If it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have! In March 2020, Magnus Carlsen seconds Jan Gustafsson, Laurent Fressinet and Peter Heine Nielsen released a 2020 Candidates Preview video series featuring in-depth discussion of the chances of each of the eight players as well as analysis of one of their games. Now they’re back, a year later, and the tournament is still only half-way done! Our trio of experts look at what we can expect now, when Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi start with a 1-point lead going into Round 8.
What’s now the 2020/2021 Candidates Tournament resumes on Monday at 13:00 CEST, with Magnus Carlsen joining David Howell and Tania Sachdev to commentate on all the action. What can we expect? Well, Jan, Laurent and Peter were back to answer that question in a 9-video, 3-hour series on chess24. Each player is rated on Current Form, Motivation, Chances to Win and Chances vs. Magnus Carlsen, while our team also look at one game by each player from the Candidates.
You might also enjoy rewatching the 2020 series, given what we know now - so far things haven’t gone the way of the favourites, since these were the scores back then: Caruana & Ding Liren: 87, MVL, 75, Grischuk & Nepomniachtchi 72, Giri 71, Wang Hao 69, Alekseenko 60. Both series are available for free to chess24 premium members.
This is how things actually went:
Here’s a quick summary of how Jan, Laurent and Peter rated the players in their new series - each awarded up to 5 points in each category, so that the combined score is out of 15.
Let’s have a quick look at each player:
The now 23-year-old Russian was the heavy underdog in the field, rated over 60 points below any other player. In the circumstances, therefore, his five draws and two losses was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. When Laurent Fressinet suggested his goal now will be to win a game, Peter Heine Nielsen felt even that isn’t required: “If he ends up in shared last place it’s actually an awesome performance!”
Peter also pointed out that Kirill might have a key role to play:
He could end up in a decisive role, not in the sense that he’s going to win the tournament, but quite often you see these events being decided by everybody will try hard to beat him, and at some point he might win a game against someone who’s gambling, and that guy will be out of the picture, so these underdogs have an important role in the tournament, in the sense that it’s a potential full point and someone is going to fail and it’s going to hurt him.
Our commentators take a look at Alekseenko 1/2-1/2 Nepomniachtchi, a real battle in a Winawer French.
Also check out our full article on Kirill Alekseenko before the start of the event in 2020.
The Chinese no. 1 and world no. 3 was the major disappointment of the first half of the event. When he lost the first two games it was hard not to point to the trauma of having to face double quarantine in China and then Russia in the month leading up to the event, though Peter points out that there might be another explanation:
You could also put it down basically to one move, when he loses a better position to Wang Hao. Many things look like Ding was just being Ding, he was playing his usual English, he was playing good positional chess, he’s outplaying his opponent, and then going from a risk-free position, pushing for a win, he basically loses in one or two moves, and then the next game he’s trying to come back, or he’s a bit shocked, ok, this was the event of my life, I just lost with White to my compatriot, what just happened? And he does something stupid again and he ends up with -2.
Ding followed those two losses with an impressive victory against Fabiano Caruana, despite being surprised in the opening, and that’s the game that our experts take a closer look at.
Ding also then lost to Nepomniachtchi, however, and his chances now look slim despite the fact Jan, Peter and Laurent give him the 2nd best chance of any of the participants in a match against Magnus. If there’s a criticism of the Chinese star it was that he seemed to approach the tournament as he would any other. Peter comments:
His preparation basically lacks surprise or anything like that. While others seem to have treated this as an event that’s something special, Ding seems to trust that just being Ding is enough, and it wasn’t, this time at least.
With Alexander Grischuk we reach the group of four players on 50%. On the one hand, they’re just a point off the lead, a gap that could disappear in a single round, but on the other hand, a point is a big gap with seven rounds to go, and there’s not one, but two players to catch.
Laurent described Grischuk as, “maybe the happiest man in the field when the tournament stopped”, since the Russian star had been sceptical before the event began and then highly critical during it about the decision to keep playing as the pandemic stopped all other sporting events.
In terms of pure results, Grischuk finds himself as the only player to have drawn all his games so far. Peter pointed out that has some interesting consequences.
Having made all draws is not too bad. I understand that right now it’s not good for his tiebreak, but it means, whoever he beats he has a plus score against and will be ahead of him by tiebreaks, so he basically just has to beat the leaders in order to be first and to have a massive advantage over them. When you face Grischuk it’s an unpleasant game, because if you lose to him, he’ll overtake you and he’ll beat you on tiebreak as well.
Grischuk has four games with Black, but plays White against the leaders MVL and Nepo, meaning he certainly can’t be ruled out. His Achilles’ heel remains time trouble, and the game our experts picked to look at was Grischuk’s first against Kirill Alekseenko, when he spoilt a close-to-winning position after earlier in the game admitting he took 20 minutes on a move he could have played in 20 seconds.
Wang Hao was something of a reluctant hero of the Candidates Tournament. As Peter put it:
He tried to stop the Candidates from starting, now he’s tried to stop it from restarting and he’s complaining and such, and I think that gives away more nervousness than motivation to actually play. That I think he’s probably right is a different story… I would assume it drags his motivation down. I think it’s Bent Larsen who said that young players would be willing to play on a piece of wood floating in the ocean with sharks around, while when you get older in life you start having more conditions. I think Wang Hao makes a lot of strong points, but it also does to some extent give away that maybe he’s not really looking forward to it.
Wang Hao is one of the players we know goes into the event vaccinated, and if his motivation wasn’t stellar in the first half he still managed to beat Ding Liren in the first game (the game Jan, Laurent and Peter look at) and was winning in a game he only drew against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He’s perhaps the most unpredictable player in the event.
As Laurent put it:
That’s what this video series is about. It’s all about Anish, we recorded it for this reason!
Laurent hadn’t made many new Dutch friends by giving Anish 0/5 for Fighting Spirit back in the 2020 video series, with Peter giving just 1/5. This time, however, there was a lot of praise. Our experts felt Giri has been the most improved player over the year of internet rapid and blitz, with Peter summing up:
Anish and Hikaru are the great winners of the pandemic change to the chess world. In a purely chess sense, the pandemic has worked out pretty well for Anish.
If there was a negative it was Peter noting that maybe in a match against Magnus the conventional wisdom that Giri’s preparation might give him a great chance could be wrong, since Anish already takes preparation very seriously and might not have so much room to improve - while Magnus could seriously target his Dutch opponent for the first time.
There’s a long way to go before that becomes an issue, however. Giri lost to Nepomniachtchi in the first round before coming back to beat Alekseenko (the game out experts look at). He now has Black against both leaders in the first three rounds after resumption, as well as against Fabiano Caruana, who he missed a great chance to beat in the first half of the tournament.
Pre-tournament favourite Fabiano Caruana had a first half of the event to forget, losing to Ding Liren despite surprising his opponent in the opening, and almost falling to defeat against Anish Giri. The one bright spot was a win over Kirill Alekseenko that our experts felt was a perfect game from Fabi’s point of view.
They were nevertheless bullish about Fabi’s chances, with Peter going as far as to claim his “chances of winning are greater than the other three on 50% combined”. That optimism is based on Fabi being the world’s 2nd best chess player, having the confidence of winning the Candidates in the past and having four Whites in the second half of the event. It may all turn on the “incredibly crucial” (Peter) first game back, however, when Caruana has White against leader MVL.
Fabi won the same match-up in Wijk aan Zee this year, has a great record against Maxime and has had a year to prepare! On the other hand, MVL has had a year to decide how to try and hold with Black. Our experts are fascinated to see if Maxime will stick with his Najdorf/Gruenfeld repertoire, and on balance predict a Najdorf in the game.
We now come to the co-leaders, and start with Ian Nepomniachtchi, who would have been a big favourite to win the whole event if not for losing to Maxime in the final round of the first half.
Although he’s currently second on the head-to-head tiebreak, our experts still see him as the favourite. He now has White in four of his remaining games, including in his penultimate game against Maxime, and the general feeling is that the dividing of the tournament into two halves is perfect for a player who’s known for collapsing midway through long events.
If Nepo can win the event he’ll likely go into the match against Magnus with a plus score and as a phenomenally talented player who’s dramatically risen in the last couple of years after seeming to take chess much more seriously.
If there’s one criticism our experts had it was that Ian perhaps hadn’t taken what he called a training tournament, the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, quite so seriously, logging in each day in his pyjamas. Nepo reached the final, however, and as Peter responded to Laurent:
You’re wearing a suit but your comments are not very high quality!
And now we come to the event's Cinderella, who seemed to have missed out on his first ever Candidates Tournament after losing to Teimour Radjabov in the 2019 World Cup semi-final and a series of other misfortunes. Instead, when Teimour asked for the event to be postponed because of the pandemic, it turned out that Maxime got the chance to play at the very last moment. There was barely time to reach Yekaterinburg, never mind prepare, but it all worked out to perfection.
He beat Ding Liren, drew five games, and crucially ended by taking down tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi in Round 7. As our commentators pointed out, this is the chance of a lifetime for Maxime to reach a World Championship match, but the year’s delay has very much been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Maxime has had the time he didn’t have in 2020 to prepare, but on the other hand, he’s had a whole year to think about leading the tournament - a year in which his other results have been largely disappointing. From having almost no pressure at all he’s now under the maximum pressure of anticipation.
Historically Maxime hasn’t handled pressure too well - it’s one of the reasons this is his first Candidates Tournament - but with just seven rounds to go it could easily be the French no. 1’s time to shine. So much will depend on Monday and Tuesday next week, when he faces Fabiano Caruana and then Ding Liren with the black pieces.
There’s not long to wait now, with Magnus Carlsen joining Tania Sachdev and David Howell to commentate on the Candidates right here on chess24 from 13:00 CEST on Monday April 19th! We’ve got a lot of events in store even before it begins, however, so make sure to keep an eye out, especially on our Shows page.
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