As the players arrive in Berlin for the start of the 2018 Candidates Tournament, our writer BRYAN CASTRO brings us his ultimate tournament preview:
Finding a Challenger
From March 10, eight of the top players in the world will be battling it in the Candidates Tournament to see who will face Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship.
The tournament is organized as a double-round robin with each player facing every other player twice – once with the white pieces and once with the black pieces. The tournament will be help in Berlin, Germany between March 10-28, 2018. The winner of the tournament will face the reigning World Champion in a 12-game match in November in London, England.
This event looks to be an exciting one, with a variety of styles represented as well as a couple of new faces to the Candidates tournament. In this preview, we’ll take a look at the eight challengers, their path to the Candidates, and their style.
1. Ding Liren
Ding Liren is participating in his first Candidates Tournament. He qualified by being one of the top finalists of the Chess World Cup in 2017 (along with Levon Aronian). He also has the honor of being the first Chinese player to qualify for the Candidates. As of the March 2018 FIDE rating list, Ding is ranked 11th in the world with a rating of 2769.
Ding has a flexible style. He can play for the initiative but is also skilled in technical positions as well. He is an excellent calculator and has superb endgame technique.
Although he (along with Wesley So) is one of the youngest players in the tournament at age 25, he comes into the Candidates with a strong showing in 2017. He won the strong Shenzhen Longgang Chess Masters in Shenzhen, China in April 2017 ahead of follow Top 20 players Anish Giri and Peter Svidler. He won the Moscow Grand Prix event in May 2017 ahead of current World #2 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. He finished 2017 with a strong 2nd place finish in the Chess World Cup, losing to GM Levon Aronian in a tiebreaker.
He also played one of the best games of 2017 – an exciting attacking game in the Chinese Chess League against fellow Chinese GM Jinshi Bai. In this game, Ding precisely weaves a mating net around his opponent after playing the spectacular 20…Rd4! The final position is a beautiful sight, with every minor piece participating in the final round-up of the king.
2. Levon Aronian
Armenian GM Levon Aronian is the other Candidate to qualify by winning the Chess World Cup (against Ding Liren). At age 35, he has been on the top of the world chess scene for many years, including a peak rating of 2830 – the 4th highest in chess history! He is currently the World’s 5th highest rated player with a rating of 2794.
Aronian is known as one of the world’s most creative players. He is a strong tactician with a subtle and deep understanding of positional chess. When observing Aronian’s game, you will often notice that his pieces are beautifully coordinated while he often leaves his opponent with a piece or two shut out of the game. He is a true artist at the chessboard.
Aronian comes into the tournament having enjoyed a very successful 2017. He started the year off by winning the Grenke Classic Tournament in Baden-Baden, Germany ahead of Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana. In June 2017, he won the strong Norway Chess tournament ahead of Carlsen, Vladamir Kramnik, and Sergey Karjakin. As mentioned, he won the Chess World Cup in September 2017. Finally, he started 2018 off strong with a win in the strong Gibraltar Chess Festival, beating French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the tiebreaker. Can he build on this momentum with a strong showing in the Candidates?
The following game demonstrates Aronian’s creativity and tactical acumen. In this game, he defeats the world champion on Carlsen’s home turf during the Norway Chess tournament in June 2017.
3. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan qualified by finishing atop the FIDE Grand Prix – a series of four tournaments featuring 24 of the strongest players in the world. In the Grand Prix, he shared first place in the Sharjah leg of the series in February 2017. He placed clear second place behind Ding Liren in the Moscow stage in May. Finally, he tied for 4th place in the Geneva stage in July 2017.
Besides his strong finish in the FIDE Grand Prix, GM Mamedyarov’s other notable finishes in 2017 were winning the elite-level Gashimov Memorial in April and leading a team victory in the Russian Team Championship. At age 32, he is currently the world’s 2nd highest rated player with a rating of 2809.
Mamedyarov is no stranger to high-level tournaments. He has already competed in the Candidates tournament twice – in 2011 and 2014. Having won the World Junior Chess Championship twice (in 2003 and 2005), Mamedyarov has competed at the highest levels of chess since his youth.
Mamedyarov is known for an aggressive, attacking style. He is a master of exploiting the initiative and his play may remind you of the romantic attacks of the 19th and early 20th century masters.
To illustrate Mamedyarov’s creativity and style, enjoy this attacking gem from last year’s Russian Team Championship against GM Evgeny Najer.
4. Alexander Grischuk
GM Alexander Grischuk from Russia is our 2nd qualifier from the FIDE Grand Prix, finishing 2nd in points behind Mamedyarov. Grischuk tied for 1st in the Sharjah stage along with Mamedyarov and GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He tied for 2nd place in the Geneva event.
GM Grischuk is a master tactician and attacker. In part due to his incredible calculating and tactical ability, he is also one of the world’s top speed chess players. Grischuk is currently 12th on the FIDE rating list with a rating of 2767.
The following game is not only a demonstration of his attacking style, but also of the incredible depth and complexity behind his play. Check out 34.Rb5! in this game against GM Boris Grachev in the Russian Team Championship.
5. Fabiano Caruana
American GM Fabiano Caruana qualified for the Candidates tournament by having one of the top two average ratings in 2017 among players who played in both the World Chess Cup and FIDE Grand Prix. At 26, he is among the youngest players in the tournament. However, he has played at the top levels for several years, including reaching as high as 2nd in the overall rating list. He is currently the 8th highest ranked player in the world with a 2784 rating.
He tied for 3rd in the US Chess Championship in April 2017. He finished the year off strong by winning the elite London Chess Classic (beating GM Ian Nepomniachtchi on tie-breaks). Although he has had a quiet 2017, he is not one to be underestimated in the Candidates tournament.
Caruana is known for his strong calculating ability and aggressive style. He also has a reputation for hard work away from the board. The following game from the London Chess Classic demonstrates Caruana’s classical attacking style against former World Champion Vishy Anand.
6. Wesley So
American GM Wesley So is the 2nd qualifier based on his 2017 rating average.
As I’ve written about in a previous article, Wesley So had an incredible unbeaten streak that reached 67 games. During that streak, he won the super strong Tata Steel Masters tournament ahead of Magnus Carlsen. He also won the 2017 US Chess Championship ahead of fellow American Top 10 players (at the time) Fabiano Caruana and GM Hikaru Nakamura. So finished 3rd in the Shamkir Chess tournament in Shamkir, Azerbaijan in April 2017 – where his unbeaten streak was broken by Mamedyarov.
At 25, he and GM Ding Liren are the youngest participants in the Candidates tournament. He is currently the 4th highest ranked player in the world, with a rating of 2799.
Wesley So’s style has evolved into an accurate, technical style. Although his play is nearly risk-free, he has also shown the ability to fight back from difficult positions and is not afraid of sacrificing material for dynamic compensation.
The following game is perhaps Wesley So’s best of 2017. It combines his technical accuracy with the brilliant and opportunistic 21…Nxf2! A return to this type of form can spell trouble for the field in this year’s Candidates.
7. Vladimir Kramnik
GM Vladimir Kramnik from Russia qualified as the wild card nomination by the tournament organizers Agon. At age 43, Kramnik is the oldest competitor in this year’s Candidates tournament. However, Kramnik’s age comes with experience and Kramnik is a former World Champion – having defeated Garry Kasparov to gain the title in 2000.
Kramnik had a solid 2017. He tied for 2nd with Hikaru Nakamura in the Norway Chess tournament. He tied for 2nd in the Gashimov Memorial with Wesley So and Veselin Topalov. He tied for 3rd in the strong Isle of Man Open with several masters including fellow Candidates competitor Caruana. He also tied for 3rd with Mamedyarov in the 2017 Tata Steel tournament. He is currently the world’s 3rd highest ranked player with a rating of 2800.
Vladimir Kramnik is a master technician. Like most top players and especially a former World Champion, Kramnik is skilled in all phases of the game, but he is particularly astute in positional play and the endgame. His ability to exploit small mistakes by his opponent makes him a threat in any game. Although he’s the senior member of this year’s Candidates class, it would be a mistake for his younger competitors to write him off.
The game chosen to illustrate Kramnik’s strengths is this positional victory against fellow former World Champion Vishy Anand.
8. Sergey Karjarkin
Russian GM Sergey Karjarkin is our final qualifier as a result of
being the runner-up to the 2016 World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen. He fought Carlsen to a tie in the main 12-game match before losing to the champion in the tiebreaker games.
In 2017, he had a quiet year in classical time control tournaments. However, he demonstrated that he is one of the world’s best speed chess players with victories in the Tal Memorial Blitz tournament – he also finished 2nd in the Tal Memorial Rapid section – and the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz tournament in August 2017. He also tied for 2nd in the 2017 World Blitz Championship – he won the 2016 tournament – behind Magnus Carlsen. He is currently ranked 13th in the world with a 2763 rating.
GM Karjakin is one of the world’s greatest defenders. He is tenacious defending inferior positions and very comfortable in the endgame. Although he doesn’t win very often with his defensive style, he is also extremely difficult to beat. This style may be well suited for the Candidates, where he can allow his more aggressive opponents to overextend themselves and try to pick off a few wins while drawing most of his games.
The following game demonstrates Karjakin’s excellent technique against GM Anton Smirnov in the 2017 World Cup in Tbilisi. He leaves his opponent with doubled isolated pawns then simplifies into an endgame where he wins one of the isolated pawns and the game.
This year’s Candidates Tournament should be an interesting one. We have players of different styles – from aggressive attackers to endgame virtuosos. Among the Candidates we also have both young blood in Ding Liren, Fabiano Caruana, and Wesley So as well as the resourceful veteran in Vladimir Kramnik.
This tournament will not only test the players’ skills – of which they all have in abundance. It will test their preparation, their fighting spirit, and their endurance. Many questions remain as we enter the event:
Will Wesley So return to the form he showed in early 2017?
Will lightning strike twice for Sergey Karjakin?
Can Vladimir Kramnik show the chess world that he’s still a force to be reckoned with?
Can Levon Aronian build on his early 2018 success?
The answers to these questions and many more will be answered in the next few days. No matter what happens, we fans will be the winners as these great players provide us with beautiful chess games.
Bryan Castro is a businessman, writer, and chess enthusiast from Buffalo, NY. Besides chess, he enjoys practicing martial arts, playing piano, and spending time with his wife and children.