If the Speed Chess Championship’s “Finals Weekend” was a high-schooler, this would be Spring Break. You’ve waited all year to see who will survive the 12+ total hours of non-stop chess action.
The first semifinals match will take place on Friday, November 30 at 2pm Eastern, then when the calendar turns over, the next will be Saturday, December 1 at 2pm Eastern. The finals will be on Sunday, December 2 at 2pm Eastern.
The first semifinal on Friday will be second-seeded Wesley So against upset-specialist Jan-Krzysztof Duda. The second semifinal on Saturday is two-time finalist Hikaru Nakamura against 12th-seeded (even though he’s #11 in the world!) Levon Aronian.
Chess.com wanted to know everything about these semifinalists, from who’s fastest on foot to what’s the most distracting thing about playing in the SCC. Here’s what the four men had to say (on some occasions answers have been edited for clarity or length):
1) Who would win a one-kilometer foot race between the four of you? Who would win an arm-wrestling contest?
Duda: I was pretty much a regular runner, and in my golden times, I was capable of running like 15km without breaks. Honestly I doubt anyone else could repeat this. So I would choose myself as a definite favorite, even though a couple of months ago, I got another ankle sprain, so logically I got out of form.
Aronian: I have a feeling I will win both, but I would love to have that tested!
So: Hikaru—because he can run a half-marathon. For the arm-wrestling contest, Levon—he is ARMenian.
Nakamura: I’d like to think I’d win the one-kilometer race amongst the four of us as I’ve run many 5ks and plenty of half marathons. However, I suspect that since the distance is so short and Jan-Krzysztof is pretty wiry that he’d be the fastest over that distance. In terms of arm wrestling, I have absolutely no clue, I think it would be completely random.
2) Please finish this sentence: In order to be faster than Hikaru in bullet, I would handicap him by __________.
Duda: By making him to have a chat with some nice lady, seated in front of him. That should be enough.
Aronian: Giving him my mouse.
So: Making him use only a laptop mouse.
Nakamura: In order to handicap myself, I would make myself have to type moves. No mouse allowed!
3) Jan-Krzysztof was 1 in 235 to win the entire SCC according to SmarterChess’s predictions before the season began. Obviously hindsight is 20-20 but do you feel those odds were about right before the season began? What would you put his odds at now that we are down to four players?
Duda: I wasn’t into statistics before my competition in SCC, because at the time I really didn’t know where I stood. My opponents were definitely greater than me on paper, but on the other hand I didn’t necessarily feel that they were much better in a fast “clicking.” I mostly felt it when I played against Sergey Karjakin, and was given like 18 percent chance. Was I really able of winning just every fifth match? Now it’s gonna be more difficult for me, because I probably no longer will be considered as an easy-to-beat guy. But come on, after all it’s just online chess! It’s fun!
Aronian: People tend to overestimate and underestimate some players. Karjakin and [Alexander] Grischuk are enormous players OTB, but online can be tricky. I am sure that the odds will be corrected for the next season. Duda could be a favorite in his match, since he got the crowd’s support!
So: The match odds were clearly unfair for Duda as 1 in 235 means he had less than 0.5 percent chance to win the tournament. That was unrealistic. Given his rating and playing strength has improved in the last few months and now he has 1 in a 4 chance to win.
Nakamura: Having played Jan-Krzysztof quite a few times on Chess.com, it was pretty obvious that he was much better than 235-1. I’d say based on his victories against Sergey and the best comeback I’ve ever seen against Grischuk, that his (current) odds are probably 20 percent.
4) I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets by saying that Levon has recently become an 1. e4 player, or perhaps has returned to being an 1. e4 player. What’s the most radical thing each of you has ever done to improve your chess results?
Duda: Well I think the most radical thing for me was changing my old “bad” habits. I started to do some sport activities and I’m trying to eat in a more healthy way. This change is still in progress!
Aronian: Studying the “not-best” games of the great players helped me to regain some confidence at some point.
So: Moving to Minnesota, and living with my family! They’ve been very supportive and helpful to me in my life. Also switching federations to the United States.
Nakamura: I’ve never done anything super radical, but I think that taking long breaks from chess and living life resulted in an improved outlook and better chess (specifically going to college in 2006 and living in Vancouver in 2008).
5) What’s the best game you know of for your semi-finals round opponent?
Duda: I have watched basically every match, missing only a couple of the first round matches. And of course my games are the best. But aside of me I really like some of Levon’s displays against Anish in those London-style openings. Perhaps the 18th game was the coolest.
Aronian: I think the 2010 game from Bursa World Team Championship against [Boris] Gelfand was spectacular. There must be many, but I saw this one live.
So: Wojtaszek-Duda Polish Championship 2018. Duda won this game with Black against the Polish number one. I think it was a sweet, spectacular moment for his career as it pretty much secured the tournament victory and assured him the Olympiad first board.
Nakamura: Lev has played too many great games of chess in both regular chess and bughouse to name one!
[Ed: Just to make sure we have one offering from each player, here’s a funny ending idea Aronian once used. — MK]
6) Would you like to see a online-only event of some sort added to the Grand Chess Tour?
Duda: GCT is so far inaccessible for me. But online events are fun to watch, and top-guns start to blunder a lot. So yes, definitely!
Aronian: Why not? I find watching and playing the online matches to be very exciting.
So: Yes. Playing online has the added benefit to players as we can play anywhere in the world, at any time. It gives us more time to study and prepare for the event and we don’t have to undergo the tortuous activity of long travel and 30 hours on planes and in airports. Remove the jet lag, and the fatigue. I’m open to seeing different formats introduced to chess. I’m interested in the idea of having a Chess960 tournament as well for example.
Nakamura: I think having an online aspect to the GCT would be very interesting. Having streamed a lot on Twitch lately, it has become clear to me that online viewership is critical to chess. As long as there can be 100 percent transparency and no devices can be used while playing online, it’s the future for sure.
7) Of these choices, what would be the most distracting in playing your Speed Chess Championship match: Having your opponent play without his shirt on, having your entire family behind you watching you play, having to play with pink dark squares, or having to play “upside down” with the pieces you control being at the top of the screen instead of the bottom?
Duda: Having my entire family watching me playing from behind would likely be too much to handle.
Aronian: Pink would definitely be the worst.
So: I guess I would not enjoy having to look at my opponent’s naked chest for several hours.
Nakamura: Without a doubt, the most distracting thing would be playing the match with my whole family behind me watching. It adds a whole different layer of pressure since you feel that you cannot let them down.
8) The most incredible thing to happen in the chess world in the last 10 years was ________________.
Duda: Magnus Carlsen’s rise was something extraordinary.
Aronian: Me overtaking [Iuri] Shkuro on the FIDE blitz rating list.
So: For me it’s the establishment of the Saint Louis Chess Club and the Grand Chess Tour. Before that they were holding the U.S. Championship in a basement and chess in the United States didn’t have an official home. Now we have the Chess Hall of Fame and the world’s tallest chess piece in St. Louis, plus all the tournaments they sponsor.
Nakamura: The most incredible things to happen in the last 10 years in chess have all involved the legendary Uzbek GM, Timur Gareev!
9) How closely will you be following the world chess championship?
Duda: I will watch every game being played in the same day, and probably I will do it at high speed, without much understanding what is really going on!
Aronian: As always, very closely.
So: Very closely! I’m very anxious to see if Fabiano [Caruana] can finally dethrone Magnus, or if not, what the final score will be.
Nakamura: All of us except Jan-Krzysztof will be competing in India during the world championship, so I suspect we’ll all be focused on the event and simply reviewing the games later. I personally don’t plan on watching any of the games in real time, but I will be doing some commentary on Chess.com with Danny [Rensch] and Robert [Hess].
10) What’s the hardest part about the format of the Speed Chess Championship?
Duda: To survive this 5+1 format. Also the fact that you are recorded all day long, and you have to behave properly!
Aronian: The long wait between the stages!
So: The bullet section. I don’t enjoy this because it is boring, like a video game for teenagers. I’m not even sure it’s chess.
Nakamura: The hardest part about the Speed Chess Championship is finding a rhythm because the five-minute portion is super slow, but the three-minute portion is really fast.