Category : Tournaments

The Match in Dubai

When the World Championship match happens, then the place to be is there.

My first World Championship match visit was in 2018 in London and I fell in love with the experience. The whole atmosphere was magical, observing history in the making with the world’s two best players competing, in addition to discussing chess with luminaries in the VIP rooms and the media centres.

The main problem this year was the situation with the virus, as no long-term planning was possible, but I took the risk and arranged to go to Dubai for the games six to ten. It turned out I was spot on with my planning.

I arrived on the day of game six. You already know how that game ended and what it meant for the match. That day was also fenomenal for me personally as I managed to talk with the people I needed to talk to, I gave several interviews (for NBC and a couple for the Norwegian media and the studio in Oslo and the chess24 live transmission) and talked to Maurice Ashley and Alejandro Ramirez about a possible promotion of my book The Sinquefield Generation in the Saint Louis Chess Club. I ended up giving interviews every day, becoming a regular for the Norwegian media and the studio in Oslo.

From that first day onwards everything was adrenaline fueled. Most of my time was spent in taxis (the distances are huge! – they drive 100-120 km/h on the eight-lane wide motorways and you still need half an hour to get either to the Expo, where the match was played, or to downtown Dubai) but the positive energy of everybody I met there was lifting me up and keeping me there!

From a purely chess point of view, there is a massive difference experiencing the match there at the venue and from the comfort of your home. When at home I tend to be dimissive of the players’ decisions as I stare at the computer screen and the engine is too happy to criticise their moves. It’s too easy to side with the engine and forget the human aspect. At the venue, however, it is all about the human aspect.

During game six I remember how we (several GMs) were looking at the evaluation swings and even after seeing the moves of the engine we distinctly felt the difficulty of those decisions and were not really surprised when the players missed their opportunities. I felt more attuned to the players and felt more like a player than a spectator armed with an engine.

Since I spent all my time at the venue while the games were in progress I didn’t have much time to explore the Expo and in fact I only went to several pavillions. It was nevertheless an amazing experience, the best one was probably touching the moon (literally!) in the USA pavillion as they had a piece of the moon exhibited there that the visitors could touch.

Three more touristic activities I managed to do was to swim in the Indian Ocean, to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa and to go on a desert safari. I have to say that Dubai was great from a touristic aspect even though I got to experience very little of it.

Going back to the chess part, like in London I also got the chance to get on the big stage. This time I sat in the winner’s chair.

The winner was decided on that day when I arrived, but I didn’t know that back then. Now that the match is over I can say that it seemed to me that Nepomniachtchi tried to play like Karjakin and while the result was equal this worked, but when he lost a game he couldn’t readjust to his more natural aggressive instincts.

The confusion and the indecision how to continue the match resulted in lowering of his psychological defences and he reverted to faster play, which under the duress of the match led to horrendous blunders that ended the match prematurely.

I wrote a detailed account of the match with full analysis of games three to 11 for the January issue of British Chess Magazine (I analysed the first two games for the December issue). The main surprise of the match was how Black never had any problems in the openings even when just following the established theory and not inventing any new ideas. Black is so good that White has become desperate.

When I was a kid I thought I’d be one of the players playing on that stage. Life didn’t turn out that way, but I did end up on that stage, twice so far. I am definitely looking forward to more appearances in the future.

I will leave you with one fine sunset from the desert:


Rook Endgames from Riga

The recently finished FIDE Grand Swiss had a lot of interesting games. I happened to be present in Riga for several rounds and I witnessed a few of them.

I was in the playing hall when the following two rook endgames were played. I had my impressions while the games were in progress and I will share them in the comments. As usual when we use our brains, my impressions were much more cautious than the definite verdicts of the engine.

The first example was from the women’s event.

The second example was from the same round, but in the open section.

The third example was the one I noticed once I left Riga. It was a game that was crucial for the eventual winner, as he managed to win from a drawn position.

I found these endgames quite instructive. Perhaps a bit comforting is that even the best players mess them up, as with the physically demanding time controls it is more difficult to keep the concentration until the end and as we know, who errs the last is what matters.


Candidates 2021 and What Lies Ahead

With the Candidates tournament finally finished we now have the name of Carlsen’s challenger. Many interviews were given and a lot of information appeared since the end of the event, so here I will try to summarise and give also my opinion.

The players who were leading one year ago finished on top, but their paths were different. Nepomniachtchi played solid and safe chess, Vachier was stubborn and paid the price for it.

Nepomniachtchi showed maturity and good control of his nerves. As he put it, one must never go crazy in these events. In other words, making draws is good. Vachier perhaps would have wanted to do the same, but insisting on the Najdorf and the Grunfeld made him a sitting duck and after a full year of preparation his opponents took advantage of it.

The revelation of the tournament was Giri. It seemed to me that he added a certain “forward intent” to his solidity. This was most clearly shown in the game against Caruana, when he first absorbed White’s pressure and then when Caruana decided to continue the game at all costs (instead of accepting a draw, which for him was unacceptable) Giri took over and there was no stopping him.

I was disappointed by Caruana’s decision not to try to beat Nepomniachtchi with Black. He explained this by being too early to burn bridges, but in fact already in the next round he was forced to burn those bridges against Giri. Postponing the said burning didn’t help him even though he was White against Giri. My experience says that it’s always best to try to use the first chance – in Caruana’s case the game against Nepomniachtchi. It was also more practical to do so – he would have caught the leader and in fact would have had a better tie-break in case of a win. When the first chance is not taken and when a second one comes (this often is not the case – life often gives just one chance) then taking the second one is more difficult. This was proven in Caruana’s case, when Giri played one of his best games. But, and I have noted this on more than one occasion, the modern generation of chess players is not a risk-taking generation. Nothing seems to “whip the blood when great stakes can be gained by resolute and self-confident daring” (Lasker). I see this lack of “self-confident daring” the main psychological weakness of today’s best chess players.

The rest of the field were not in contention for first place. The happiest is probably Ding Liren who scored the most points with 4.5/7. Wang Hao announced his retirement from professional chess due to health issues caused by stress. Grischuk directly decided the winner by beating Nepomniachtchi’s followers, first Vachier and then Giri. Alekseenko beat Giri in a nice game in the last round to sweeten his maiden attempt at the world title.

What can we expect from the match in Dubai? I expect a much more dynamic match than Carlsen’s previous matches. A lot of people have said that Carlsen can be beaten only in dynamic and perhaps even irrational positions. Nepomniachtchi can play like that, but modern chess is difficult because a strong player can skillfully avoid positions he doesn’t like by careful selection of openings. Let’s say Carlsen chooses 1.Nf3 – how is then Nepomniachtchi going to get a Najdorf or a Grunfeld?

As always, a lot will depend on the openings. And they will depend on the strategy the players choose. If Nepomniachtchi’s strategy is perhaps more probable to foresee, Carlsen’s is not. Does he feel strong enough to battle in sharp positions, or will he try to keep it quiet and technical?

One way or another, the match will be interesting. Just like any other World Championship match.


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.


Going Passive Magnus?

Magnus Carlsen’s domination in online chess continued with yet another win at the Chessable Masters. The win was convincing, beating everybody 2-0 in matches, but only because the other players couldn’t use the chances they were given.

The one thing I noticed during these matches was that it appeared that Carlsen was affected more than necessary by the result in the match. In other words, when he was leading he would often play for a draw, which is fine as long as it’s done properly.

A good case for a proper playing for a draw is the 4th game of the tie-break of his World Championship match with Karjakin in 2016. He played a solid opening and kept control throughout the game.

A bad way to play for a draw is to go passive and “hope for the best.” Surprisingly, that is exactly what Carlsen was doing in his final match with Giri.

In the first match, needing a draw with White to win it, Carlsen played a very passive opening:

This tendency towards passivity was also shown in his choices of openings when he played with Black. For example, in the first game of the first match he went for a solid, yet passive Slav set-up a-la Tiviakov:

In the second match the tendency continued. After winning the first game in great style Carlsen switched to bunker-style in the others.

In the third game he went for the English Opening and after 16 moves he was already slightly worse.

To his credit, Carlsen successfully managed to defend the passive position by setting up a fortress in the end.

The worst case was the last game of the match. Again needing a draw to win the match and the tournament Carlsen went for a very passive choice. It was his preparation until this point at least (he said that the move 18…a5 was in his files), but what puzzles me is why would he voluntarily go for this position?

Black’s last move was 18…a5

Even if Black is objectively fine here (which I doubt, though I’m sure Peter Heine did his work), why would anybody want to play in this manner, giving White all he wants and needs. Even more so, why play this when needing a draw?

Carlsen was outplayed and dead lost in this game, but thanks to a 1-move blunder by Giri he saved the game and won the match and the tournament.

It is quite possible that Carlsen is testing various strategies in these matches to see if he can get away with them. I am also pretty certain that he would never play like this in a high-stakes OTB game. Still, seeing him go passive like is a strange sight.



Too much of a good thing is still too much.

I love chess, looking at it, analysing, playing, working on it. I love to watch the best players play, the commentary is excellent nowadays and it adds value to the experience. I sometimes learn something new while watching.

The pandemic forced everybody to stay at home and chess content exploded as result. Incessant tournaments, one following another, streams, publications, webinars, coaching, all you can imagine is coming out on a daily basis, often a lot of them at the same time.

While it is better to have than have not, I think that currently there is an oversaturation of chess content. It feels like an insane schedule where everybody feels compelled to produce, produce, produce. I cannot keep up, but can anybody? Unless it’s somebody’s job to keep up with everything and they dedicate their whole day to it, I sincerely doubt it.

I feel overwhelmed by the bombardment of chess content and in view of my own commitments I gave up on even trying to keep up.

I follow the news and the games, but not live. When the day (or the tournament) finishes I’d download the games and check them quickly, mostly for opening information. If I had read somewhere that a game had been interesting for some reason, I’d check that one in more detail. Otherwise, it’s mostly browsing.

That is my best effort to try to stay afloat, yet there is this constant feeling of fear of missing out. I haven’t watched a second of any of the streams out there, though I’d like to, I’m sure Nakamura or Kovalenko have curious things to say. I would like to watch the events live, to spend hours following the games, as Svidler, Leko and co. have those rare insights that I’m after. But, no time for that, I have things to do instead of just observe.

For how long will this continue? Personally, I don’t see it stopping any time soon. Even when chess returns to the playing halls the online content will continue to blossom. Chess is moving in the direction of e-sports and I expect it to establish its place there. It may be different from the chess we are used to playing, with its premoves and disconnects, but that is the “new reality,” whether we like it or not.


The Curse Of The Premove

I sincerely envy the people who have the time to follow all the chess that is happening now. There are so many events, commentaries, streams, webinars, banter-blitzes, courses, books, that it feels overwhelming.

Perhaps that is just me, with my work taking all the time and making it impossible to even watch a single event or listen to a commentary. And yet the sheer amount of chess content appears to have increased manifold.

Chess has moved online and this makes it akin to the e-sports. The rules of the game are still the same, but some of the abilities to do well online are quite different from the ones to do well over-the-board.

Online it is all about speed. Even when there is some increment per move, speed is what counts. Speed wins games, often in spite of quality.

One of the new habits of the “online generation” is the so-called premove. The art of the premove (I wonder how Botvinnik would understand this phrase) is to foresee with certain degree of probability what the opponent will play and then premove your own move, with the sole aim of not losing even a millisecond of your own time.

Here are two extreme examples that show to which length the advocates of the premove will go in order to take maximum advantage of this feature.

The starting moves of the Reti Opening, Black has many options at his disposal. But can you guess which move has the highest score for Black (I wouldn’t dare call it “the best”) in online chess?

The move 2…Bh3. This is online chess, with its own bluffs and probabilities. The move shows that Black expects White to premove 3 Bg2 so he wants to take immediate advantage of that by winning a piece on the spot. Of course, in case White doesn’t premove, then Black loses a piece. Is the risk worth it? Every online player should decide for himself.

The second example is from a short video clip I saw on Twitter. The World Champion is playing Black and he is completely winning.

But Carlsen, who is also part of the “online generation” and uses all the “tricks of the trade,” fell victim to these tricks. He clicked (that’s more precise than to say “played”) on the move …Ka4, which is a perfectly reasonable move, as it wins. That was not the mistake, the mistake was that immediately after making the move he premoved the next one, namely …Kxa3. And White, probably a shrewd online player himself, paused for a 1-2 seconds before cunningly playing Kc5! A fantastic move, banking on the “premove effect”. In OTB chess this means nothing, but online… Upon seeing this Carlsen immediately started to laugh, as the system executed his premoved …Kxa3 when White took on b5 with a draw.

Yes, online chess is often absurd with its own rules, tricks and speed demons. Whether we like it or not, we’re going into this territory now. Some of us will adapt, others will decide to wait until the next OTB tournament. In the meantime, expect more of the above-mentioned excitement.


The Online Threat

Ever since the lockdowns started I kept hearing and reading how chess was so fortunate because it can easily be played online. Everybody was saying it, starting from the World Champion, Garry Kasparov, many Grandmasters, FIDE… It sounded logical, so without giving it much thought I concluded the same.

After a while the famous quote by Mark Twain resurfaced in my consciousness: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And so I did.

The current situation in the world and how it is developing mean that there will be no over-the-board tournaments in the near (or even mid-term) future. Simply nobody will allow (or want to be part of) big gatherings like the usual open tournaments. But even when the measures are finally lifted, how many organisers will still have the funds and the enthusiasm to organise tournaments again? Not many.

(Please note that I’m not talking about the elite players. For them there will always be an OTB tournament to play, for understandable reasons.)

With no OTB tournaments in sight, the temptation is big to make everything online. Official tournaments, rating, norms, long-control games, all goes online. We adapt to the current situation.

While it is true that chess can easily played online, we must understand that in the majority of cases this play is purely for fun or entertainment. In such cases nothing matters so much. The problems start if we start to take online chess seriously.

There are two major problems when it comes to taking online chess seriously: cheating and “divine intervention”, i.e. disconnecting.

A lot has been written about prevention of online cheating. The chess platforms have their own systems and algorithms they wield with little mercy. The principle is “decision without explanation” as no proof is ever given when somebody is “caught cheating.”

Then there are cosmetic methods like cameras showing the faces of the players and their screens from front, from back, from side. I guess better something than nothing.

The bottom line is that cheating online cannot be prevented, it can only be punished. So if the punishment is draconian perhaps the potential cheaters will think twice before attempting it. Perhaps. This will depend on what they have to lose. Of course, a few innocents will die in the process, but that is the price of progress.

What to do with the second aspect, the force majeure called “disconnect” is unclear. Not everybody in the world has stable internet and even though gens una sumus, not all connections have been created equal. The repercussions of this aspect can be far-fetched and sometimes life-changing for the players (imagine winning a big prize or qualification and then a disconnect happens two moves before mate).

So let’s imagine now all official tournaments go online. The games are rated with FIDE ratings, norms can be achieved. Cheating is punished severely, (innocent?!) people complain but they are forced to accept the decisions, it will be in the regulations. Players from all over the world get their ratings, make norms, become Grandmasters, earn prizes. Everybody is happy.

The question now is, will anybody want to play OTB chess again? How many players will want to fork out airfares, hotels and other expenses to travel to play tournaments when they can do it for free from home?

Is going online completely really such a blessing for chess? Or is it the end of it?


Now What?

As I wrote in my Preview, the Candidates unfortunately did not finish. Or is it perhaps fortunately?

In this post I will give my thoughts on the whole mess that started before the tournament and is still ongoing after its postponement.

In a world that was rapidly shutting down FIDE decided to go ahead with its flagship tournament. It ran against common sense yet they insisted. The mantra they kept repeating “it’s only a 8-player tournament” was simply not true, if not insulting – it implied that there were only 8 people that needed to be protected. What about all the other persons who were present and working there to make sure the tournament was running “smoothly”?

Why did FIDE insist against common sense and strong opinions from the public and recommendations of institutions like the WHO? Why it didn’t mind that one of the participants withdrew and another publicly stated that the tournament should not have taken place? They said they couldn’t postpone the tournament “legally or practically.” Again, this turned out to be untrue, especially after the Russian government issued a statement to stop all international events from the 16 of March and FIDE’s reply that that didn’t apply to the Candidates because they started on the 15 of March (which was arrivals day, with Round 1 on the 17 of March).

I think there are two main reasons for FIDE’s behaviour: financial and moral.

The financial reason is that FIDE needs the money from the World Championship cycle. The cherry on the cake is the World Championship match. FIDE announced that they agreed to hold the match in Dubai in December. But you need two players for a match and one of them is the winner of the Candidates. No Candidates, no match. No match, no money.

The moral reason is “we promised, we delivered”. Even some heroics is implied, “we delivered against all odds.” Fair enough, they kept their word (if we accept that 50% of the tournament is indeed “delivered”), but to insist in times of a black swan force majeure where some flexibility would have been much more prudent would have sent a much better message to the public. And would have done wonders for their reputation.

There are world-class Grandmasters and very intelligent people in FIDE and I don’t think that they failed to “calculate” the development of the world’s events that led to what we are seeing now. They were running out of time, so they took their chance with the event, pushed through and hoped they get at least to half of the tournament. The risk paid off.

With half the tournament played FIDE now is safe. They insist that the Candidates will be resumed but I don’t think that matters anymore. If it’s impossible to resume, due to the world situation or any other reason, they can still proclaim a winner from these 7 rounds (Vachier) and the match is on. Of course, there will be outrage, but legally everything will be right: the tournament results are valid as long as 50% of the games have been played. They will have delivered the cycle and the match.

(I don’t want to go into discussing the implications when a tournament is split in 2 parts with unknown time between them, disrupting the whole dynamics of the tournament. It’s a different story altogether, again not ending well for FIDE).

If what I say above is true, then it’s evident that all this has been about FIDE’s interests and nothing else. I for one love to see orderly World Championship cycle and calendar of events, but if the Olympiad, with its decades of history could be postponed, I don’t see why the World Championship cycle could not. The explanation that at the time the tournament started the situation was different is pure demagogy. It’s the same as a Grandmaster evaluating a position without calculating a few moves ahead.

The situation with the players is also an interesting one. There were two, Radjabov and Wang Hao, who expressed their concerns before the event – Radjabov even acted upon them and withdrew. There was Grischuk who openly said during the tournament that he didn’t want to be there and play, the atmosphere being “sick”. There was Caruana who in an interview said that it’s impossible not to follow what’s happening in the world. There was Nepomniachtchi who really got sick (though not from corona). There was Ding Liren who played awfully and didn’t say a word about his quarantines. There was Alekseenko, who is sponsored by a Russian company and couldn’t say anything. And there were Giri and Vachier who basically said they didn’t care and were concentrated solely on themselves. It’s interesting that even Magnus Carlsen expressed a similar view – the world may be falling apart, but you’re there to play and win, so do that. Get rich or die trying I suppose.

This is nothing new in the chess world. Every man for himself. I wonder what would have happened had they coordinated before the tournament. Perhaps finally we would have had “power to the players”? But we will never have that.

Radjabov’s decision to withdraw was justified in hindsight, but that is a different can of worms with no solution that is acceptable for all. I wonder how FIDE and the public will handle that one.

Chess, as the whole world, is now on hold. There will be no Olympiad this year and it’s hard to say whether there will be anything really. Perhaps the World Championship match in December? Let’s see. As the Chinese would say, we are truly living in interesting times.


Candidates 2020 – A Preview

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.

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