Countdown to Carlsen

This text was published in the April issue of British Chess Magazine.

After more than a year since the Candidates tournament was stopped, the hapless tournament will continue from 19 April in the city of Yekaterinburg. Guarantees are freely given that the players will be safe and that they can arrive to Russia without problems. According to the FIDE President anybody who wishes to receive the Russian vaccine will be able to do so. There will be many unknowns until the event starts, and likely during its course, so the only thing we can do is hope that everything goes well this time.

Here is a reminder of the current standings: Vachier and Nepomniachtchi lead with 4.5 points ahead of Caruana, Grischuk, Giri and Wang Hao on 3.5. Last place is shared by Alekseenko and Ding Liren with 2.5.

It is worth noting that in case of a tie the result of the direct duel between the players will be the first criterion. In the case of Vachier and Nepomniachtchi for now the Frenchman has the advantage as he won their game from the 7th round. The Russian will have a chance to level the score in the 13th round.

Even though the results add up, except for the players there is nothing in common between the two parts of the tournament. The period between them was so long and the world changed in so many ways that it makes no sense to predict the outcome based on how they played in March 2020. The players will return to Yekaterinburg in different form and state of mind and will play a very short tournament of 7 rounds when anything can happen.

What we do have, however, are the points and a full point is a huge advantage in only 7 rounds. This makes the leaders the clear favourites before the start. The standings also indicate that except for the last two players everybody else is still in the running.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t make it any easier to try to predict how the event will pan out. The players barely played any classical games in the past year and basing conclusions on their online performances can be loose at best. For example, it is not improbable for a player like Ding Liren, who played very badly in the last online event in early February (starting his games at midnight), to start winning games and turn the event upside down.

Of the players who managed to play some classical games, at this year’s Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, Giri and Caruana can be fairly happy with their play, finishing shared first and shared third respectively. On the other hand the leader Vachier should be very worried, finishing on a heavy minus score. He lost to both fellow candidates Caruana and Giri in his beloved Najdorf, making it even more painful.

Still, often playing very badly before an important event (like Caruana having an abysmal Wijk before winning the Berlin Candidates in 2018 and Anand finishing last in Bilbao before beating Kramnik in Bonn 2008) can serve as a wake-up call and can mobilise the player. To spice things up, the first round of the resumption will see the duel Caruana-Vachier, a repeat of their game in Wijk aan Zee, so we will quickly see whether the Frenchman had managed to recover.

If there are no unexpected events we will know the name of Carlsen’s challenger by the end of April. The World Championship match is scheduled to start on 24 November in Dubai. This gives the Challenger 7 months to prepare for the most important event of his life while hoping that the world becomes a better place in the meantime.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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