Chess: Magnus Carlsen and entire world top 10 compete for volatile bitcoin

Bitcoin, the wildly fluctuating crypto-currency, and the careful strategies of the chessboard might seem to have little in common as partners but the unlikely marriage is about to happen. On Sunday the pair come together in the strongest and richest ever online tournament, the FTX Crypto Cup, with the entire world top 10 in the live ratings taking part and a record $320,000 prize fund.

FTX is a leading cryptocurrency exchange, so the prize total includes $100,000 in bitcoin, whose volatile movements will be displayed to fans in real time on the Meltwater Champions Tour website.

Volatile in the context of what has already happened to the bitcoin portion of the prize fund before a single pawn has been pushed could be considered a serious understatement. The initial $100,000 purchase of 2.1825 bitcoin, then trading around $45,000, was made at 2pm last Monday, to coincide with the publication of a press release announcing the FTX Crypto Cup and its 16 participants.

Just one day later bitcoin had a dramatic sell-off sparked by panic over an outage at another cryptocurrency exchange. The low price was $30,000 before bitcoin subsequently recovered to around $40,000, but the only price that will matter to the GMs will be on 31 May when the tournament ends.

For Magnus Carlsen the FTX Crypto Cup, and the presence of the complete top 10, offers a special opportunity. Some of the greatest world champions are linked to an individual tournament which they won in style, like Emanuel Lasker at St Petersburg 1914 and New York 1924, Alexander Alekhine at San Remo 1930, Mikhail Botvinnik at The Hague-Moscow 1948, Bobby Fischer at his “picket fence” US championship 1963-64, and Anatoly Karpov at Linares 1994.

Carlsen scored a 3002 rating performance when he won at Pearl Spring, China, in 2009, but that owed more to his 8/10 total than the strength of the opposition. The Norwegian’s best over-the-board result was probably Shamkir 2015, 7/9 and a 2981 performance against a very strong field. St Louis 2015, where Carlsen was second to Levon Aronian, and Stavanger 2017, where he had a disaster, would have counted had he won either of them.

The world No 1 is currently in good form after his victory in the New in Chess Classic, and now has the opportunity to create a special historic performance in online tournaments.

The Meltwater Champions Tour has a standard format of a 15-round all-play-all spread over three days, followed by another six days for the knockout stage. Until now, Carlsen’s very successful formula for the all-play-all has been to do just enough to win it and so become the No 1 seed for the knockout rounds.

However, the unprecedented strength of the FTX Crypto Cup creates a different and interesting option for the world champion, to go maximalist, win the all-play-all by a wide margin and then sweep the knock-out rounds. Carlsen is very conscious of his place in chess history so he might be tempted, although the odds are against it.

The world champion plays Black against Shak Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan in round one at 4pm on Sunday, then has his much awaited pairing against his 2021 world title challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, in round two. Games are live online and free to watch, with grandmaster and computer commentaries, on and other major chess websites. Champion v challenger should start at around 5pm.

The fourth, final, and much postponed leg of the Fide women’s Grand Prix at the Caleta Hotel, Gibraltar, from 22 May to 2 June qualifies two of its 12 players for the 2022 women’s candidates. There is English interest as Nigel Short is one of the commentators. Kateryna Lagno (Russia), Nana Dzagnidze (Georgia) and Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine) are the likely favourites. Games and commentary start at 1pm.

Abhimanyu Mishra, the 12-year-old American aiming to break Sergey Karjakin’s 2002 record as the youngest grandmaster at 12 years and seven months, began the Vezerkepzo GM tournament in Budapest with 2/5 but then won his next three to reach 5/8 with Friday’s ninth and final round (online from 1.30pm) still to go. Mishra’s rating could rise to around 2480, meaning that he would need one more 2600 norm and another 20 rating points for the title. With more than three months to go before the 5 September target date, he has time for another half-dozen or so attempts.