Magnus Carlsen wins inaugural Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge

Caruana second, Aronian third

“It feels awesome to win the event,” said Magnus Carlsen after clinching the inaugural Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge on Friday after beating Fabiano Caruana in the second game of the final. Carlsen will take home the  $60,000 first prize, whereas Caruana earned $40,000.

Levon Aronian won the fight for third place and $30,000 thanks to a concinving win with the white pieces against Nodirbek Abdusattorov ($20,000). Alireza Firouzja secured fifth place ($15,000) and qualification for the 2025 edition (alongside the top four) by drawing with Gukesh Dommaraju ($12,000) while Vincent Keymer ($10,000) also won his second game vs. Ding Liren ($8,000) to finish in seventh place.

Magnus Carlsen was the only player in Weissenhaus who had to defeat eight challengers, as Jan Henric Buettner noted at the prize-giving ceremony: seven grandmasters and himself. As the G.O.A.T. in the tournament of his choice, Carlsen was under more pressure than anyone else right from the start. He stood up to it.


Magnus Carlsen, the “Famous Five” (see below) and Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova 

Magnus Carlsen vs. Fabiano Caruana 1:0

In the semi-final Magnus Carlsen went 1.g2-g4 and consequently wrote “Grob” on his scoresheet. In the final against Fabiano Caruana he again opened with g2-g4 – and wrote “Polish”. That was difficult to understand.

A deeper look at the starting position reveals the explanation. What is called the “kingside” in traditional chess and still has no name in the 960 (“g-side”, says Carlsen), Carlsen tended to locate on the left side of the board, i.e. on the c-side. That’s why g2-g4 seemed to him like b2-b4 – Polish.

With Carlsen accurately writing “Polish Opening”, he avoid confusion with the “Polish Defense” (1…b7-b5). However, for 1.b2-b4, “Polish” is more of a third name after the more common “Orangutan” and “Sokolsky”.


Regardless of the opening, Carlsen had the white pieces, and that’s huge in 960 with its high number of decided games compared to chess1. Already before the quarterfinals Carlsen had said that he thought it was a great advantage to start a match with White. His results reflect why he might be right: three white games, three wins.

Asked by Fiona Steil-Antoni about his favorite game of the tournament, he named the final one against Caruana: “It won me the tournament, and it was also fairly good.” Carlsen was not completely satisfied with his chess overall: “Sometimes I played too impulsively.” Nevertheless, he often managed to penetrate deep into the unfamiliar position and capture its essence, he said.

This may also apply to the second game against Caruana, in which the challenger soon had his back to the wall. “A miniature” was what Peter Leko feared in the opening. At times it looked as if Caruana would stabilize, but in the end, he was outplayed quite comfortably.

Levon Aronian vs. Nodirbek Abdusattorov 1:0

In hindsight Levon Aronian was not at all satisfied with his opening move 1.c4. In his opinion, Abdusattorov would have done best to apply the typical 960 recipe for Black, symmetry: 1…c5.

Abdusattorov didn’t do that. Aronian was probably right when he remarked that Abdusattorov had got off on the wrong track early on, starting with 1…g5. “Too expansive.”

The game soon became a one-way street. “Maybe I gave him a bit of air, could have played more precisely, but I was better the whole game.

Aronian confirms Vincent Keymers’ observation (see below) that advantages in 960 are more severe because defending is more difficult. “In normal chess we understand the defensive possibilities, we can judge whether something is just terrible or hopeless. Here we even aim for positions that turn out to be hopeless. That’s a difference.”


Levon Aronian, playing a 960 English. Photo: Lennart Ootes

Gukesh vs. Alireza Firouzja 0,5:0,5

After his defeat the previous day, Gukesh needed to win to take the match into extra time and keep his chance of fifth place and qualification for 2025 alive. But the youngest player in the tournament never came close to anything tangible.

Firouzja equalized comfortably and could have become ambitious. But he didn’t even become that after Gukesh made a tactical blunder. Instead, he secured the draw he needed to win the match.


A draw was all Alireza Firouzja wanted. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Ding Liren vs. Vincent Keymer 0:1

“It’s funny that we got pretty much the same position as Alireza and Gukesh,” said Vincent Keymer in our interview after the game. “I didn’t want to play the same moves as them, but theirs were the best, so we followed them two or three times. When I had the choice, I deviated.”

Keymer finds it “strange that sometimes positions that arise in freestyle can look similar, but one piece placed differently changes everything.” That was the case in the game against Ding Liren. The knight on b3 didn’t feel right there, says Keymer.


“No one was really able to defend anything”: Vincent Keymer. Photo: Lennart Ootes

Can you say that it’s more difficult to find the harmony of your pieces, but it’s also more difficult to realize that you’re lacking harmony?

Kind of both, yes, but I think the hardest thing is to defend yourself. What I saw throughout the tournament is that no one was really able to defend anything. As soon as things got uncomfortable or bad, everyone basically just lost. That’s also why we saw so many games that were over after 20, 25 moves, because it’s so difficult to defend properly. As soon as there is a disharmony between the pieces, we don’t yet have these mechanisms like in  traditional chess.

While in classical everyone is saying that in the last 10 years everyone has become good at defending.

Exactly. I think if you play well against such players in a traditional tournament, you can win, I don’t know, two out of ten. And here, as soon as you have a better position, the chances of winning the game are extremely high.

Do you think that is also the explanation partly of your opponent’s bad tournament, that when you’re in bad shape, that there is no way to save yourself in this kind of game?

Yes, partly. I mean, there’s absolutely no stability. First of all, the time control is difficult without the increment. 90 minutes is quite long, but not long for a classical time control. And then you also don’t have that kind of stability that you know from opening theory, so that basically you could play something solid that you know well and you have an idea of what’s going on. Here you really have to come up with everything for yourself, and if that doesn’t go well, it’s very difficult.


“We all suffered with you,” said Jan Henric Buettner to Ding Liren when handing him the 8th prize. Photo: Maria Emelianova

By Conrad Schormann and Peter Doggers

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