General Oct 30, 2017 | 8:07 AMby Colin McGourty

Vladimir Kramnik gets Candidates wild card

Vladimir Kramnik has been nominated as the wild card to play the Candidates Tournament in Berlin next March to determine the next challenger for World Champion Magnus Carlsen. While not a big surprise – to date significant sponsorship has only been announced from Russian companies – the timing of the decision means no changes are possible based on the result of the final Grand Prix. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Teimour Radjabov now know there’s no lifeline if they fail to qualify via that event in Palma de Mallorca next month.

Vladimir Kramnik, a World Championship Candidate again at 42 | photo: Jose Huwaidi

Six of eight candidates now known

World Chess (Agon) have today announced that Vladimir Kramnik has been nominated as the wild card player for the Candidates Tournament that takes place in Berlin from 10-28 March next year. That means we currently know the names of six of the eight participants:

  1. Sergey Karjakin, Russia, world no. 12 (as the defeated challenger)
  2. Levon Aronian, Armenia, world no. 2 (World Cup winner)
  3. Ding Liren, China, world no. 11 (World Cup runner-up)
  4. Wesley So, USA, world no. 7 (by rating)
  5. Fabiano Caruana, USA, world no. 4 (by rating)
  6. Vladimir Kramnik, Russia, world no. 5 (wild card)

The final two will be from Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Alexander Grischuk (the current Grand Prix leaders), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Teimour Radjabov, with only the latter two playing in the Palma de Mallorca Grand Prix from 16-25 November.

Vladimir Kramnik – a logical choice  

Earlier this summer Vladimir Kramnik’s chances of qualifying for the Candidates Tournament by right looked strong. He was level with or only slightly behind Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana in the race to qualify by rating and knew that if either he or one of those two players made it into the World Cup final that would also confirm his qualification. In the end, though, misfortune followed misfortune.

Vassily Ivanchuk ended Kramnik's World Cup dream | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website 

Kramnik lost to Vassily Ivanchuk in Round 3 of the World Cup and saw his chances of qualifying immediately vanish when Ding Liren beat Wesley So in semifinal tiebreaks. Then his lingering hopes of qualifying by rating were dashed by a first round loss to Fabiano Caruana in the Isle of Man Open that was followed by a calamitous loss to 65-year-old James Tarjan that cost 9.1 rating points in a single game. Mathematical chances remained, but the way in which Kramnik skipped the opening rounds and played with the black pieces at the European Club Cup fuelled speculation that he already knew a wild card was in his pocket.

Things went from bad to worse on the Isle of Man | photo: John Saunders, official website

The wild card is chosen by the organisers, in this case Agon, so the fact that the tournament is being held in Berlin was of little significance even if Germany had a player rated 2725 on a 2017 rating list who would be eligible to play. A Russian company, EG Capital Advisors, is given as the “official partner”, and there are also objective arguments in Kramnik’s favour. World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon comments:

We believe that inviting Mr. Kramnik to the Candidates will make the Tournament line-up the strongest possible and will ensure the choice of the best challenger to incumbent World Champion, Magnus Carlsen.

In some ways it’s also righting a historic wrong, since Vladimir Kramnik was world no. 2 at the time of the 2016 Candidates Tournament in Moscow, but wasn’t given the wild card spot since Armenian investors supported the event in return for Levon Aronian’s participation.

At the 2016 Moscow Candidates Opening Ceremony Kramnik quipped, “I thought, perhaps suddenly someone won’t turn up and I can replace them!” | photo: Vladimir Barsky, Russian Chess Federation

Vladimir Kramnik is currently the world no. 5 on the official FIDE list (no. 7 on live), came within a whisker of beating Magnus Carlsen in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, finished 3rd in 2014 and would be a fascinating opponent for the current World Champion if he did triumph in Berlin. He commented:

I’d like to thank everyone who helped my nomination to the Candidates. Usually, the chess world’s attention is drawn to the tournament and taking part in it is a challenge for any grandmaster. I hope to show [a] worthy performance and fight for first prize!

Unusual timing

The reason given in the press release for announcing the wild card now is as follows:

World Chess and FIDE have decided to issue its Wild Card nomination before the final leg of the World Chess Grand Prix Series in consideration of the fact that should the Wild Card choice be announced, it might affect the preparation and determination of players who are fighting for the Candidates qualification via the Grand Prix Series.

Perhaps that refers to the fact that Teimour Radjabov now knows that Azerbaijan won’t be able to fund the Candidates Tournament and gain him a wild card as they did in London in 2013, since it’s hard to imagine Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s motivation would be anything less than 100% for the tournament.

It does mean, however, that the wild card has been chosen before all the information is known, with it now possible that Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, both currently rated above Kramnik, will miss out. The relevant Grand Prix standings are as follows, with only MVL and Radjabov in action in Palma:

1Shakhriyar Mamedyarov14014060340
2Alexander Grischuk14071125336
3Teimour Radjabov71170241
5Maxime Vachier-Lagrave14071211

With 170 points for 1st, 140 for 2nd and 110 for 3rd, Maxime needs to finish in clear 2nd and Teimour in clear 3rd to guarantee qualification, though of course a lot of permutations are possible. Mamedyarov and Grischuk, meanwhile, can only look on and pray!    

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