14th World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik and all-time women’s no. 1 Judit Polgar captain 20 young stars as the $100,000 Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour starts this Thursday with the Polgar Challenge. The likes of Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin, Carissa Yip and Zhansaya Abdumalik will compete in a series of 4-day rapid events on chess24, with each winner gaining a chance to play in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. The best individual performers play an 8-player knockout final, while the winning team will also get to travel to Dubai for the 2021 World Championship match.  

Young chess players have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with their chances to make a name for themselves, while chasing rating and title goals, heavily curtailed. The Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour is therefore a chance for some young stars to take centre stage, and it starts this Thursday, April 8th, with the Polgar Challenge.  

There are 20 players, 10 male (Under 18) and 10 female (Under 25), and the pairings are already out: 

The Polgar Challenge is one of four challenges in which each player faces all 19 other players once at rapid chess – 10 minutes per player per game, with a 5-second increment after each move. The games start at 16:00 CEST on Thursday April 8th, with five rounds on the first three days and four on the last. Vladimir and Judit will commentate live here on chess24.  

The prize fund is $15,000, with $3,000 for the winner, who also gets a place on the next Meltwater Champions Chess Tour event, starting April 24th. The best eight players in the four Challenges qualify for the $40,000 knockout final. 

That’s not all, however, as the players are also split into two teams, Team Polgar and Team Kramnik, and their points will also be tallied for their teams. The winning team at the end of the tour will get to travel to Dubai, where Magnus Carlsen is set to play his 5th World Championship match this November.  

Let’s take a look at the teams. 

Team Polgar

Each team not only has a captain, but three coaches who will help the players over the course of the 5-month tour. 

Surya Ganguly 

6-time Indian Champion Surya Ganguly has worked on Team Anand for World Chess Championship matches and should have some invaluable advice for his players. You can see him at the end of this short clip from the first pre-tour meeting with the players and coaches.

He’ll get to give advice to two young Indian prodigies, Gukesh, who at the age of 12 years, 7 months and 17 days became the second youngest chess grandmaster in history (just days slower than Sergey Karjakin), and Nihal Sarin, the World U18 Champion and the youngest Indian player to cross 2600. 

2017 World Junior Girls Champion Zhansaya Abdumalik states that her main goal is to become Women’s World Champion, though she also opened a chess academy and took the chance during the pandemic to become the youngest Deputy of the city of Almaty! Former Iranian Champion Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, Sara Khadem for short, took silver in both the 2018 Women’s World Rapid and Blitz events, winning the overall prize for best female performance and a cool $69,000 in prize money.       

Ju Wenjun 

Ju Wenjun is the reigning Women’s World Chess Champion and together with Judit Polgar, Hou Yifan and Anna Muzychuk means that the Tour features no less than four of the five women ever to cross the 2600 rating barrier (Humpy Koneru was the fifth).  

Ju Wenjun is coaching two potential heirs to her throne, Azerbaijan’s Gunay Mammadzada and China’s Zhu Jiner, who have both won Junior Girls’ World Championships. Zhu Jiner says she lives by the motto, “hard work may not make you successful, but it will make you better tomorrow than today”. 

Ju Wenjun’s third student is young Russian hope Volodar Murzin, whose self-description was brief and to the point! 

I’m twice European Champion, going to become World Champion! I have four sisters and I love to travel around the world!

Arthur Kogan 

Ukrainian-born, Israeli Grandmaster Arthur Kogan currently lives in Spain and his students similarly span the globe. They include perhaps the biggest rising star in Russian chess, male or female, Polina Shuvalova, who in 2019 won both the U18 and U20 World Youth Championships and in 2020 fell just short of winning the Russian Championship after reaching a playoff against Aleksandra Goryachkina.    

Then there’s 3-time US Junior Champion Awonder Liang, who is perhaps best known internationally as the precocious kid in the adult US Championship, though at 17 he’s now planning to go to university this autumn to study Economics or Political Science. Vincent Keymer is one of the great European hopes, with the German most famous for scoring an incredible 8/9 as a 13-year-old to win the massive GRENKE Open in 2018. He struggled a little to earn his grandmaster title, but with Peter Leko as a coach he seems destined for great things.

Team Kramnik

Vladimir Kramnik’s team is slightly younger and lower-rated, but you’d underestimate them at your peril, especially considering the coaching team at their disposal!

Hou Yifan

Women’s no. 1 and former Women’s World Chess Champion Hou Yifan is currently working as a Professor in Shenzhen after completing a degree at Oxford University, but her focus remains chess and she now has a chance to pass on some of her vast experience – the 27-year-old first won the world title at 16.  

Her students include 2017 Chinese Chess Champion Lei Tingjie, who is keeping her feet firmly on the ground.

My goal at the moment is just to enjoy playing chess. I don’t like to set long-term goals because it can create unnecessary pressure for myself. 

Denmark’s Jonas Bjerre, a former European U14 Champion, is currently taking a gap year to focus on his chess. The 3rd player to be coached by Hou Yifan is Leon Mendonca, who found himself and his father stranded in Europe when the pandemic hit. They used the opportunity to hunt GM norms and indeed Leon went on to become India’s 67th grandmaster at the age of 14.  

Boris Gelfand 

52-year-old Boris Gelfand is a legend as a player, having come within rapid tiebreaks of winning the World Chess Championship from Vishy Anand, and has now built a reputation as the one of the best chess authors and coaches. 

In India’s Praggnanandhaa and Uzbekistan’s Nodirbek Abdusattorov, the 4th and 5th youngest grandmasters in history, Boris has been charged with teaching two of the best young prospects in chess. Nodirbek in fact simply states that his favourite player is Garry Kasparov and his goal is to become World Champion. 

Olga Badelka is from Minsk, but is currently studying at the University of Missouri and was part of the winning team in the recent World Online University Blitz Cup. The 18-year-old comments, “I would like to learn professionalism from Boris Gelfand”. Dinara Saduakassova, from Kazakhstan, a former World Junior Girls Champion with a peak rating of 2519, emanates professionalism. Dinara has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and was listed on the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list.    

Anna Muzychuk 

Anna Muzychuk was taught to play chess by her parents at the age of two and together with her sister Mariya went on to win almost everything you could win in women’s chess, including the World Junior Championship and Rapid and Blitz world titles.  

She will be overseeing some of the most promising players from the USA. Christopher Yoo became the youngest US IM in history as a 12-year-old and, coached by Sam Shankland and Jacob Aagaard, would probably be a grandmaster by now if not for the pandemic. Carissa Yip was the youngest US woman to gain the IM title and apart from winning multiple junior titles has also been the top-rated female player in the USA. She finished runner-up in the 2020 US Women’s Championship.

Nurgyul Salimova won the World U12 Girls Championship and is a former Bulgarian Champion. She states simply, “my goal is to become the best female chess player in the world”. 

So as you can see, there’s a fascinating line-up of players with dreams and ambitions to reach the very top. As Vladimir Kramnik advised at the opening meeting, however, the main goal for now should be to focus on learning.    

My first and the most important maybe message is, “take it easy!” This event, this half year – you are going to be part of this whole big project – is about learning, first of all. Of course the result, I understand, it’s important, you want to win, you want to show your best, but the one who will be on top later, who will have the best career, is not the one, necessarily, who is going to win this tournament. It’s the one who will learn most from each tournament, each project, you have on your way. 

I can tell you that in my junior time I was not the best junior in the country, the Soviet Union. I was definitely one of the best, but I can tell you the two names which were more or less of my generation, though a little older than me. There were two players who were actually considered to be the most talented. Guess the names! It is Tiviakov and Sakaev. 

And there was me, Svidler, Shirov, many other guys. And of course they [Sergei Tiviakov and Konstantin Sakaev] were extremely talented, but finally they became very strong players, but something was missing at the end of the day. 

So what I mean is, winning this event, or being on top, is not the most important. Just take it easy, it is an incredible opportunity for you to learn, to progress in chess, and the real bill will come later when you improve and improve and become hopefully top players, most of you, and then the one who will learn most from these sessions, from these tournaments, will be on top. So take it easy! 

The action begins on Thursday, April 8th, when Vladimir and Judit will be commentating live as the players commence their online battle. Don’t miss it, live here on chess24 from 16:00 CEST

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