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Chess: Magnus Carlsen blames opponent’s watch for shock defeat

Last week, the European Club Cup, the chess version of the Champions League, was staged in Durres, Albania. Magnus Carlsen was the star attraction and the world No 1 did not disappoint, making the best top board score of 5/6 and leading his Offerspill Oslo team to the gold medals. The winning squad consisted primarily of Norwegians, boosted by two strong Indian GMs.

Carlsen has won six of his last eight over-the-board or online events and finished second in the other two. The contrast is glaring with the official world champion, Ding Liren. It is now nearly five months since Ding last pushed a pawn in public.

His absence from the individual and team competitions at last month’s Asian Games, staged in his home city Hangzhou, passed without explanation in Chinese media – Wei Yi and Bu Xiangzhi substituted. After Hangzhou there is no obvious event where Ding could be expected to return and speculation is bound to grow that he will not even appear for his first scheduled world title defence in autumn 2024.

‘It was strange’: Iranian chess players meet across board in exile Read more

In the decade when Guildford dominated Britain’s national 4NCL league, the Surrey club hardly ever sent teams to the Euro Club Cup. Part of the problem was that several of Guildford’s stars were committed to other European teams. Now, Wood Green is a leading 4NCL team, and the North Londoners sent not only a strong men’s squad to Durres but also a boasted women’s team which was effectively England in disguise: Jovanka Houska, Lan Yao, Harriet Hunt, Katarzyna Toma and Akshaya Kalaiyalahan.

Seeded eighth, they finished 10th. Houska won the individual bronze, Lan Yao the individual silver. It was her fourth WGM norm, her title application is already with Fide, but her next target, an IM norm at men’s or open level, remains elusive.

The star performer for Wood Green in the open competition was Borna Derakhshani, but the 21-year-old former Iranian’s fine run of 5/6, which included two victories against GMs, was terminated abruptly. The official hotel, where players paid for full board, had at least 90 cases of what the Albanians referred to as “light seasonal virus”, which caused numerous instances where sick players felt obliged to default. There were no cases in either of the additional hotels.

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Derakhshani was nominated for Wood Green’s final-round team the previous evening and needed just a draw to secure his third IM norm. Next morning, he felt too ill to play. His teammates left the decision to him and he opted to forfeit. His consolation was that his norm would only have been seven games instead of the normal nine (a special rule for Fide team events) so he would still have needed another performance at a 2450+ rating to fulfil the title requirement of 27 games.

The Fide Grand Swiss on the Isle of Man, starting 26 October, includes the new England No 1, Nikita Vitiugov, who has an outside chance of one of the two Candidates places, and England’s best junior, Shreyas Royal, 14, seeking his second GM norm.

Before that, there is the Qatar Masters, with Carlsen as top seed – the Norwegian won his opening-round game in just 23 moves. There was a different and shock outcome in Thursday’s round two, when Carlsen was “completely crushed” by Alisher Suleymenov, a little-known 23-year-old GM from Kazakhstan. The last time Carlsen lost to an opponent rated below 2520 was in the 2006 Norwegian championship.

After the game Carlsen wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “I was completely crushed in my game today. This is not to accuse my opponent of anything, who played an amazing game and deserved to win, but honestly, as soon as I saw my opponent was wearing a watch early in the game, I lost my ability to concentrate. I obviously take responsibility for my inability to deal with those thoughts properly, but it’s also incredibly frustrating to see organisers still not taking anti-cheating seriously at all (no transmission delay, spectators walking around the playing hall with smartphones).”

The 2023 US Championship is currently past halfway in St Louis. It has a high class field, headed by the reigning champion and world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, and by the world top-10 player Wesley So.

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However, the joint leaders after two of the 11 rounds were a big surprise: the youngest player Abhimanyu Mishra, 14, and the most controversial, Hans Niemann, 20.

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Hans Niemann denies using vibrating anal beads to cheat against Magnus Carlsen – video00:03:29Hans Niemann denies using vibrating anal beads to cheat against Magnus Carlsen – video

Way back in 1957-58, when Bobby Fischer won the first of his eight US crowns, he was aged 14 and already controversial. In last Saturday’s third round, Mishra took the sole lead, half a point ahead of Caruana, by winning a wonderfully complex game against Ray Robson.

Caruana then took the lead on 4/5 with three successive wins, while Niemann scored an important win over Levon Aronian to advance into second place on 3.5. This was Niemann’s most significant victory since his defeat of Carlsen in the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, which set off a chain of cheating allegations and lawsuits.

It was well earned, too, as a timely Rxe3 exchange sacrifice stifled the former Armenian’s active play and enabled Niemann to win with bishop and knight for rook.

US Championship leaders after seven of the 11 rounds were Caruana 5, Niemann 4.5, So and Leinier Domínguez 4, Mishra, Samuel Sevian and Sam Shankland 3.5.

The US Championship and US Women’s Championship can be viewed online, free and live with grandmaster commentary, starting at 7.30pm BST daily.

3889 1 Rd8+ Kxd8 2 b7 Rb4! 3 Kxb4 c5+! 4 Kb5! Kc7 5 Ka6 Kb8 6 Kb6 c4 7 a4 c3 8 a5 c2 9 a6 c1=Q 10 a7 mate.