David Howell is the only Englishman in the 108-player Covid-hit Grand Swiss at Riga, and the three-times British champion, 30, has made a promising 1.5/2 start in the world qualifier. It looked unlikely when he blundered early into a lost round two position on Thursday against Latvia’s Artur Neiksans, but Howell fought on and finally halved a marathon of 142 moves and eight hours. The game ended in a draw via the rare rule of 50 moves played without a capture or a pawn move.
Howell is seeded only No 34, but will be harking back to the last Grand Swiss at Douglas, Isle of Man, in 2019, where a late surge gave him an outside chance to qualify for the Candidates until a final-round loss to the tournament winner Wang Hao.
Keti Arakhamia-Grant, at 53 the second oldest of the 50 players in the Women’s Grand Swiss, won in fine attacking style in the opening round of the Women’s Grand Prix, defeating Armenia’s No 1 Elina Danielian. The Scot lost in round two to the Russian champion Valentina Gunina, while England’s No 1 woman Jovanka Houska was defeated in both her games. The Grand Swiss and Women’s Grand Swiss each have 11 rounds.
India’s teenagers are fast improving talents, and the trio of Nihal Sarin, 17, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, 16, and Dommaraju Gukesh, 15, made an early mark. All three won or drew in round two against much higher-ranked opponents, including Sarin’s valuable half point against the world No 3 and top seed Fabiano Caruana. A highlight of round three (Friday noon BST start) will be Praggnanandhaa v Howell.
The Grand Swiss has strict Covid-19 health and safety protocols to comply with Latvia’s month-long lockdown. A total of 17 players from the original entry withdrew, including the highly-ranked Alexander Grischuk, Shak Mamedyarov, Richard Rapport and Hikaru Nakamura, as did the No 1 seed in the women’s Grand Swiss, Kateryna Lagno.
Alireza Firouzja is the most obvious beneficiary from the weakened Grand Swiss field. The former Iranian, 18, who now represents France, is widely regarded as Magnus Carlsen’s heir apparent in the next few years. He is currently ranked world No 6, but in Riga he has moved up to No 3 in the seedings behind Caruana and world No 4 Levon Aronian, and has a realistic chance of taking one of the two Candidates places or, failing that, one of the six Grand Prix places whose winners also qualify.
The only Covid-19 problem so far affecting the tournament has been that the chief arbiter, England’s Alex Holowczak, found he had been in contact with someone positive for Covid-19 before arriving in Riga. His tests have been negative and he has no symptoms, but he is following self-isolation rules while continuing to work closely with other arbiters.
Holowczak is 30, very young by arbiter standards, and has proved highly successful in his previous Fide posts, including chief arbiter at Fide’s 2020 and 2021 online Olympiads. It seems likely that he will continue to officiate in future at the most important international events, right up to and including world championship matches. That would continue England’s tradition of providing important Fide officials, from Leonard Rees, who was one of the global body’s founding fathers in 1927, through to Harry Golomek, arbiter at several of Mikhail Botvinnik’s world title matches.
Meanwhile, Norway’s Carlsen and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, whose $2m, 14-game championship series starts in Dubai on 24 November, are in their training camps preparing for the match. Carlsen is currently a prohibitive 1-4 on to retain the crown which he has held for eight years, while Nepomniachtchi is quoted at 11-4 against.
If the rumour is true that Carlsen is spending significant preparation time at his camp in south-west Spain playing one-minute internet bullet games, that could help the challenger. The 30-year-old is quoted in a coming interview in New in Chess as saying: “My biggest advantage in the match is that I am better at chess,” which attracted comments that José Capablanca in 1927, Alexander Alekhine in 1935 and Garry Kasparov in 2000 also had reason for such a belief.
3787 1 Rh7! The game ended 1…a2 2 Bd5! and Black resigned due to a1=Q 3 Rf7+ Kg5 4 Rf5 mate. If instead 1…Rxc6 2 Rxh6+ and 3 Rxc6 wins. If 1…Kg5 2 Rf7! Kxh5 3 Rg7! and mate by g4 or Be8. If 1…Rh1+ 2 Kg4 Ke6 3 Bd5+ Kd6 4 Rxh6+ Kc5 5 Ra6 stops the black pawn and wins on material.