1. Aronian is the player on fire this year. He played in both Wijk and Zurich and was in great shape, winning Wijk and sharing second in Zurich. The curious thing in both tournaments was that in both he lost in the last round. Probably a coincidence, but last rounds do have their own peculiarities. Together with Kramnik and Anand, Aronian is the world’s best prepared player. His white repertoire is incredibly well studied and sharp – in 2014 his score with white in classical games is 6.5/8, the only loss being to Van Wely in the last round in Wijk, when he already secured 1st place. Like Kramnik he is a player who tries to win with white as his black repertoire, especially against 1 e4, is rather conservative, focusing on the various lines in the Spanish (but even here if white overpresses black can win – see for example his game with Dominguez from Wijk, but that is not very likely to happen in the Candidates). I expect everything to be OK with Aronian chess-wise, but it will be interesting to see if he finally managed to overcome the problem of his nerves. The collapse in the second half in London left a mark on his subsequent play throughout the year, something which he finally overcame when he played for his beloved Armenia in the European Team Championship and the World Team Championship. Will the pressure again turn out to be too much for him or has he matured and learned how to keep himself under control? This is the key question that will determine whether Aronian will win and earn the right to face Carlsen later this year.
2. Karjakin was the lucky loser in the World Cup and thanks to Kramnik’s fantastic performance got his ticket to Khanty. Players who get into tournaments thanks to luck are usually a safe bet for a good showing, but this is a different tournament than most. Karjakin is a classical all-round player, with excellent preparation and support team (working on a permament basis with Dokhoian, Kasparov’s former coach, and Motylev, a fantastic analyst, plus the usual logistical support from the Russian Federation specifically for this tournament). But this former child prodigy seems to have failed somewhat to live up to his alleged potential. True, in the last few years he is in Carlsen’s shadow (who isn’t?), but I think more was expected of Karjakin by this time. He is a solid Top 10 player, no doubt about it, but now it is high time he showed what he’s capable of and what his ambitions are. A good showing in the Candidates will solidify his status as a potential challenger and justify his luck of getting in the tournament. This tournament is his chance to make a leap from a Top 10 player to a Top 2 or 3 player and from there he can think of more. Karjakin already has a lot of experience playing the elite players and sooner rather than later he will have to step things up. But I still think he will play it safe in this tournament as he probably lacks the self-confidence necessary to play for 1st place in this company. He will be very solid with both white and black and will wait for his chance in case somebody overpushes against him or in case somebody turns out to be completely out of shape. I don’t expect anything spectacular from him, but I am looking forward to see his preparation.
3. Mamedyarov got his reward for the stability he showed in the last year by qualifying for the Candidates from the Grand Prix. He matured a lot and the groundwork set in the preparation for his match with Gelfand in Kazan 2011 (when he admitted that he changed a lot both in his preparation and style) finally bore the fruit last year. But in spite of this newly-acquired stability, Mamedyarov is a volatile player and prone to collapses which are difficult to explain (Mamedyarov-Nakamura, Zug 2013, loss in 22 moves, or the strange loss to Topalov at the European Team Championship). In an atmosphere full of tension and so much at stake I think we will see more of the old, erratic and explosive Mamedyarov, especially as things heat up and players fall back to what they feel most comfortable with. And Mamedyarov is most comfortable with playing sharp and exciting chess, throwing caution to the wind and going for the throat because that is his natural style. However, in such a company of experienced fighters this is more likely to backfire that not. It is unlikely that he will suffer a meltdown like Radjabov, but I also don’t see him fighting for the top honours either. What I’m looking forward to in the case of Mamedyarov is his exciting games and possibly a brilliance prize!
4. Andreikin fully deserved his place in the Candidates with his dogged performance in the World Cup. Winning only one classical game and eliminating everybody in the rapid playoffs he showed that everything is in order with his nervous system. After becoming a champion of Russia in 2012 he got more chances to play elite events and gain experience. Last year he shared 3rd in the Tal Memorial (thanks to a win against Kramnik with black!), but he was less successful in Dortmund (where he beat Kramnik again!). But in spite of this, he is the least experienced player in the field, which makes him something of a dark horse. His personal score with Kramnik is 3-1 with 3 draws so this shows he can fight with the big guys on equal terms, but whether he can sustain that in such a long event is a big question. He probably paid a lot of attention to his openings in his preparation (a rather weak point of his play so far) so I guess we won’t be seeing much of his Bg5 in various versions. But he has his own ideas (he dug out an interesting side line in the Berlin for his game against Kramnik in the Russian Superfinal) and coupled with serious preparation this can give him certain advantages. Just as Karjakin, I expect him to be solid and being an outsider he will try to use the burden of the favourites to beat him in order to strike from the counterattack. Being a natural counterattacking player this can work for him, but I don’t think he will get many chances to show his counterattacking skills. His presence adds spice to the tournament because being a relative newcomer on the elite stage (for example he has never played classical games against Topalov and Aronian and has played only one with Anand) he is more difficult to pinpoint, thus making him unpredictable and dangerous.
To sum things up from this long analysis, I’d say that any other player outside Kramnik and Aronian to win the tournament will be a major surprise. But every player will be prepared to the teeth and they will give their best, so I expect to see new trends in the openings (more concepts, less move-novelties) and hard-fought games. I hope there are no meltdowns like the ones of Radjabov and Ivanchuk so we see a tough, closely contested tournament. Probably a score of +3, like in London, should suffice for at least shared 1st, but unfortunately FIDE didn’t change the rules so again we might witness a tie-break agony (in case of a 1-1 score between the players sharing 1st place, it is the higher number of wins that decides the winner, just like in London) instead of a rapid playoff.
So may the best player win and for the rest of us let’s sit back and enjoy the show (preferably without engines running).