Ten years ago in the city of San Luis (not St. Louis!), Argentina, Veselin Topalov crowned himself World Chess Champion. He played in a tournament that brought together the eight strongest players on the planet, and the Bulgarian super-star simply dominated the field. He won the tournament with a full round to spare and finished with a massive 1.5 point lead. His sharp, attacking style was rewarded.
Topalov is known as a streaky player: He can play unbelievably well, or he can fall hard in his attempts to seek complications over the board.
And here we are, 10 years later, and it seems that Topalov wants to repeat history. It is not the World Chess Championship, which is now a match (a series of one on one encounters between two players) rather than a tournament, but it is the strongest and most important Round Robin series in the World: the Grand Chess Tour, with its first leg underway in Norway.
Topalov is leading the tournament, in one of the most dramatic series of events that has occurred in chess. The unexplainable happened in the very first round: Magnus Carlsen, reigning World Champion and the #1 player in the World, was paired against Topalov with the White pieces. Carlsen did what Carlsen does: obtained a very little bit of pressure on the board, maneuvered his pieces and dizzied his rival until doom was imminent on the Black pieces. And yet, the result shocked the chess world: 0-1, Black won. Carlsen thought that he got extra time after completing his 60th move, an old-style chess time control that was not in place in Norway. He let his time run out, expecting more to come, but there was no more. The arbiter interfered, the game was over: Carlsen over-stepped the time limit.
The psychological boost for Topalov and the mental instability that this situation caused on the World Champion is obvious in the standings. Topalov has a massive 6.0/7, while Norway is worried about its hero: he sits in near-last with a paltry 2.5/7, only the other Norwegian, Jon-Ludvig Hammer, has fewer points than he.
The Grand Chess Tour is the grand slam of chess; the winner will no doubt be considered the best player of the year. Carlsen starts off very poorly, while Topalov seeks to have the same result he had in San Luis: He will again try to win the tournament with a 1.5 point lead. He has it at the moment, and as fate would have his closest pursuers are Viswanathan Anand and St Louis' own Hikaru Nakamura - Anand was second in that tournament in San Luis 10 years ago!
The Grand Chess Tour will finish in Norway this week and will be coming to St. Louis with the Sinquefield Cup, starting Aug. 21. It will provide another unique opportunity to see World Champion Carlsen play, as well as former World Champions Topalov, Anand and great stars like Nakamura, Giri, Aronian, Vachier-Lagrave, and reigning Sinquefield Cup champion Fabiano Caruana. If you are a fan of the game, head over to the Central West End late in August and don't miss the action. For now you can follow the Grand Chess Tour in Norway with live commentary at grandchesstour.com.
Alejandro Ramirez is a grandmaster and has recently been resident grandmaster in charge of various activities at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.