Five thousand miles away from the rugby, another world cup is taking place – and it’s full of blood and thunder, says Leon Watson

Fabiano Caruana won his first seven games in a row
Sunday Chess TV
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Fabiano Caruana won his first seven games in a row Photo: Alamy

Forget the Rugby World Cup, there’s another world cup going on that has all the bone-crunching thrills and spills that international egg-chasing has.

And more. Honestly.

You may not have heard, but the world’s best super brains are currently 5,000 miles away in Azerbaijan taking part in the Fide Chess World Cup.

They are all there, the stars of a game that is hugely popular overseas, but barely registers in Britain – bar one big name: the undisputed king of human calculators, Magnus Carlsen.

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen Sunday Chess TV
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World chess champion Magnus Carlsen  Photo: EPA

But Magnus hasn’t been himself lately, and his absence only means the competition is fiercer.

Right now, the big names of chess are tearing mental chunks out of each other for the right to eventually take on the Norwegian.

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There is a prize fund of $1.6 million (£1.05m), with $120,000 going to the winner.

And, crucially, there are two places for a Candidates tournament due to take place next year, after which the winner can bid to be only the 17th king of world chess.

Michael Adams wins tie-break against Viktor Laznicka Sunday Chess TV
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Michael Adams wins tie-break against Viktor Laznicka

Among those taking part is Fabiano Caruana, the geeky 23-year-old who this year controversially switched from representing Italy to turning out for America.

Having heard his rival had jumped ship, Carlsen joked on Twitter: “So they [the US Chess Federation] are indeed buying nerds!”

Another notable name is the former world champ and Veselin Topalov, the mad Bulgarian with the bulging eyes, who is back on top form after winning the Norway Chess tournament in June. For this event, he is the top seed.

Veselin Topalov Sunday Chess TV
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Veselin Topalov  Photo: JOHN SAUNDERS

Wesley So, another slightly troubled character, is there seeded five.

The Filipino Grandmaster, also now representing the United States, is a real prodigy tipped for the top, but he’s had major family issues this year.

In April, the chess world was left in shock when So’s estranged mother Eleanor disrupted his bid for the American chess championship by reportedly causing an ugly scene outside the venue.

A troubled Wesley So forfeits a game at the US championships Sunday Chess TV
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A troubled Wesley So forfeits a game at the US championships  Photo: FACEBOOK

The teenager, who broke off all contact with his biological parents following a disagreement over him giving up college to go professional, was left in emotional tatters.

He then told the magazine New in Chess that he is going to drag his own mother through the courts over the incident.

The sole British representative is England’s great white hope, Grandmaster Michael Adams, who (disclaimer) writes a weekly column for the Telegraph.

Adams, 43, is one of our most humble sports stars who’s been competing at the royal game’s elite level since the mid 1990s. Not that many people here would know that.

All eyes however are on China’s 16-year-old prodigy, Yi Wei, who is currently taking the chess world by storm.

Hou Yifan and Wei Yi (centre) at the Gibraltar Masters Sunday Chess TV
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Hou Yifan and Wei Yi (centre) at the Gibraltar Masters  Photo: JOHN SAUNDERS

In July he played a game that left commentators and the millions of chess fans who tune into games online salivating.

Yi demolished Lazaro Bruzon Bautista of Cuba at the Hainan Danzhou GM tournament with a series of moves that stalked his opponent’s king, the most important piece, across the board and led to a stunning win.

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Chess aficionados have hailed it as one of the greatest game ever played, the 21st century’s “Immortal Game”, for its wonder and beauty.

However, the name not there – and the man casting a shadow over the tournament – is Carlsen.

Men of stature: Magnus Carlsen was attracted to chess due to its intellectual, civilised players Sunday Chess TV
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Men of stature: Magnus Carlsen was attracted to chess due to its intellectual, civilised players  Photo: DANIEL SANNUM

World number one Magnus Carlsen, dubbed the Justin Bieber of chess, is widely-considered the best player ever and is a superstar in his home country.

But this year, after retaining his world title against the ageing Indian master Vishy Anand last November, the 24-year old, the nearest chess has to a “heart-throb”, has been in shocking form by his own standards.

Despite being the runaway favourite, he has failed to win either of the first two tournaments that make up the newly-created grand slam-style $1 million Grand Chess Tour.

At Norway Chess he had a horror show on home turf, losing his first two games in his worst start to a tournament for five years.

In the first game, against Topalov, the world champion lost on time in a winning position because of a calamitous misunderstanding over the rules. Carlsen summed it up afterwards: “To lose a game of chess like that is stupid.”

Earlier this month, in the second leg of the Grand Chess Tour, the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, Carlsen had another “moment of insanity” when he failed to win a completely won position against his favourite “client”, the US number one Hikaru Nakamura.

The world champ of chess is rocking, and that may be why he isn’t taking part in this world cup. It’s believed the nerd-king is gathering his strength for an assault on the London Chess Classic, the last leg of the tour, in December.

The format of the world cup, which is being streamed over the internet, is a 128-player knockout in which pawn-pushers face-off against each other in two classical chess games per round.

They play one game with the white pieces, normally considered an advantage because you move first and get the initiative, and one as black.

If those games end up equal a two-game rapid-play play-off takes place.

This is a shortened version of the game in which both players have 25 minutes on the clock plus 10 seconds added to their time total for each move played.

And if those two games also end up equal, the pair play a super-fast “armageddon” blitz match to decide who goes through.

This may sound dull – but when you see the speed in which these players have to make a decision, thrust a piece across the board and then hit the clock to mark their time, you would be amazed.

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In round two, that’s exactly where Adams found himself – battling for survival in a nervy, frenetic blitz game against the Czech Viktor Laznicka.

Pieces flew around the board as Adams, who defeated the women’s world champion Maria Muzychuk in the first round, and Laznicka desperately tried to stay in the competition.

Adams finally prevailed in the quick-fire battle of wills, but only after his tricky opponent missed an easy win. Lucky Adams.

Can Adams with gold for England? The rock solid Cornishman, who had a peak rating of world number four, never gives up and is always strong in these tournaments.

He has a real chance of world cup glory. And it’s not often a man from England can say that.

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