Norway Chess – Armageddon Master Carlsen Moves Ahead


Carlsen 5/5 in armageddon games

Six classical games, five draws, five Armageddon wins, tournament domination.

As the Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger has its final rest day, World Champion and local hero Magnus Carlsen has unveiled what seems like the perfect formula for victory in the new, hybrid classical-Armageddon format – draw the classical game and win the Armageddon playoff – and others are now trying to follow.

The unfortunate result is the lowest number of decisive (classical) games ever seen after six rounds of Norway Chess.

Even worse, as players become more tired (with a few also coming down with a cold), the quality of the Armageddon games has deteriorated, turning into old fashioned thud and blunder chess.

The large Norwegian television audience and the many chess fans coming to the Clarion Energy Hotel to watch the games don’t seem to mind at all. Indeed, as the sixth round continued into the night, more than 50 spectators remained transfixed to the final Armageddon games in the playing hall, with an equal number in the hotel lobby watching the Norwegian or English language commentary.

The playing hall in Stavanger. Photo: Cathy Rogers

Of course night in Stavanger is a rather vague concept given the few hours in which the city is actually dark in summer. Indeed Carlsen and his second Peter Heine Nielsen left the hotel on Monday in bright sunlight despite 10pm approaching. (Carlsen is the only player not staying at the Clarion Hotel and is happy to walk from his alternative accommodation to and from the games.)

Carlsen seemed very pleased on his walk home, having survived two dodgy positions against Ding Liren before registering his traditional 1.5 points per day by defending well in the classical game and then tricking Ding in the Armageddon encounter. (In this year’s Norway Chess players receive 2 points for a win, 0.5 for a draw, and 1 for an Armageddon win.)

The rarely un-sunny Stavanger Harbour. Photo: Cathy Rogers

In fact, unlike his wonderful performances in Azerbaijan and Germany, Carlsen has looked in decidedly modest form in his classical games: defeating an out-of-sorts Alexander Grischuk but getting into serious trouble against both Levon Aronian and Ding.

Carlsen is being most closely followed by the lowest rated player in the field, Yu Yangyi. Having blundered by winning one game and losing another – a total of only two points – Yu has woken up to the advantages of simply winning the Armageddones. (Yes, that is apparently the correct plural of Aremgeddon. I have been advised by a Greek friend that Armageddon is a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew word and the plural in Ancient Greek should be -es!)

Despite having only a 50% score in his classical games, Yu has won all four of his Armageddon encounters – second only to Carlsen’s five out of five – and is trailing Carlsen by only 1.5 points. The two will meet in the eighth round, though before then Yu must out-Armageddon the player just behind him, Aronian.

GM Yu Yangyi and GM Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Cathy Rogers

Some have argued that the Armageddones have been necessary because of the large number of classical draws but I would argue that the large number of classical draws may be a product of the Armageddon system existing and not encouraging risk in the classical games. (The seven minute draw between Grischuk and Wesley So was only the most extreme example – plenty of other games have barely got off the ground, for example Mamedyaov v Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in round six.

GM Jon Ludwig Hammer, a commentator for Norwegian television, is firmly of the opinion that the value attached to the Armageddon games is simply too high compared to the classical games. For Ding, who has played perhaps the best classical chess of any player in the tournament, to be midfield and far behind his compatriot Yu is a travesty of what is one of the strongest classical tournaments of the year. You can experiment with different scoring values yourself here.

While there is at least no reason to believe that extra Whites or Blacks are favourable in a 10 minutes v 7 Armageddon game, there is little doubt that the Armageddones in Stavanger are becoming more and more random as the tournament progresses - even for Carlsen. Here are some of the blunders that were seen in recent rounds…

Note that I am not including Ding’s sixth round Armageddon loss to Carlsen because, although Ding’s second to last move has been described as a terrible blunder, he had only one obscure way to save the game and indeed believed that he was probably already lost. (Ding might also have beaten off Anand’s Armageddon brilliancy in the fourth round, but the computer refutation was hard to see and perhaps even harder to believe.)

So, going into the final stretch in Stavanger, Carlsen has a clear lead and appears destined to secure his fourth elite tournament victory for the year – fifth if the Abidjan Rapid and Blitz event is included.

Quite possibly Carlsen will be outscored in the classical portion of the tournament but will win the event anyway on the back of his Armageddon skills. However for those crying out that this is unfair, recall that in 2012 Carlsen finished second to Wang Hao in Biel due only to the 3-1-0 scoring system employed that year (but thankfully soon abandoned). As Carlsen declared at the end of Biel 2012 when some suggested he was the moral victor, you know what the rules are at the start and you play to win under those rules.

Carlsen is simply too good for his rivals at almost any combination of classical and fast chess – and usually too good at any single chess discipline. Under Norway Chess’ new rules, he deserves to win. (Having written that, I fear that Carlsen may find a way to lose two of his last three games and be caught on the line – but I doubt it!)

The seventh round of Norway Chess begins at 15:00 UTC on Wednesday. The Armageddon games could begin any time after 15.30:)

This is Ian Rogers’ final report from Stavanger. Look for other news and announcements from our standard communication channels: