General Mar 14, 2020 | 3:52 PMby Colin McGourty

The 2020 Candidates: Fabiano Caruana

2018 Challenger Fabiano Caruana has been tipped by many, including World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, to win the 2020 Candidates and earn a rematch that, virus-permitting, would take place in Dubai in December this year. What’s clear is that his closest rival on paper is Ding Liren, with our experts Laurent Fressinet, Jan Gustafsson and Peter Heine Nielsen scoring the two players exactly the same. 

In chess terms Fabiano Caruana had the easiest path to the Candidates Tournament, qualifying automatically after losing the 2018 match in London. That means he’s had a year and a half to process the rapid chess loss to Magnus, which he confessed had left him “burnt out”:

He goes into the tournament, however, as yet again the clear world no. 2, with his 2842 rating putting him just 20.8 points behind Magnus and 37 points ahead of Ding Liren. 4 of the Top 5 on the live rating list will be in action:

The path to Yekaterinburg has been altogether more difficult for Fabiano who, like many of us, has been trying to navigate the ballooning number of travel restrictions around the world:

But in the end he made it to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where he’s already managed to terrify Anish Giri with his preparation 

So what do we know about Fabiano:

The bare facts

  • Born: July 30, 1992 in Miami, USA
  • Age: 27
  • World ranking: 2
  • Rating: 2842
  • Peak rating: 2844 (October 2014)
  • Qualified via: 2018 World Championship runner-up
  • Candidates experience: 2nd in 2016, won in 2018
  • World Championship experience: Drew 12:12 with Carlsen in 2018, but lost 3:0 in rapid chess
  • Score vs. the other Candidates: -3 (14 wins, 17 losses, 71 draws, including -5 vs. Wang Hao)
  • Seeded: 1st

You can also check out Fabiano Caruana’s chess24 profile.

The verdict of our experts

Peter Heine Nielsen explained why our experts had begun with Fabiano Caruana:

He’s the clear favourite of the tournament, there’s no doubt about that. I would say to debate if Caruana is the clear favourite doesn’t make sense. I think the relevant question is, does Caruana have a 50% chance of winning the event?

The curiosity, then, is that Peter actually ended up giving one point more to Ding Liren (as did Laurent), while Jan gave two points more to Fabi:


That compares to Kirill Alekseenko’s 60Wang Hao’s 69Anish Giri’s 71Ian Nepomniachtchi’s 72, Alexander Grischuk’s 72 and Ding Liren’s 87 – that’s right, the two co-favourites ended up with exactly the same score from our experts!

When it comes to “calculation”, “technique”, “fighting spirit” and “opening preparation” there’s little to fault Fabi on, except yet another leak…

…while Peter’s 3/5 for “Hot or not” was a clear outlier. The Danish no. 1 justified it for an uninspired Sinquefield Cup from Fabi, but everyone there was uninspired and until losing to Ding Liren in the 9th round he was right in the hunt for first place. Plus apart from the unbeaten +7 in the Tata Steel Masters, finishing 2 points ahead of Magnus, Fabi also finished the Grand Swiss in joint first place ahead of Magnus, only losing out to Wang Hao on tiebreaks. None of our experts mentioned it, but it was yet another reason why Jan and Laurent’s 5/5 seems appropriate.

The reason Caruana doesn’t score higher than Ding, however, is that for the 3rd highest ever rated chess player of all time there were still some questions over his “chess understanding”, with Laurent explaining his 3/5 with “I’m not that impressed by his middlegame understanding”. If it’s a weakness (Jan and Peter gave 4) it’s one almost completely masked by Fabi’s fabulous calculation, but our experts agreed that time trouble can be a problem for Fabiano, even if he’s made improvements there in the last year or two. They felt it was a double-edged sword, since often Fabi is burning up so much time because he’s taken a game into a deep maze of complications where the odds are he’ll be able to navigate his way out better.

So let’s sum up why Fabiano will, or won’t, win the 2020 Candidates:  


He’s been there, done that and got the T-shirt: 23-year-old Fabiano Caruana went into the final round of the 2016 Candidates Tournament in Moscow tied with Sergey Karjakin on 7.5/13. Alas, he'd won two games and lost none while Sergey Karjakin had lost one but won three, so Fabi knew that a draw in his final game would see him lose out on the tiebreaker of most wins (exactly what happened to Vladimir Kramnik against Magnus Carlsen in London 2013). Fabi therefore went all out for a win with Black (incidentally using the Classical Sicilian that Norwegian IM Benjamin Haldorsen has just released a chess24 video series on), got a good position, but then stumbled into a mating net. It was Sergey who qualified to play Magnus in New York.

Caruana wins the Berlin Candidates in style by beating Grischuk in the final round | photo: Niki Riga

History threatened to repeat itself when Karjakin beat Caruana in Round 12 in Berlin in 2018, but this time, after a rest day, Caruana hit back against Levon Aronian in the next game and then beat Alexander Grischuk with Black for fun just when the other games had ended so that a draw would be enough.   

He can post a big score: Fabiano takes risks and can stumble into real trouble at times, but he’s shown again and again that he’s capable of destroying a field. The 7 wins in a row at the start of the 2014 Sinquefield Cup was the best example, but an unbeaten +7 in the Tata Steel Masters was a very well-timed reminder. If he can maintain that form it’s going to be tough for the field to match him. As Magnus put it:

I think in order for Ding to win he probably has to beat Fabiano in their individual encounters.

On experience and record it’s clear that Fabiano is the man to beat.


The T-shirt says “I lost to Magnus and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”:  There’s an argument that it’s tougher to re-climb a mountain than it is to do it for the first time. We all saw how Sergey Karjakin struggled after the disappointment of losing a match against Magnus despite having led in the classical section with three games to go. Fabiano Caruana hasn’t suffered the same slump, and is still the perfect age - his winning the Candidates again won’t be a feat up there with 44-year-old Vishy Anand winning a rematch against Magnus in 2014. You can also argue that the mountain remains unclimbed – winning the World Championship match itself.

The favourites don’t usually win the Candidates: Fabiano Caruana is the clear favourite, but favourites have struggled in this format. Magnus Carlsen is the last top seed to win, though he went through hell, and a last-round loss, before finally clinching the place ahead of Kramnik in London 2013:

Since then Vishy Anand was 4th seed in 2014, Sergey Karjakin 7th seed in 2016 and Caruana himself 5th seed in 2018. Back then Fabi lost four games and 27 rating points as he suffered a complete collapse in the Tata Steel Masters before the event – so it’s not certain that his brilliant result this year is a good sign!

Fabiano hasn’t impressed against the field: Caruana’s score against the field was a surprising -1 and then actually worsened to -3 when MVL replaced Radjabov. That’s largely the result of an incredible -5 (5 losses, no wins, 4 draws!) against Wang Hao. The Chinese star was White in their first 7 games and the last win was in 2013, but Fabi was already the higher-rated player for most of the games.

Caruana missed a number of wins against Ding Liren in the 2018 Candidates, but the Chinese no. 1 won the same match-up in 2019 | photo: Niki Riga

Caruana beat MVL twice in 2019, in Croatia and Norway, but he didn’t beat another player in the Candidates in the same year in classical chess, while he lost to Ding Liren twice (in Norway and the Sinquefield Cup) and Nepomniachtchi (in Croatia). By comparison, as we saw, Ding Liren won classical games against Fabi, Giri, Nepo, MVL and Grischuk. That all suggests it may be too close to call in Yekaterinburg!

The countdown to the 2020 FIDE Candidates Tournament is well and truly on, with Vladimir Kramnik, Jan Gustafsson and Laurent Trent all set to commentate on Tuesday’s Round 1:

Sadly it looks like we won’t have the 14th World Chess Champion in the studio as the closing borders due to the coronavirus made getting to Hamburg (and working/leaving afterwards!) too tricky. He’ll be joining remotely from Switzerland, however, and from time to time we also hope to have a certain Magnus Carlsen calling in! For a warm-up he’s playing Banter Blitz this Sunday at 18:00 CET:

To challenge Magnus you need to be a Premium member, and now’s a great time to Go Premium using one of the following voucher codes:

See also:

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