Now that the Moscow Candidates Tournament is in full-swing, with drama on and off the board, let's take a step back for some perspective from a former World Champion, and a former World Championship challenger. During last month's Zürich Chess Challenge Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand, speaking to Macauley Peterson, shared their insights into the players and what to expect from the tense contest in the Russian capital. Audio clips and transcript.
Macauley: Who do you think would have the best chance in a match against Magnus?
Vladimir: Well if you take into account their personal records against Magnus, maybe Giri. Also because of style — a very solid style, loses very rarely. He normally should be a good match player because this is exactly what is needed in matches. Obviously other players — Hikaru might have a chance — the only problem is that he has a horrible personal score against Carlsen. But if you totally forget or dismiss it, he definitely has a chance. Also Caruana, obviously, and I would say that in my opinion Karjakin also would have a chance. But you know it's a difficult question, because when you're preparing, you become a challenger, and you start to prepare for a World Championship match, you become different in a half year. Your energetical [sic] level, your motivation, preparation gets to such so that basically if you are a good player yourself — and all the participants of the Candidates are good players — everybody would have a chance. In any case, Magnus will be a favourite obviously, but then still in any case everybody will have a chance and then it's about the difference — how big is the chance? But I cannot say — now the situation is, as I see it, there are quite a few players who are more or less the same strength, with different styles, different approaches, but very equal strengths. So let's see what happens — for example, if you're talking about the favourite for the Candidates, I would say it's simply very equal. And it's not just trying to be polite or to avoid a direct answer, but it's simply reality. It is like this. I think practically anyone can win it. Just now, the situation in the world of chess is like this: there is Magnus, who is just ahead of the others, and there is quite a group of players who are just very equal to each other. That's how I see it.
Macauley: You mention guys like Anish, Hikaru or Fabiano as maybe having the best chance if they got to Magnus, but in the Candidates do you agree with Sergey Shipov that there's a generational advantage here, or do you think the experience on the other hand may be even more important?
Macauley: Who do you think comes in with the best opening preparation?
Vladimir: I think everybody will have a very good opening preparation. The guys are working very seriously and this is very difficult to judge. You need a bit of luck. Everybody will prepare a lot and so on, but sometimes it happens that you get chances to play your ideas. Sometimes you almost don't get this chance, and then you use them in the next tournaments, when it's already less important. This is actually also quite a serious matter that, sometimes — let's say if you're talking about the London Candidates, strangely enough, I think Svidler was the best opening player there. I don't think he was better prepared than others, but every idea which he prepared was on the board! And in fact, I was checking carefully, and then I realized that according to the opening positions, he was the best, he was number one there. So it's difficult to predict — you need some luck also.
Boris: I think that Vishy's the main favourite, because if you look at the last three Candidates, I won, Vishy won, and Vladimir Kramnik lost to Magnus Carlsen — such a great genius — only by the narrowest of margins. So if you take it statistically, maturity is much more important. And I remember that people were talking the same as — you quote Sergei Shipov — before the Candidates in Kazan, before the Candidates in London, before the Candidates in Khanty-Mansiysk. It's like a cliche, it's a mantra. People repeat it but statistics don't show it. But of course we'll see. And I hope my friend Levon is old enough to win it.
Macauley: Well he's kind of in the middle I guess. Shipov was saying that also being lucky helps you with your momentum — having a last minute invite that you weren't expecting.
Boris: I think all eight players showed that they are absolutely world class, so any of them may win. I don't think prediction has any value, because all players can make plus three [three wins more than losses -MP], which could easily be enough.
Macauley: And so it may come down to nerves, largely.
Boris: Yeah, and that's where experience counts. I've see what people have in front of their eyes for the last years, in the critical tournaments — especially when you need to win — experienced players prevailed. That's what we saw. It can go any way this time. All eight players showed that they didn't qualify by chance. They qualified because they achieved it.
If you see any top event, there is no pressure. Especially for players in — let's say the Grand [Chess] Tour — you are invited for already three tournaments, so if something doesn't go your way for one tournament or one game you know you have a chance next time, so there is not a pressure, especially maybe the last round of each event, like usual. But when you have to play each game under pressure, it's different.
Macauley: Conversely, you might say — maybe not someone like Anand, but maybe someone like Levon — you might be worried that you don't have so many chances compared to someone like Anish who's probably expecting to be in a position to qualify again, certainly. In a way is that pressure on the other end?
Boris: Of course. You have to be able to play your best chess and don't care anyway about public pressure or your own pressure — your own expectation. One should be able to play your best chess, and obviously the more experienced player, the more experience he has, because if you play — again — any big tournament, there is no pressure — no real pressure — because when you know you make plus one and you'll be invited to the next three tournaments, you don't play to win, you play to make plus one, as we saw, let's say, last London. People were calculating how to get to the next Grand Tour, not how to win the event. From the side it was very obvious. So, here's it's a different tournament.