement after Radjabov withdrew, his challenge was the victim of force majeure. The first leg of the double-cycle tournament saw him defeat Ian Nepomniachtchi and thus share the lead with the Russian, a point clear of the field, but at that point, the tournament had to be suspended due to the Covid-19 outbreak. It was not resumed until a year later when MVL started with a loss to Caruana, after which he was unable to make up the leeway on Nepomniachtchi though still finishing second.

In 2023 MVL’s classical chess appearances have been in the Bundesliga, the Bucharest Superbet Classic (where he made a par score) and the FIDE World Cup, in which he was eliminated in round three by the 17-year-old Uzbek grandmaster Javokhir Sindarov, who is also in the Grand Swiss line-up.

Other top contenders

There is nothing to say that the winner of the Grand Swiss will come from the ten players featured above. That still leaves another 11 players rated over 2700 in the field who all have a realistic chance of doing well, not to mention the huge phalanx of players in the 2600 range. I’ll pick out a few names… Jan-Krzysztof Duda reached the 2022 Candidates’ final and will be keen to do so again. Yu Yangyi has been active in Sharjah, Dubai and Baku (where he went out to Etienne Bacrot in a play-off): perhaps surprisingly, he is the only Chinese-registered player in the Grand Swiss line-up. England will be pinning its hopes on Nikita Vitiugov, who will be playing his first major event under the aegis of his new federation.

Regarding the teenaged triumvirate mentioned above: you may feel that my arithmetic is awry there as there are some more teenagers sporting 2700+ ratings, namely Vincent Keymer (Germany, aged 19), Nodirbek Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan, 19) and Arjun Erigaisi (India): OK, the latter is now 20 but only just. Like Gukesh, Erigaisi reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup, while Keymer went out to Carlsen in round four despite beating the former world champion in their first game. Abdusattorov suffered an early exit in the World Cup but performed well in the 2023 Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee tournament, leading with a round to go but then losing to Jorden van Foreest and being overtaken by Anish Giri.


Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan, playing Pavel Eljanov at the 2019 Grand Swiss (Photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

Other young stars to look for, further down the rating list: Nihal Sarin (India, 19) is a few points short of the 2700 mark and has impressed in the Isle of Man on previous occasions, while Hans Niemann (USA, 20 in June) was 2708 as of last May but has since slipped to 2667. He’s been very active in 2023 but slipped in rating until an encouraging upswing in September saw him regain some points. At the time of writing Niemann is competing in the world junior championship in Mexico. We then have IM Ihor Samunenkov from Ukraine, who received a wild card for the event. The 14-year-old IM made headlines in 2021 when at the age of 12, he became the Ukrainian Champion! Currently rated 2515, Ihor is the world’s number two among players under-14 after GM Abhimanyu Mishra, who is also taking part in the Grand Swiss. Mishra is just 14 years old but he’s been a grandmaster for two years already, having beaten Sergei Karjakin’s record for being the youngest player to qualify for the title. As of September 2023, his rating stands at 2599. He has surpassed rating performances of 2730+ twice in the past year so is on a similar trajectory to the other older teenagers in the field.

Then there is IM Ediz Gurel from Turkey – already a well-known face in the chess world who created a huge upset in the World Cup, beating the Serbian GM Velimir Ivic in just 28 moves. With an ELO of 2512, Gurel is the strongest 15-year-old in the world, rightfully receiving the wild card for the Grand Swiss where will be a difficult nut to crack for his opponents.

The established players taking part

The Grand Swiss is not just about the young stars, of course: some famous established stars will be doing battle too. For example, Alexei ShirovVasyl IvanchukBoris Gelfand and the 2002 FIDE world champion Ruslan Ponomariov are to be found in the list of competitors at numbers 46, 47, 51 and 64, respectively: all players who have either won the world title or else qualified for a world title match. It may seem incredible to see those numbers matched to those names, but it underlines the amazing strength in depth of the field.


A pensive Boris Gelfand at the 2019 Grand Swiss (photo: John Saunders)

Alongside the 100+ GMs, there are seven IMs and just one untitled player competing. A few pointers about those players… 18-year-old IM Elham Amar of Norway is being talked about as a major talent in the making, in a country which knows a thing or two about brilliant young players. England has a second player in the line-up, 14-year-old IM Shreyas Royal. ‘Shrez’ is the country’s great hope for the future, and recently enjoyed a close encounter with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as the announcement was made of a £500,000 investment in British chess over the next two years. Shrez chalked up his first GM norm last year at a younger age than David Howell, so much is expected of him.

The Isle of Man is itself represented in the Grand Swiss by IM Dietmar Kolbus and Li Wu. You’ll note that their names appear in the list of competitors with the designation ‘IOM’ as the Isle of Man is now an affiliate organisation of FIDE and treated as a federation in many respects. Both are strong players with good track records in domestic UK competitions – notably the 4NCL (Four Nations Chess League) a.k.a. the British Team Championship, which Manx Liberty have won for the past two seasons – but the opposition they face in the Grand Swiss will be, shall we say, challenging.

THE 2023 FIDE WOMEN’S GRAND SWISS

Alongside the (open) Grand Swiss is the 2023 FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss, being held for the second time after the inaugural event in 2021 in Riga. The field consists of 50 qualified and (in a few cases) nominated players.

Aleksandra Goryachkina, ranked third in the world after Hou Yifan and Ju Wenjun, is probably the favourite to win this tournament. Though the gap between her and the next group of players is not huge in rating terms, she is a little bit younger (at 25) and in good form having won the FIDE Women’s World Cup in August. There, her progress was smooth as far as the quarter-final where she needed rapid games to eliminate Harika Dronavalli. She then defeated former world champion Tan Zhongyi in the semi-final (partial revenge for being knocked out of the 2022/23 Candidates’ tournament by the Chinese player) before once again needing rapid games (and a bit of good fortune) to see off Nurgyul Salimova in the final. This success qualified her for the Candidates’ tournament, so a victory in the Isle of Man would be icing on the cake. Having said, she is in good form in terms of recent success, her rating has suffered a little since its peak at 2611 in May 2021. Though she gained some points in the Grand Prix event in New Delhi in May, she lost more in the (open) European Individual Championship in Serbia in April and also in the Cyprus Grand Prix tournament in June, where Dinara Wagner (Germany) was the surprise winner.


Aleksandra is coming to the Isle of Man fresh from winning FIDE Women’s World Cup (Photo: Maria Emelianova/chess.com)

Goryachkina’s closest rating rivals are all former women’s world champions. Alexandra Kosteniuk, ranked second in the line-up and seventh in the world, has switched federation from Russia to Switzerland this year. Having lost to Goryachkina in the 2022/2023 Candidates’ eliminator, she bounced back with victory in the Munich leg of the FIDE Grand Prix in March, then not so well in the Cyprus event before finishing first equal in the Cairns Cup in Saint Louis, USA, in July. In the 2023 FIDE World Cup she was surprisingly eliminated by Serbian IM Teodora Injac in the third round.

Tan Zhongyi is third-ranked player in the line-up in the 2023 FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss and currently ranked ninth in the world. Coming into 2023 following a comfortable win in the Chinese Women’s Championship, she then defeated Kateryna Lagno and Aleksandra Goryachkina in the quarter and semi-finals of the 2022/23 Candidates before being eliminated in the final by Lei Tingjie. She was mildly below par in the Munich Grand Prix but then suffered a defeat at the hands of Lei Tingjie in the Candidates’ final in May. Her World Cup aspirations were ended by Goryachkina in the semi-finals. She is the only Chinese player in the line-up, perhaps surprisingly for a country that has dominated women’s chess for so long.


Tan Zhongyi is only Chinese player in the 2023 FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss line-up (Photo: Timur Sattarov)

Ranked fourth and fifth in the Women’s Grand Swiss line-up are Ukrainian sisters Mariya and Anna Muzychuk, currently rated within seven points of each other. Both lost to Lei Tingjie in the Candidates’ eliminators. The two then went head-to-head in round four of the World Cup when elder sister Anna won through in a rapid play-off, proceeding eventually to the semi-final where she lost to Nurgyul Salimova. However, she then won a 3rd/4th place play-off against Tan Zhongyi to secure her place in the 2024 Candidates’ competition. Thus, the pressure is on Mariya Muzychuk to secure her place via the Grand Swiss as her rating lags behind Humpy Koneru, who is likely to receive the final Candidates’ place by dint of her position in the women’s rankings.

Those are the five highest-rated players but there are no fewer than ten other holders of the (full) GM title who might challenge them, not to mention a few other up-and-coming players. Close in rating to the Muzychuk sisters are Harika Dronavalli (India) and Polina Shuvalova (FIDE). The 19-year-old Kazakh IM Bibisara Assaubayeva is a rising player, as is the 24-year-old Kalmyk-born German WGM Dinara Wagner after her astonishing victory and full GM norm in the Nicosia leg of the Grand Prix in June (after finishing last in Munich previously), followed by another first place in the Dortmund Sparkassen tournament in the same month. Another player to follow will be Nurgyul Salimova, after her remarkable success in reaching the final of the World Cup, thus clinching a place in the 2024 Candidates. She is 27th in the Isle of Man rankings.


Harika Dronavalli was the top female scorer in the 2019 Grand Swiss: now there is a separate Women’s Grand Swiss in which she is sixth seed (photo: John Saunders)

As well as Harika Dronavalli, India will be looking to Rameshbabu Vaishali, sister of Praggnanandhaa, and 21-year-old Agrawal Vantika to challenge for a high place. IM Tania Sachdev, so often with a microphone in her hand these days, will be back at the board in the Isle of Man, playing her first classical chess of 2023. Another young Indian player to look out for will be Shri B Savitha, a 16-year-old player already rated 2375 and with a world under-12 title to her name.

Other familiar faces in the line-up will be the evergreen Pia Cramling and former world champion Antoaneta Stefanova. Neither has been involved in Women’s World Championship or World Cup action recently, but they have still kept their hand in this year with some team chess and domestic events.

There is just the one US player in the field, but she is definitely one to watch. Alice Lee won’t turn 14 until a few days after the tournament but already holds the IM title and is just a few points short of 2400. After finishing 5th= in the 2022 US Women’s Championship, she’s been piling on the rating points in 2023, notably in a norm tournament in Saint Louis in January, and then the American Cup where she scored wins against Irina KrushNazi Paikidze and Atousa Pourkashiyan in coming second to the first-named in a rapid play-off. She completed her third IM norm during the 2023 Canadian Transnational Championship in June, beating two GMs and achieving a performance rating of 2531.