The world of eSports is evolving right before our very eyes. Once operating in the margins of mainstream media, it adds high-profile events, evangelists and investors by the day. The growing market is what every traditional sports league dreams of: young, global and diverse. And while current sporting arenas can adapt, many big cities are developing their own dedicated eSports venues – and Chess is set to showcase one.
Earlier today, the Professional Rapid Online (PRO) Chess League officially announced that the first-ever chess eSports event will take place in such a custom-built arena, with the championship weekend of the Pro Chess League scheduled to take place 7-8 April at the redeveloped Fulsom Street Foundry in San Francisco.
The two-day event – which will be free for spectators – will see several of the world’s top players duking it out in the live championship organised by Chess.com and their Twitch channel, in front of a large audience, and coming with grandmaster-level commentary, and the broadcast technology now common to the world’s largest eSports events.
“Based on the high level of engagement around chess content from Twitch’s global community, being able to partner with Chess.com to produce this major competition will give the fans a new way to look at the sport,” said Justin Dellario, Director of Esports Programs, Twitch. “This event marks the first time that the world’s most-played board game and one of its oldest, will follow a production format most closely associated with esports tournaments.”
The 2018 season of the PRO Chess League features 32 teams of chess players from around the world, headlined by the world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, star of the Norway Gnomes franchise. The former world champion Vishy Anand represents the Mumbai Movers, and two of the top American chess players—Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura—lead teams in the league.
At the weekend, they held their ‘Super Saturday’ round of inter-league play, which attracted a record 20,000 viewers – the sixth most-watched show on Twitch – all passionately cheering on their favorite stars or teams. The US #1, Caruana, went a perfect 8/8 for the Saint Louis Arch Bishops, as did his fellow teammate, GM Yaroslav Zherebukh. Meanwhile, elsewhere, Carlsen scored 7.5/8 for his Norwegian Gnomes – but the world champion stole the show with a masterful win over Eric Hansen of the Montreal Chessbrahs, in a truly stunning game that’s a leading candidate for the best game vote.
GM Eric Hansen – GM Magnus Carlsen
PRO League Group ‘Super Saturday’
Pirc Defence, Classical variation
1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.Be2 Nf6 The Pirc/Modern Defence is not unusual for Carlsen, as he’s occasionally used this in the past. 5.Nc3 0-0 6.0-0 Nc6 7.Be3 The Classical was all the rage for White during the mid-1970s and early 1980s, as this was the choice of World Champion Anatoly Karpov against the Pirc. 7…Bg4 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Bxf3 e5 10.d5 Ne7 11.Nb5 a6 12.Na3 Nd7 13.c4 f5 The position takes on the appearance of a King’s Indian Defence, Mar del Plata variation, where there’s a fight to the death on both wings of the board: White goes all out on the queenside, while Black goes for the kingside. The only difference is that Black doesn’t have his light-squared bishop (that usually gets sacrificed on h3, to bludgeon a path through to White’s king), and White has no knight (via f3-e1-d3) to support his queenside pawn expansion. 14.Rc1 Kh8 15.b4 a5 16.c5 axb4 17.cxd6 cxd6 18.Nb5 fxe4 In the KID, White, by now, will have in Ne1 to support the pawn chain with f3 – but here, he can’t get it in in time, and this allows Carlsen to get in some quick counters. 19.Bg4 Nf5 20.Nc7 Hitting the rook on a8 and also the target of Ne6 is the tempting choice – but, remarkably, Carlsen has seen much more than Hansen. 20…Nxe3 21.fxe3 Rxf1+ 22.Qxf1 Bh6!! Played almost instantaneously – and with that in mind, Carlsen had to have worked out all the possibilities in a very tricky position. 23.Nxa8 Hansen has to go ‘all-in’ here, as 23.Rc2 Bxe3+ 24.Kh1 Rc8 25.Ne6 Qe8 26.Rc7 Rxc7 27.Nxc7 Qf8! 28.Qe1 (If 28.Qe2 Bb6! leaves Black with a won ending.) 28…Bf2 29.Qxb4 Qh6 30.Qc3 Nf6 and Black either is going to mate the White king or win the ending with his passed e-pawn. 23…Bxe3+ 24.Kh1 Bxc1 25.Qxc1 Nc5 26.Qf1! White’s knight is ‘trapped’ on a8, and if Carlsen can simply take the knight off, then he’s easily winning the endgame – but taking the knight leaves Black’s king vulnerable to an infiltration from White’s queen. So what does Magnus have in mind? 26…Kg7! Unbelievably, Magnus ‘simply’ walks his king to safety. 27.Be6 e3 28.Qf7+ Kh6 29.Nb6 The knight has escaped from a8 – and if Black captures the knight, then White traps Black’s king in a mating net. But in playing 22…Bh6!!, Carlsen had seen what happens right through to the end of the game. Remarkable, in such a short time-control of 10 minutes + 2 seconds per move! 29…e2! Not 29…Qxb6?? 30.Qf8+ Kg5 31.h4+ Kh5 32.g4+ Kxh4 33.Qh6+ Kg3 34.Qxe3+ Kh4 35.Kg2 and White quickly mates. 30.Qf2 Ne4 Now, if 31.Qxe2 Ng3+ forks the king and queen. 31.Qe1 Qg5 Just as clinical as 31…Qf6 32.Kg1 Ng3! winning on the spot. 32.Bg4 There’s nothing else. If 32.Nc4 Ng3+ 33.Kg1 Qf4 34.Nd2 Qe3+ 35.Kh2 Kg7! leaves White in zugzwang, defenceless to the threat of …Qxd2 followed by the knight fork with …Nf1+. 32…Ng3+ 33.Kh2 Qf4 34.Kg1 Qf1+ 0-1