General Feb 1, 2017 | 6:54 PMby Colin McGourty

Aronian replaces Kramnik in Grand Chess Tour

Vladimir Kramnik has rejected his invitation for the 2017 Grand Chess Tour, citing a busy schedule that would have made playing four tournaments a problem. Levon Aronian takes his place as first reserve, with the full line-up for the $1.2 million series featuring all of the world’s top nine players except Kramnik – Carlsen, Caruana, So, MVL, Anand, Aronian, Nakamura and Karjakin – as well as Nepomniachtchi. Kramnik could still potentially take part in individual events as a wild card.

Perhaps Kramnik told Aronian the good news before their game in the 2016 London Chess Classic! | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

The 2017 Grand Chess Tour has retained the tournaments and sponsorship from 2016, but added an extra rapid and blitz event to take place in St. Louis right after the Sinquefield Cup:

The prize fund has therefore grown from $1.05 million to $1.2 million, and the nine regular players are once again drawn from the very best, with ratings taken from the February 2017 FIDE rating list:

  1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), world no. 1, 2838
  2. Fabiano Caruana (USA), world no. 2, 2827
  3. Wesley So (USA), world no. 3, 2822
  4. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), world no. 5, 2796
  5. Viswanathan Anand (India), world no. 6, 2786
  6. Levon Aronian (Armenia), world no. 7, 2785
  7. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), world no. 8, 2785
  8. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), world no. 9, 2783
  9. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), world no. 17, 2749

The players were chosen based on three factors:

1. The 2016 Grand Chess Tour winners 

The American triumvirate of So, Nakamura and Caruana finished 1-3 in the 2016 series and automatically qualified.

2. 2016 ratings

Magnus Carlsen, Vladimir Kramnik and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave qualified based on their average FIDE ratings for 2016. As we mentioned above, though, Kramnik has declined his invitation, telling that four events wouldn’t fit into his schedule:

I would have gladly participated in two, but not four. Since their regulations do not allow this, I have to miss all of them.

The lucky beneficiary is Levon Aronian, who failed to qualify directly but was named as the reserve player in case anyone else dropped out. The Armenian no. 1 will of course be no stranger to the field, having played in the previous two Tours and every edition of the Sinquefield Cup.

3. Wild cards

The players who received the three wild cards were Viswanathan Anand, Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi, with the reason for the latter’s involvement in particular being given as his high ranking on the new Universal Rating System, a ranking list developed by the tour in conjunction with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis and the Kasparov Chess Foundation. The list combines players’ performances in rapid and blitz to produce a single rating, which rewarded Nepomniachtchi (and Magnus Carlsen) for his consistency across all time controls:

Nepomniachtchi is no. 5 on the URS list for January | Source: Universal Rating System

The rating system has been developed by well-known authorities such as Mark Glickman (the inventor of the Glicko rating system) and Jeff Sonas (the man behind the Chessmetrics historical ratings website) and claims to have greater predictive power than the Elo system at all time controls. It works by using modern computing power to generate a performance rating for each player based on all the games played over a multi-year period, with ratings not fixed even if a player doesn’t play any games. The authors explain (e.g. here and here) that although the system has been calibrated to use numbers roughly similar to the current FIDE ratings, the calculations don’t involve FIDE ratings and the whole system operates differently.

Let’s look at some possible pros and cons:


  • Greater predictive power
  • A single number rather than multiple ratings for each player
  • More players can potentially have a rating since the service will be offered for free


  • No fixed rating, so our current understanding and way of talking about ratings would have to change
  • Impossible to calculate manually
  • Players whose relative strength differs at classical, rapid and blitz chess may be misrepresented (though the rapid/blitz "gap" numbers go some way to addressing that)

It’s clear that if the system eventually takes off then URS and FIDE will be on a collision course, but for now the main purpose of the system will be to determine the rating qualifiers for the 2018 edition of the Grand Chess Tour.

The missing

Despite the complicated selection procedure the only changes in the Grand Chess Tour line-up compared to 2016 are that Veselin Topalov and Anish Giri have been replaced by Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi. 

Topalov and Giri both miss out on the Grand Chess Tour in 2017 | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

Neither had years they’ll remember fondly for chess reasons, though both saw their families grow in 2016. While Topalov’s fall from grace perhaps made it inevitable that he’d miss out, Anish Giri remains in the FIDE Top 10 and might still have hoped for a wild card. Instead he’ll get a chance to play in different tournaments, after recently being announced as the top seed for the Reykjavik Open. Dmitry Andreikin, Baadur Jobava and Alexei Shirov are among the other participants.

Allocation of players to events

This year’s Grand Chess Tour will be the same as previous years for the classical events, with all nine players taking part in the Sinquefield Cup and the London Chess Classic along with one wild card. For the rapid events, though, it’s all change, since the regular players will only play in two out of the three events, with the remaining four players in each tournament wild cards. The players will be split as follows:

It’s going to be a very busy year (see our 2017 Chess Calendar), with the FIDE Grand Prix also cramming four events into what was originally intended to be a 2-year cycle. The first of those is set to be the Sharjah Grand Prix starting on 17 February. So far, with just over two weeks to go, the players in the series haven’t been announced, with the controversial option to “buy” a player’s place for 100,000 euros in sponsorship adding to the usual uncertainty over which of the qualifiers will accept their invitations. A press conference has been scheduled for 6 February, when we can hope to learn more. 

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