General Mar 11, 2020 | 3:06 PMby Colin McGourty

The 2020 Candidates: Alexander Grischuk

Alexander Grischuk is the current world no. 4, the 3rd seed for the Candidates Tournament and the player in the field with the most experience of such events, once coming within a game of a World Championship match. Why is the fan favourite not ranked alongside Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren as a clear favourite to win in Yekaterinburg? You guessed it! It’s all about time trouble, with our experts scoring Alexander a sobering 2/15 when it comes to time management.

Alexander Grischuk qualified for the 2020 Candidates Tournament by winning the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix. He finished runner-up in Moscow (beating Karjakin, So and Nakamura before losing to Nepomniachtchi in a playoff), got to the semi-final in Riga (beating Vitiugov and Yu Yangyi before losing to MVL) and won in Hamburg (beating Wojtaszek, Navara, MVL and Duda). Whatever happens in Yekaterinburg it’s certain that Sasha will add greatly to the entertainment value!

But what do we know about the Russian no. 1?

The bare facts

  • Born: October 31, 1983 in Moscow, Russia
  • Age: 36
  • World ranking: 4
  • Rating: 2777
  • Peak rating: 2810 (December 2014)
  • Qualified via: Grand Prix winner
  • Candidates experience: 2007 (qualified by winning 2 matches to reach for an 8-player World Championship), 2011 (runner-up after losing the final to Gelfand after winning matches against Aronian & Kramnik), 2013 (6th place), 2018 (6th place)
  • Score vs. the other Candidates: = (11 wins, 11 losses, 56 draws)
  • Seeded: 3rd

You can also check out Alexander Grischuk’s chess24 profile.

The verdict of our experts

It’s clear that if the Candidates was a popularity contest Alexander Grischuk would be hard to beat. All three of our experts were big fans, with Laurent Fressinet even revealing that Alexander, a grandmaster who has also played poker at a professional level, had taught him how to play Chinese poker. Peter Heine Nielsen summed up:

I don’t see him as one of the favourites. Like both of you I’m a huge fan of Sasha as a chess player. I really like him as a person and also I thought he was a good friend, but actually he didn’t teach me Chinese poker, which is a bit insulting, maybe! I think he’s great, and he’s going to be very interesting to follow in the Candidates.

Their 41-minute video was the second longest of the series, and included an analysis of Grischuk’s win that knocked MVL out of the Hamburg Grand Prix:

Here’s how they scored Grischuk (curiously all giving Alexander 24 points!):


That compares to Kirill Alekseenko’s 60Wang Hao’s 69Anish Giri’s 71 and Ian Nepomniachtchi’s 72.

As you can see, Grischuk has almost exclusively 4s and 5s for the categories relating to his pure ability to play chess, with no-one doubting his natural talent. There are only two areas that hold him back, and one of them, “fighting spirit”, is arguably not a problem for the Candidates. Laurent and Jan justify their low scores on the basis that if Grischuk starts badly and feels he has no chance of qualifying for a match he’ll lose motivation, with Jan stating he’ll be “willing to shut it down very quickly” and cruise to the end of the event.

Peter counters, however, by focusing on what can happen while Grischuk still has a theoretical chance of winning:

I gave him five because I think he’s willing to go completely all-out to win the event and my prime example is going to be the last candidates.

With two rounds to go Caruana and Karjakin were leading in Berlin with 7 points while Mamedyarov, Grischuk and Ding Liren were on 6.5. Grischuk opened his press conference after losing to Mamedyarov:

It was a stupid situation. We both needed to win. For me a draw was almost the same as a loss…

Despite seeing a simple draw (not quite a repetition, as Peter mentioned – for details see this article), he decided to play on, with Peter commenting:

Grischuk understands, I have a 10% chance of winning this, but it means I have to have a 50% chance of losing it, and without blinking he just says, well, I need to win, I don’t care!

Grischuk stumbled into a mating met and lost, but since it was a tournament where only first place mattered it’s hard to argue that Grischuk hadn’t made the “+EV” (“positive expected value”) decision.

Grischuk in Berlin on the day his 2018 World Championship hopes died | photo: Niki Riga 

Grischuk’s Achilles’ heel, however, is his time management. There was some discussion over whether it was the result of perfectionism, procrastination (Laurent: “Half the time in the opening I don’t think he’s really thinking about the position!”) or an adrenaline junkie’s half-conscious desire to bring everything down to critical moments with seconds on the clock, but as Jan summed up with a phrase from the great Viktor Korchnoi, “there are no heroes in time trouble”. Grischuk comes close, but despite playing perhaps more coolly than anyone else alive in time trouble it’s still cost the Russian countless points. He knows of the weakness, of course, but if he hasn’t managed to overcome the problem in a 20-year career it’s unlikely he’s going to do it now.

So let’s sum up some of the reasons why Grischuk will, or won’t, win the Candidates!


He lives for this kind of event: 17-year-old Grischuk announced his arrival on the world stage by getting to the semi-finals of the 2000 FIDE World Championship despite starting as the 46th seed:

Three wins for White and then a draw saw Alexei Shirov stop Alexander Grischuk reaching a World Championship match as a teenager | image: Wikipedia

Boris Gelfand had just qualified for the 2012 World Championship match 

He’s always been a player less interested in closed supertournaments than in titles, with his achievements including winning the World Blitz Championship three times, the Russian Championship and getting to the World Cup final. The closest he’s come so far to the overall World Championship title was in the 2011 Candidates in Kazan. He played as a replacement when Magnus Carlsen pulled out and went on to beat Levon Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik in knockout matches to reach a 6-game final against Boris Gelfand. After 5 draws the likely outcome seemed to be a speed chess playoff in which Grischuk would be the clear favourite, but instead Boris won a great final game and went on to play a match against Vishy Anand in 2012.

There’s no doubt Grischuk will come to the Candidates in Yekaterinburg with one thought on his mind – to win the event and set up a World Championship showdown against Magnus Carlsen.

Experience: 2011 wasn’t Grischuk’s first Candidates experience, since he won two Candidates matches against Vladimir Malakhov and Sergei Rublevsky in 2007 to qualify for the 8-player World Championship tournament in Mexico later that year (Grischuk finished last, losing three of his final five games). He also played in London in 2013 and Berlin in 2018. Things may not have gone to plan, but he knows exactly what to expect.

He’ll come well-prepared: Grischuk will likely not just be highly-motivated but also well-armed. Jan commented, “he has tons of ideas, lots of very interesting preparation,” while Peter agreed we’d get to see, “very interesting and aggressive preparation”. The only reason 5s weren’t being handed out for prep was that our experts felt that the likes of Giri and Caruana would have more comprehensive preparation. Peter summed up:  

He’s just a win for every tournament because he’s going for it, and that’s fun to see. He’s going to come with if not good, then at least interesting preparation.


The clock: There’s little more to add here. Although the increment from move 1 ensures it’s unlikely Alexander will actually lose any games on time the likelihood of him spoiling wins or losing drawn positions due to time pressure must be high. There’s also the more metaphorical clock: this is perhaps one of the last chances for Grischuk to challenge for the World Championship title. He’ll be approaching 40 by the next cycle and the likes of Alireza Firouzja may well become world-beaters soon.

Grischuk's regular second Vlad Tkachiev once attempted a classification of the chess generations, with Grischuk featuring in Generation 4 - those born between 1982 and 1985. Here's what Vlad had to say:

Generation №4

Grischuk, Alexander198332810
Aronian, Levon198292777
Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar1985132759
Navara, David1985192735
Jakovenko, Dmitry1983222733
Eljanov, Pavel1983262727
Dominguez Perez, Leinier1983272726
Ponomariov, Ruslan1983342713
Bacrot, Etienne1983362711
Naiditsch, Arkadij1985382706
Vallejo Pons, Francisco1982412706
Ni, Hua1983432704
Jobava, Baadur1983482696
Bruzon Batista, Lazaro1982522692
Riazantsev, Alexander1985552688
Korobov, Anton1985562687
Bu, Xiangzhi1985592681
Alekseev, Evgeny1985622677
Inarkiev, Ernesto1985652675
McShane, Luke J1984692672
Sargissian, Gabriel1983752668
Berkes, Ferenc1985772666
Petrosian, Tigran L.1984832663
Efimenko, Zahar1985982655

But this was the Big Bang! It was breath-taking to observe the successive spurts put on by the leaders of this movement: first, in the late 90s, Etienne Bacrot, then Grischuk in 2000, Ponomariov in 2001 and finally Aronian in 2006. They continue, as before, to move chess forwards and exchange places on the rating lists. As before, they haven’t shown everything they’re capable of. The blame for that, it seems to me, is the overwhelming wealth of temptations of the digital era that suddenly opened up to them: poker, online betting, live internet sports. The result – a lack of focus bordering on slovenliness. As before, I believe they can produce a classical World Champion – they’ve picked up all the other titles.

With Levon Aronian and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov both missing in Yekaterinburg, Alexander Grischuk is the only player left who could fulfil the potential of this generation in 2020. 

He rarely wins supertournaments: This is a constant refrain in our previews, but it’s tough to win a supertournament on demand when you haven’t made a habit of it over a 20-year career. It’s not true that Grischuk hasn’t won any supertournaments – Linares 2009 (1st on the tiebreak of most wins ahead of Ivanchuk then Carlsen, Anand, Radjabov, Wang Yue, Aronian and Dominguez) and the 2014 Tashir Petrosian Memorial (1st by a full point ahead of Kramnik, Aronian, Gelfand, Ding Liren, Leko, Inarkiev and Morozevich) are two undisputable examples. That last success took Grischuk into the 2800 club, but it’s a meagre return for such a talented player.

Alexander Grischuk beat Alexander Morozevich in the 2014 Tashir Petrosian Memorial | photo: Eteri Kublashvili

In any case, Alexander Grischuk is one player you won’t want to take your eyes off when the Fide Candidates Tournament (hopefully!) begins in just six days’ time! 

See also:

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