As the big event draws nearer it is time for a more detailed look at each participant’s chances and possible developments. In my Preview from 3rd of February I labeled the tournament a clash of the centuries, but now I think I might as well have called it T-Rex! Please bear with me as it’s really amusing – it’s 20th Century Boys versus the Children of the Revolution! (For those of you who still haven’t got it, the songs with these titles are two of the greatest hits of the famous British rock band T-Rex). I’m not implying that the 20th century boys are dinosaurs, but perhaps it’s time to end with the puns and start the analysis.
In this first part of the analysis I will focus on the older players in order of probability of winning the event. The second part will concentrate on the 21st century players.
1. Kramnik is obviously one of the main candidates to win and this is probably his last chance to do it. Kramnik has been one of the main innovators in the openings after he won the title in 2000, but what makes him special is that his innovations were not just some novelties here and there, but profound and new concepts that still drive the theory forward. I’ll mention just the main ones: the Berlin (practically winning him the title in 2000), whose effects are still affecting modern theory, the Petroff, starting from the late 90s well up until 2010 when he picked up the Berlin again (my guess is because of the vast amount of forced lines in the Petroff), the queenless endgames in the Grunfeld (just ask Kasparov and Svidler), the Catalan (starting with his match with Topalov in 2006), the Queen’s Gambit Declined in Kazan 2011 (which again started the talks about the death of chess), the Semi-Tarrasch in the London Candidates 2013 (curiously, an old favourite of mine!), the Reti and the fianchetto systems against the King’s Indian and the Grunfeld (again in London Candidates, especially the fantastic new concept 5 e3 in his game with Gelfand), the ideas in the Nimzo Indian (games with Radjabov and Gelfand in London Candidates) and the Pirc (in the footsteps of the Patriarch, when trying to win with black, famously backfired in the last round in London). So no wonder I can’t wait to see what new concepts Kramnik will think of for Khanty! This ability to come up with opening innovations coupled with his knowledge how to prepare for important tournaments makes Kramnik an irresistible force (and an immovable object at the same time)!
Kramnik has previously played in two tournaments of this kind – in Mexico 2007 and in London 2013. Both times he finished second, in Mexico Anand was unstoppable, while in London Caissa favoured the younger Carlsen in that unforgettable last round. Will Khanty be Kramnik’s third time’s a charm? Or will he remind us of the great Keres by finishing second a third time in a row? Everything will depend on his form, stamina and nerves, but if these are alright then with a little bit of luck (as compensation for 2013) Kramnik will once again play a match for the title. And what a fascinating match that will be!
2. Topalov emerged from his “wilderness years” after losing to Anand in 2010 by winning the Grand Prix series and establishing himself once again as a force to be reckoned with. His psychological preparation for the Candidates already began when his manager started to employ Jose Mourinho’s favourite strategy – the whole world is against us! A few days ago Danailov announced that Topalov’s French second (probably Edouard, but don’t take my word for it – I only made a reasonable guess after looking at the best French players) had been denied a visa for Russia and that when they asked the organisers to stay at another hotel (not the official one), they were ignored and forced to arrange everything by themselves. This strategy creates a siege mentality and has two benefits: it helps the player concentrate better and it deflects all the pressure off him and onto the manager. It has worked for Jose’s teams and it will probably work for Topalov, but he will anyway have to show how good he is on the board. Topalov’s openings have lost their edge in the last years, mainly because his novelties were mostly move-novelties (unlike Kramnik’s concept-novelties) and the computers evened out the field in this respect. I am sure his team will provide him with fresh ideas, but I am not sure he will be able to repeat the play from San Luis in 2005. He doesn’t seem to have the same hunger and energy as before and his class never seemed to be on par with the class of Kramnik and Anand. When he was winning everything in the mid 2000s, he was winning because of his excellent openings, tremendous energy and great willpower. Now all these are diminished to a various degree and even in his Grand Prix tournaments he was showing certain instability, something that will not go unpunished in Khanty. For Topalov to be a serious contender, he will need a qualitative leap in his play, but whether that’s possible it’s questionable.
3. Anand is a bit of an enigma to me. In my Preview I even said that he may be the Ivanchuk of Khanty. I didn’t really expect that he will accept to play in Khanty after the long negative trend in his play culminating with the match with Carlsen. But he won a game in Zurich, with black against Gelfand, a nice game actually, and I think this gave him confidence that he still has what it takes. I don’t think he sees himself as a favourite to win, but rather he sees this as a chance to prove that he can still play at the highest level and in doing so to get rid of the torment he must be feeling. His openings will be in good shape as he has accumulated so much in those World Championship preparations. Anand said recently that from January he is working on changing his style and that he still enjoys the game, so I really hope to see at least glimpses of the old Anand as this will definitely add excitement to the tournament. If he manages to get to a plus score early on, then he will be more confident and confidence is all that he needs to be back to his true self.
4. Svidler will play in his 4th tournament of this kind – in San Luis he was 3rd (shared 2nd with Anand), in Mexico 2007 he was 5th (obviously a disappointment) and in London 2013 he was 3rd again. Last year Svidler showed that he is capable of changing a lot when he is motivated – a change in his diet led to a massive weight loss, he assembled a team to help him prepare and he learned how to prepare better (in an interview he said that he was incredibly well prepared in his openings for Mexico 2007, but his play was awful). He will undoubtedly try to improve on London as he seems to have found what works for him. And in order to have a successful tournament he will have to improve as he will need new surprises like the ones from London where he introduced 1 d4 in his repertoire with fundamental choices like the Saemisch against the King’s Indian (and the Nimzo, but that was only for one game), a very interesting idea against the Grunfeld (7 f4 in the Bd2 line), his black game against Aronian (great preparation in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted). As black, apart from the Aronian game, he was predictable and I think this time a lot will depend on his stubborness with the Grunfeld as it is the most vulnerable point (something that Kramnik exploited in London). Even though the Grunfeld has an excellent reputation at the moment and is causing a lot of headaches to white 1 d4 players, due to its character it is susceptible to one-game novelties and it requires an enormous amount of memorisation. Together with Kasparov, Svidler is the best Grunfeld player of modern times and he knows it inside out, but it is a double-edged opening and a risky one in a tournament where everybody will be expecting it. More surprises like the ones from the game with Aronian will help Svidler minimise the risk of being caught in some deep preparation and this will seriously increase his chances of a successful outcome. Svidler on good form is a dangerous opponent for anyone (ask Carlsen) and let’s just hope that he arrives in that form when the first round starts in Khanty Mansiysk.