Candidates 2016 – A Preview
Less than two weeks until the start of the first part of the exciting year 2016 promises to be. With the Olympiad and the World Championship match to follow we are looking at an exceptional year for chess.
The Candidates Tournament starts on 10 March in Moscow. There are three groups of players in the field: The Young, The Old and The Wild Card. Here is how I see the situation before the start.
Four players fall into this group: Caruana (23), Nakamura (28), Giri (21) and Karjakin (26).
Caruana is one of the favourites to win this tournament. He is well-established in the elite for quite some time now and, what is more important, has a record of winning elite events. History has shown that the player who earns his right to challenge the World Champion has always been the one who has had the best tournament record before the match. Ever since Caruana’s legendary 7/7 in Saint Louis in 2014 he is considered as the most likely challenger to Carlsen. He recently started playing 1 d4 as well, in an attempt to widen his opening repertoire (perhaps under the influence of his new coach Kasimdzhanov) and this will make him even more difficult to prepare against. The latest showing in Wijk aan Zee, where he shared second behind Carlsen, demonstrated that after some period of instability he is back his former self, even if a bit more polishing is needed.
Nakamura is my other favourite to win. I started to appreciate the American only when he evolved and started to win some excellent technical games against elite opposition. This universality has brought him more consistency and stability. Like Caruana, he has a record of winning elite events, but I still see him somewhat less stable psychologically – a few months ago in London, he was having a good event, but after yet another loss to Carlsen he played horribly and lost to Giri the next day. Maybe this was the Carlsen effect, his score against him is horrible, but there will be no Carlsen in Moscow. I see him as probably the best fighter in the field and this is his main trump.
Talking about Giri, I’d like to quote Johannes Hendrikus Donner, from his excellent book The King: “… but mostly as a natural result of the conviction – deeply rooted in the Netherlands – that no Dutchman can ever achieve anything worthwhile.” But then again Giri was born in St Petersburg. From all the eight participants Giri is the latest edition to the elite. However, I cannot get rid of the impression that Giri became an elite player not by winning, but by not losing. He hasn’t won an elite event and I cannot imagine that the first elite event he wins will be the Candidates. He is excellently prepared and it will be difficult to beat him, but that just means that he will make a lot of draws. If nobody goes mad against him I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes 14 draws.
Karjakin has too often been mediocre. Take the last Wijk aan Zee, a miserable -1 score with uneventful chess on display. He is a fighter, the World Cup clearly showed it, and I’m sure the memories of Khanty 2014 when he finished second are still fresh in his mind, giving him the hope that he can win it. But there is no edge in Karjakin, in spite of the tremendous support he enjoys in Russia, and unless he reinvents himself I cannot imagine him winning the event.
Here we have Anand (46), Topalov (41) and Svidler (39). I’ll say it immediately, I don’t think anyone from this group has a chance to win the tournament.
Anand’s win in Khanty 2014 was the final stand of the older generation before the young start to take over. Now that time has come. But the fact that these three are here after all those years shows what an exceptional and strong players they still are.
After more than 20 years Anand played an open earlier this year, in Gibraltar, and played like a regular open player, losing to guys rated 2500 and drawing solid IMs rated around 2400. The rating losses meant that he is now out of the Top 10, something unheard of. Then he went to Zurich, back to his usual company (albeit for a rapid/blitz event) and shared first with Nakamura, undefeated. A huge boost for his confidence, which is good for him, but as in Khanty, all will depend on his start – if he starts well then he will be in contention, but if not, then he’ll just try to draw and finish the tournament as soon as possible.
Topalov’s last tournament was in December, a last place in London, with 2.5/9, winless. Never an epitomy of stability, he will be somewhat of a loose cannon in Moscow. For him only the first place exists so he will take risks and go for broke. This approach can bring victory, but only if in good form. He did that when in bad form in Khanty in 2014 and finished last. It’s always extremes with him and I expect the same approach in Moscow. But a repeat of Khanty is quite probable in this field.
Svidler reinvented himself in the Candidates in London 2013 (finishing third) and continued along the same lines in Khanty in 2014. But while in London it worked, it backfired in Khanty. The reinvention meant playing sharper chess, avoiding his usual 50% or +/- 1in super-tournaments. He understood that he needed to play sharper chess in order to score more. The reason for his failure in Khanty was his bad form. He learnt his lesson and now I expect him to know how to balance his form and preparation. If he manages that he will be one of the most exciting players in the field!
The Wild Card
Perhaps it is fair that a player of many ups and (lately) downs, like Aronian (33), received the wild card for the tournament. It is really difficult to expect anything of him! He failed miserably in all the previous World Championship cycles, while playing superb chess elsewhere. This finished in 2014-2015, when he was miserable elsewhere and even fell out of the Top 10 for a while. Things are different for him now, as for the first time he is not seen as a favourite. But on the other hand he is the nominate of the organiser, an Armenian millionaire, which perhaps will put some pressure. For me he is the enigma of the tournament, a dark horse. I still don’t think he’ll win, but I won’t be surprised if he does.