Among the unexpected results, the World Champion was held to a draw by an international master, and Wei Yi lost to a little-known Indian international master.

Throughout the year, there are many open tournaments with impressive fields. But it might not be an exaggeration to say that the Qatar Masters Open, which began Sunday, has the most impressive field in decades — if not ever. It includes Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the World Champion; Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, who is No. 3 in the world rankings; Anish Giri of the Netherlands, No. 8; Wesley So of the United States, No. 10; Sergey Karjakin of Russia, No. 12; and, all told, nearly half of the world’s top 40 players. 

Given that it is an open tournament, there are also many “average” grandmasters and international masters. That makes for an unusual mix and many people are wondering how the top players will fare against their mortal counterparts.

Last year in Qatar, Kramnik and  Giri dominated the field, showing that the elite did deserve their overlord status, although, at the end Yu Yangyi of China wrested the title from them.

Can the underlings notch up more upsets this year? The way the first round went, the answer would be a resounding yes! 

Looking at the matchups, the first round was more challenging for the top players than your average Swiss (actually more challenging than any Swiss besides the Aeroflot Open, which had mostly grandmasters). Nevertheless, it seemed that the big guns should just roll over their opposition.

Any regular player in opens will tell you that the first round is often the toughest to get acclimated. So, even if a player is hundreds of points higher rated than the opponent — the new environment, the opponent’s energy, any rust from not having played enough, etc. — many things can factor in and affect the result. In addition, the onus on top players to prove their superiority leads to creative games — and sometimes to the discovery of players that were little known before.   

Nino Batsiashvilli, an international master from Georgia, only had to draw with her opponent to get noticed. Why? She was paired with the World Champion!

For a long time, it looked like Carlsen was on his way to just another usual, boring victory in which the opponent waits and watches and is slowly ground down. But unlike the many super grandmasters who have suffered such a fate, Batsiashvilli wasn’t ready to just sit there and she created powerful counterplay that even managed to trick Carlsen.  

The other Georgian woman, Bela Khotenashvilli, who is a grandmaster, also held her own for a while against Kramnik. But the experienced Russian was always more or less in control, and with each little misstep of his opponent, he steered the game towards his favorite classic endgames.

On the next boards, Giri and So won with an ease that was rare to be found in most games of the day. Giri absolutely dismantled one of India’s talented youngsters, S.L Narayanan, while So bided his time, and craftfully waited for Russia’s biggest female rising star, Aleksandr Goryakchina to self destruct. 

The biggest surprise of the day was yet to come. Indian youngster, Shardul Gagare, hasn’t been much in the limelight - his slow, positional style usually doesn’t make for flashy chess games or big news. But Sunday, he stole the thunder by wonderfully outplaying the Chinese superstar, Wei Yi.

Wei is known for his brilliant calculation and attacking abilities, but today he didn’t even get a chance to play an active move. It almost felt as if the players had switched sides.  

Many of the top Chinese are playing in Qatar. As if to make up for their star’s loss, on the next board, Xu Yinglun took down an over ambitious Nikita Vitiugov, almost without much effort.  

I had promised my WorldChess colleague, Sam Shankland, that I will analyse his every misstep in excruciating detail, so here is the position where he could have tried for a little more against a talented young player.

To be fair, it wasn’t an easy game, and a draw wasn’t much to be disappointed about. 

Sam’s pre-tournament training partner, Surya Ganguly of India, did what many other of his countrymen failed to do on the first day - beat a lower rated player, and he did it extremely convincingly.

Overall, the first day was great for fans. It’s nice to see many young players get a chance to play the best — and it was a reminder that given enough motivation and determination, anyone can hang with and even beat the best. 


Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 80 in the world, he is currently a sophmore at Stanford University.