General Mar 2, 2020 | 10:52 AMby Colin McGourty

The 2020 Candidates: Kirill Alekseenko

22-year-old Russian Kirill Alekseenko is the wild card for the 2020 Candidates Tournament and an outsider in every possible way – three years younger than anyone else, 64 points lower rated and not only has he never played a Candidates Tournament but he’s never played in a supertournament. Can the young Russian pull off a sensation or is he there just to make up the numbers and leave Maxime Vachier-Lagrave fans wondering what might have been?


The 2020 Candidates Tournament to decide Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger starts, virus-permitting, on 17th March in Yekaterinburg, Russia. We’re going to take a look at all the Candidates in a series of preview articles, starting with Kirill Alekseenko, whose tournament begins with Black against Alexander Grischuk:

In fact Kirill is Black in three of his first four games (hover over his name above to see his pairings), so it’s going to be a double baptism of fire! What do we know about the youngster:

The bare facts

  • Born: June 22, 1997 in Vyborg, Russia
  • Age: 22
  • World ranking: 39
  • Rating: 2698
  • Peak Rating: 2715 (November 2019)
  • Qualified via: Wild card (eligible for just missing out on automatic qualification via the Grand Swiss)
  • Candidates experience: None
  • Score vs. the other Candidates: -2 (just 5 classical games, with 3 draws, 2 losses) 
  • Seeded: 8th

For more details check out Kirill Alekseenko’s chess24 profile.

The verdict of our experts

In their 2020 Candidates Preview Magnus Carlsen seconds Laurent Fressinet, Jan Gustafsson and Peter Heine Nielsen spent 35 minutes talking about Kirill and looking at one of his best games, Alekseenko 1-0 Harikrishna from the 2019 World Cup. That series is available for free to all Premium members.

Here’s how they scored Kirill on a scale out of 5:

CategoryLAURENTJANPETERCombined
PREPARATION2327
CALCULATION33410
UNDERSTANDING3339
TECHNIQUE3249
TIME MANAGEMENT3339
FIGHTING SPIRIT3328
HOT OR NOT3238
Total20192160

As you might expect, however, our experts confessed to not having too much real idea of the strength of Alekseenko in some of those categories, since he’s such a newcomer to top level chess. He only broke through into the 2700 club after excellent performances last year in the World Cup and the Grand Swiss.

Perhaps the most controversial question was about fighting spirit. Peter Heine Nielsen justified his 2/5 as follows:

Does he want to win this event or to do it decently? I think he wants to do it decently. I would do the same in his shoes, but I don’t have a lot of fighting spirit! I think that’s the basis of my argument. He’s not going to try heavily to win it. You can create stories - let’s play it stable in the beginning to get a good start, and if you get a good start play it stable not to ruin the good start. To actually try and get in the mood of trying to win the event I very much doubt, and should he get to +1 I don’t think his next step will be to get to +2 or +3. I don’t think he will adjust, “actually Caruana’s on +3 and I’m going to catch him”. He will just play his own tournament. He’s very well aware that he’s lower rated than the rest and the benchmark for him is not going to be about winning the event - and that is fighting spirit.

But is that true? In an extensive recent interview Kirill was asked to describe his own style of play. After a long pause he commented:

It seems to me that I try to play as deeply and thoughtfully as possible, always trying to find a way to go for a fight. If there’s an option of going for simplifications or complications I always choose the second.

You could also argue about the “Hot or Not” category. Although Kirill’s performance in Gibraltar (3 wins, 7 draws) definitely didn’t set the world on fire it’s harsh to consider his European Team Championship performance a failure. 


Although he started badly with his first classical loss in a very long time he came back, ended on a plus score and scored the only win in Russia-Poland in the final round to give Russia gold medals – all that despite obvious fatigue after a marathon run of big events.

Don't miss the 5-hour preview series

Let’s look at some reasons why Kirill will, or won’t, do well in Yekaterinburg:

PROS

The element of surprise: The 2020 Candidates Tournament has an unusual number of dark horses (Wang Hao and Teimour Radjabov had been off the radar for so long) but Alekseenko is by far the least known player. His opponents have relatively little material to work with and will be unsure what to expect.    

No pressure: As Kirill himself summed things up in the same interview mentioned above:

I like the role of “dark horse” in this tournament. No-one expects any great result from me and there’s no additional pressure.

A team behind him: Kirill’s recent rise followed an experience working as a second for Peter Svidler at the GRENKE Chess Classic and it’s likely that roles have now been reversed. Peter, and perhaps his fellow St. Petersburg grandmaster Nikita Vitiugov, may be working for Alekseenko, and they’ve shown in the past that they know exactly how to prepare for the Candidates. Once again, there’s also that element of surprise. Kirill:

There’s a great deal of information on them and they’ve been playing the same openings for many years. I’ve got half as many games, few games against strong chess players and no fully-developed repertoire – that’s something I can work with.

Youth: Kirill has time on his side and perhaps the energy to withstand a 14-round event.

CONS

A complete lack of experience: The Candidates is, first and foremost, a supertournament, and very few people in world chess have managed to make a habit of winning those strong, closed events, where the best players in the world can prepare specifically for you. Almost no-one has won a supertournament at their first attempt, and that’s what Kirill would have to do here, since as well as never playing the Candidates he’s never faced a field like this. Almost all his successes – winning the Chigorin Memorial three times, the Rilton Cup and finishing 3rd in the Grand Swiss – have been in open tournaments. This will be very different.    

Everyone will be out to get him: In such incredibly tough events players single out opponents they feel they can pick up points against, and Kirill will start with a target on his back. If he can survive the opening rounds and someone else starts to lose games that may change, but at the start everyone will be hoping to exploit weaknesses they think they've found in the newcomer’s game.

Beating Kirill isn't easy, though - Ding Liren only managed it in rapid chess after they drew both classical games in Round 4 of the 2019 World Cup | photo: Kirill Merkuryev, official website

The voodoo dolls of MVL fans: We mentioned that there will be no pressure, but you could argue that isn’t true. Will it weigh on Kirill that he was selected for the event as a wild card although others, and especially Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, had stronger claims? Of course it’s absolutely no fault of Kirill’s, who just had the year of his life, but it’s not out of the question that it could affect him.

Rating doesn’t lie? It’s almost symbolic that Kirill dipped below 2700 again before the tournament begins and, rated 64 points below anyone else in the event, he is of course expected to finish last. On the other hand, Dmitry Andreikin found himself in a similar position before the 2014 Candidates and finished 4th, while it’s noteworthy that although Kirill’s rating has risen slowly (he crossed 2600 aged 20 and 2700 aged 22) it’s also risen steadily. We don’t yet know where his ceiling lies, though as Peter Heine Nielsen pointed out:

He could be underrated but still be the weakest player in the Candidates – he’s going to be tested at a very high level.

So Kirill Alekseenko is the clear underdog for the 2020 Candidates Tournament – you can get odds of around 100:1 on his winning – though he could certainly surprise us. In the coming days we’re going to take a look at all the contenders to become Magnus Carlsen’s Challenger for a match that now seems likely to start only around December 20th 2020 in Dubai and run into January.

See also:


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