The Candidates Tournament is my favourite one. It’s not just another super-strong round-robin, here everything is at stake and the pressure is sky high. The players try to rise to their best and show what they are capable of when it matters most.
I wanted to write this preview for quite some time but then life happened – the world suffered a huge disruption and other things became more important than chess. Even more so, I wasn’t even sure the tournament will take place.
Now we can see that the tournament will start. Will it finish? Nobody knows. The whole atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, increased tension (as it wasn’t enough) makes me much less enthusiastic about it. That includes writing this preview.
There are so many unknowns. How will the world situation affect the players (it’s already known how it affected two of them – Radjabov withdrew, Wang Hao publicly said he would rather not be there), will they think of their families in Paris or China, what if they receive news that one of them got sick, how will they handle the new situation, what if somebody gets sick in the hotel, what if one of the players gets sick, what if one or more of the players start coughing and sneezing (deliberately or not)…?
If it were up to me, I would have erred on the side of caution. When I play chess I want to be at peace. Botvinnik couldn’t play without inner peace. And what inner peace are we talking about when the whole world is in turmoil? Why even put the players in such a situation, to play under those conditions? Even if you can isolate the tournament hall, you cannot isolate the people as long as they live on this planet.
So this preview is not going to be the same as the previous ones (Moscow 2016 and Berlin 2018), which I must admit I loved writing. This time I will limit myself to some observations about the players and what I think is interesting about them.
I won’t be very original in saying that I think that the winner be either Caruana or Ding Liren. They are a bit higher than the rest in class.
Caruana is a regular winner of elite events, he won 2 years ago in Berlin. He has a good chance to become the fifth player in history to win the candidates cycle two times, joining Smyslov, Spassky, Korchnoi and Anand in that feat. What I am curious about Caruana is whether he will go back to his trusted Petroff Defence. After it served him perfectly in Berlin and in the match with Carlsen, Caruana practically abandoned his trusted weapon, for no apparent reason. But perhaps that was all part of the plan – he wanted to keep it for Yekaterinburg, not showing the ideas he still had in store. He meddled with the Sveshnikov and the French among the other openings he chose against 1 e4, but a trusted opening with Black you can rely on is a must in such an event. Berlin showed it (where he won two games in it, against Kramnik and Grischuk). So, will we see the return of the Petroff in Russia?
Ding Liren rose to the current stature last year. He added tournament victories to his already established consistency. The win in the Sinquefield Cup where he beat Carlsen in the play-off showed that he can win any tournament. He also won the Grand Chess Tour, by beating Vachier in the final. In Berlin 2018 he won 1 game and drew the rest, his unbeaten streak of 100 games is a clear indication how difficult is to beat him. With the work he did in the preparation for the tournament he will definitely add more punch to his repertoire and if he takes advantage of these opening ideas he can win a few games and if he remains unbeaten he can easily win the tournament.
I put Vachier, Grischuk and Giri in the same category. I don’t think they can win it, but they do have an outside chance.
Vachier is the wild card (if you remember the letter to Alekseenko you will understand the pun) and wild cards usually do well. Karpov and Goryachkina won the cycles after being unexpectedly included in them. After failing to qualify by all possible criteria (finishing eternally second) Vachier was given a gift. He must be out-of-his-mind happy and this will compensate for the lack of preparation. In my opinion if he is to stand a chance he has to do what I have kept writing about him – to add another opening to his trusted Najdorf and Grunfeld. Has he worked on that problem in the meantime? If yes, this is the perfect chance to show it. We will soon find out.
Grischuk will be my favourite player in the field. I cannot wait to see his opening ideas and press-conferences (if they happen). Always entertaining on and off the board if everything really falls in place for him he can just arrive first at the finish line. It’s a tournament in peculiar conditions and I have a feeling he can adapt to these well. What can be a problem for him is that if he stays long enough in the pack he can push too hard like he did against Mamedyarov in the penultimate round in Berlin and drop out. This means he will give his best and this is something to look forward to.
Giri is too social-media oriented and this hurts his chess, whether he acknowledges this or not. Draws, jokes, this is affecting him because the ego can easily be hurt on social media. And he hurts, even though he doesn’t admit it. Perhaps one day he understands this, shuts down his accounts and shows what he’s capable of. Because he’s a great talent, works extremely hard, his preparation is fantastic as is his technique. His play has become sharper since the infamous 14-draw Moscow Candidates and I don’t see him repeating the result. Still, I feel there is something missing in his psyche to win, not only here, but elite tournaments in general. Perhaps Shakespeare was right, “What’s in a name?” Giri in Japanese means “duty, obligation, burden of obligation, to serve one’s superiors with a self-sacrificing devotion” and with such a surname it is impossible to imagine him a winner.
The remaining players are Nepomniachtchi, Alekseenko and Wang Hao.
Wang Hao already said he’d rather not play now. This is a double-edged statement. Sometimes it works wonders when you give your heart and soul and want to win and be nowhere else; sometimes it’s the other way round – by playing through obligation and not by your own will you take away all the tension and pressure and you’re free to play your best. The key question with Wang Hao will be to see which way it will go for him. If things click and he plays his best in spite of not wanting to be there, he can be a big surprise, especially as very few people expect him to be one.
Nepomniachtchi is a true dark horse. He can score big in both directions. Consistency has always been the key for him, the problem being that it has never lasted for too long. He is also prone to getting pissed off (to go on a tilt as it is popular to say nowadays) and there will be plenty of reasons to be pissed off in Yekaterinburg, both on and off the board. In a long tournament it will be difficult to keep composure at all times, but let’s see if he’s matured. It will be interesting to see his ideas in the Najdorf and Grunfeld, just like Vachier.
Alekseenko is the player with the least pressure to perform. A very likeable fellow (I met him in Gibraltar this year) he is composed and very much aware of his ability. The rumour has it that he has Svidler as his second and this will be huge for him, to have somebody as experienced as Svidler to guide him through a long and difficult tournament. The openings will be important for him as his opening repertoire isn’t as reliable as the one of the other players, but he prepared so I am actually looking forward to seeing new ideas from him like the a4-a5 idea in the Giuoco Piano he introduced at the World Cup where he beat Harikrishna and put Ding Liren under severe pressure.
The tournament starts tomorrow. Let’s wish everybody good luck.