General Mar 7, 2020 | 10:44 AMby Colin McGourty

The 2020 Candidates: Anish Giri

Anish Giri is the 2nd youngest player in the 2020 FIDE Candidates and, somewhat surprisingly for the rating qualifier, only the 6th seed. In his first Candidates Tournament as a 21-year-old back in 2016 he achieved immortal glory with 14 draws in 14 rounds, but with legend status already achieved can he now go on and win the event and bring about the social media World Championship match of our dreams against Magnus Carlsen? His preparation says “yes” (15/15 from our experts), but his fighting spirit (4/15) begs to differ. Stranger things have happened, however.


The strangest so far is that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is now set to play the Candidates in place of Teimour Radjabov. We can’t rule out more plot twists, with Wang Hao getting cold feet and all the players facing an anxious trip to Yekaterinburg. It seems Anish Giri is one player who will play, though:

His route to the Candidates ultimately felt like the saying, “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by”. Anish lost the first round in the 2019 Tata Steel Masters but went on to finish with an impressive +4, just missing out to Magnus for a second year in a row. The 2797 rating that gave him was one point off his career peak, and you could get the impression he coasted for the rest of the year to qualify by rating.

It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that. A winless -3 in Shamkir Chess had to be repaired by an unbeaten +3 supertournament victory ahead of Ding Liren in Shenzhen…

…and losing in the first round of all three Grand Prix events (and Round 3 of the World Cup) was unlikely to have been a clever rating-preservation strategy. It was only Ding Liren getting to the final of the World Cup that finally opened up the rating qualification spot, and then, with a controversial late withdrawal from the Grand Swiss to be sure, Anish was in.

Let’s take a closer look at the Dutch no. 1:

The bare facts

  • Born: June 28, 1994 in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Age: 25
  • World ranking: 11
  • Rating: 2763 (March 2020) 
  • Peak rating: 2798 (October 2015)
  • Qualified via: Average rating for 2019
  • Candidates experience: Joint 4th, Moscow 2016 (all 14 games drawn)
  • Score vs. the other Candidates: Equal (14 wins, 14 losses, 84 draws)
  • Seeded: 6th

You can also check out Anish Giri’s chess24 profile.

The verdict of our experts

Jan described the 38-minute session on Anish Giri as, “the most anticipated video of this series by far,” and Team Magnus had a lot of fun discussing a player they all know very well.

Peter Heine Nielsen described meeting Anish when he was still working for Vishy Anand:

He’s one of my Twitter buddies and we have some friendly banter there and such. I know him from when he was very young. He was actually visiting Vishy’s World Championship training camp in 2010 and I had to sort of be friendly to Anish and make him feel at home there. We’ve been great buddies since.

For instance, here was Peter after Anish took a selfie in Berlin with 2018 Candidates winner Fabiano Caruana – Giri had been there as a second for Vladimir Kramnik:

Here’s how Giri’s buddies scored him:

CategoryLAURENTJANPETERCombined
PREPARATION55515
CALCULATION33410
UNDERSTANDING44311
TECHNIQUE43411
TIME MANAGEMENT54413
FIGHTING SPIRIT0314
HOT OR NOT3227
Total24242371

That compares to Kirill Alekseenko’s 60 and Wang Hao’s 69.

As you can see, this is the clearest case yet of a dramatic difference between some of the strengths and weaknesses. Our experts agreed that only Fabiano Caruana can rival Giri when it comes to opening preparation, though if forced Peter would pick Anish:

He’s extremely well-prepared. I think he can play more or less any first move, he can play many systems against all White’s major choices. As we’ll see in the game we discuss, he really is one player who’s saying that, “I’m the best theoretical expert in the world and I’m not going to back down”. He will welcome any kind of theoretical discussion because he’s basing it on strength. He’s not afraid. You can argue a bit like Garry in the old days that Garry will just naturally assume, “I’m the theoretical king so any discussion is good for me and I’m not going to back down”.

Laurent countered that Kasparov was actually much more predictable, while Jan stressed Giri’s youthful memory as well:

I think if you wake him up at 4am and quiz him about any random position in his notes he will usually know the answer.

The game our experts picked to discuss, Nepomniachtchi 0-1 Giri from the Croatia Grand Chess Tour, was an example of outpreparing an opponent, even if Anish did credit an assistant afterwards!

The other side of the coin, however, is “fighting spirit”, with Laurent giving 0 points and Peter just 1. Laurent justified his cruelty with the explanation:

The main point in fighting spirit is that when you have a decision in the middlegame he will always take the safest one.

Peter argued, “I don’t think Giri is playing for just one result”, and that he might be happy with his Candidates result even if he doesn’t reach the match against Magnus, where for others it’s all or nothing:

Someone like Grischuk is going to try to get to +5, even if it’s going to cost him. Aronian and Kramnik completely ruined their last Candidates because they actually kept trying very hard to win when they were in big problems, simply for the small chance.

Jan explained his 3 points since Giri’s many draws also come from fighting hard not to lose:

He does save a lot of bad positions. He does not resign or lose courage when he’s in trouble, and to me, as a member of the chicken fan club, that’s also very much a part of fighting spirit. He doesn’t let his head low when he’s in trouble.

Peter helpfully summed up:

So you give him average marks, because you give him zero marks for trying to win but full marks for trying not to lose!

Let’s finish by summing up why Giri will, or won’t, win the Candidates:

PROS

The right combination of youth and experience: At 25 Giri is younger than anyone else in the Candidates except 22-year-old Alekseenko, but he also knows exactly what lies ahead. As we saw earlier, he got to witness Vishy Anand’s preparation camp when he was around 16 and at 21, in 2016, he played a Candidates Tournament for the first time. That may not have gone exactly to plan, but he didn’t lose a game and came close to winning on multiple occasions.

Then in 2018 he got to see a completely different approach to the event as part of Team Kramnik, as Vladimir won 3 but ultimately lost 4 games. Giri knows exactly what it’s going to take and perhaps this is his event:

Preparation: As we’ve seen, opening preparation is Anish Giri’s trump card, and a closed event like this, with months to prepare for each player (except Maxime!), is playing to his strengths. If he can land some blows and no-one is running away with the tournament he’ll be right in the hunt for 1st place.

Handling pressure: Whatever you think of Anish Giri’s social media presence, the ability to withstand criticism, roll with the punches and share in jokes before and during an incredibly important event is a sign of rare mental resilience.

Giri is one player who’s unlikely to crack under the pressure of playing in Yekaterinburg. It might be added that as a native Russian speaker he'll also feel at home while having none of the burden of expectation of the players representing Russia.

CONS

He needs to win a major supertournament: Anish Giri has the same issue as most of the players in Yekaterinburg. He needs to win the most important supertournament of his life, despite having made no habit of winning such events. In winning the 2019 Shenzhen Masters he beat Harikrishna, Yu Yangyi and Jakovenko, who are not quite supertournament regulars. Before that you arguably have to go back to the 2011/2012 Reggio Emilia event, when Giri won ahead of Ivanchuk, Morozevich, Vitiugov and a young Caruana and Nakamura. It helps that there’s no Magnus in Yekaterinburg (so you could point to Giri’s 2nd places in the 2018 and 2019 Tata Steel Masters) but it’s not going to be easy.


It’s tough to go all-in on demand: Laurent Fressinet pointed out that Giri is clever, so that for instance when he plays the Sicilian he will play aggressively, since he knows that’s objectively what he has to do. Nevertheless, Laurent argued it doesn’t usually work out so well, since it goes against the Dutchman’s style. It may be the same in the Candidates. Giri knows very well that he should be aiming for at least +3, and perhaps more if other players catch fire, but will he be able to channel that mindset on demand?

The memory of 2016: It would certainly be good for Anish to win a game early on, but it might also be almost as good for him to lose one! The point is to exorcise the memory of drawing every single game in Moscow in 2016.

If the draws do mount at the start, and normally it would be a perfectly healthy thing to get off to a solid start, it may nevertheless up the pressure. Anish won’t want his Candidates drawing streak to grow too much further.

On the bright side, though, he starts against Ian Nepomniachtchi. Of their 7 games just 2 have been drawn, with Anish leading with 3 wins to 2.

Just 10 days to go to the Candidates!

See also:


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