Candidates 2018: Who Will Challenge Carlsen?

Magnus Carlsen at the 2017 Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour. Photo: Lennart Ootes

One of the most exciting events in competitive chess, the Candidates Tournament to choose a World Championship Challenger, commences today.

Every one of the grandmasters in the field has a number of achievements, reached impressive peak ratings, and shown the ability to play brilliant games. So, what will make the difference?

I think the deciding factors will be a combination of great form, determination, and resilience. Here are my predictions on who has the best chances to win the 2018 Candidates Tournament. 

My Top 3 Picks

“I think the winner is going to be one of the trio: Aronian, Fabiano, or Karjakin… I would choose one of those three players if I were betting.”

-Magnus Carlsen before the 2016 Candidates Tournament

Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana at the 2017 Champions Showdown. Photo: Spectrum Studios

World Rank: 8

Fide Rating: 2784

Fabiano Caruana has taken a bit of a rating dip as of late, falling from World #2 in January to #8 currently because of a lackluster Tata Steel performance. However, Caruana has proven himself to be a top contender for the World Championship for years, and I don’t think a short-term setback changes that at all. He was inches away from becoming the Challenger in 2016, and I believe he’s going to set the score straight and win this time around.

Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian at the 2017 Sinquefield Cup. Photo: Austin Fuller

World Rank: 5

Fide Rating: 2794

If it’s not Caruana, I think it will be Aronian’s time to shine. Most sources state Aronian as the tournament favorite and with good reason. In the past year, Aronian has won the GRENKE Classic, Norway Chess, the World Cup, and Gibraltar Chess. In addition, he has a vast amount of experience at the very top levels, ranking in the top 10 for over a decade and competing in the last five Candidates’ competitions. Aronian also has a creative, entertaining playing style. If he won, his match against Carlsen would be fascinating to watch.

Sergey Karjakin

Sergey Karjakin at the 2017 Sinquefield Cup. Photo: Austin Fuller

World Rank: 13

Fide Rating: 2763

In 2016, qualifying for the Candidates with one of the lowest ratings, Karjakin showed the chess world to never count out the underdog. But, to be honest, I never considered him an underdog. Sergey Karjakin is determination epitomized. The level of resilience he showed during the the 2015 World Cup, the 2016 Candidates Tournament, and following World Championship match is unparalleled. I’m certain that Karjakin has been aching for another shot at the chess crown and will be ready to put his all into every single move. 


Although the players above are my top choices to win, any of these eight absolutely fantastic players could win if they find their best form during the event.

Wesley So

Wesley So at the 2017 Champions Showdown. Photo: Spectrum Studios

World Rank: 4

Fide Rating: 2799

Wesley So has risen immensely in the last few years, and there was a point during his lengthy undefeated streak in 2016-2017 where many believed that he was a given as Carlsen’s next Challenger. However, one thing So is missing—that Caruana, Aronian, and Karjakin all have—is experience in the Candidates. It is incredibly rare that a player wins the Candidates Tournament their first time out. That said, I think So will play a competitive role in the tournament and has some reasonable chance of winning it.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at Tata Steel Chess 2018. Photo: Cathy Rogers

World Rank: 2

Fide Rating: 2809

Mamedyarov is the player to most recently cross 2800. In 2017, he had a few key achievements including winning the Gashimov Memorial over So, Kramnik, and Karjakin and topping the FIDE Grand Prix series. He began also 2018 at career peak rating of 2804, showing that he’s in great form. Mamedyarov is known for an aggressive, attacking playing style, which will be interesting to see in action at the Candidates.

Vladimir Kramnik

Vladimir Kramnik at the 2017 Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour. Photo: Lennart Ootes

“In my opinion, Vlad is probably the player in the world who best understands chess. You can show him whatever position, his instincts will seldom let him down. He will always find what the evaluation of the position is and which plan to adopt.”

-Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, “Candidates 2018”

World Rank: 3

Fide Rating: 2800

Vladimir Kramnik is the only player in the field who has previously won the World Championship, giving him a considerable edge in experience. While he hasn’t won too many events in recent times, Kramnik has kept his rating at or very close to 2800 in the last two years, showing a rare level of consistency, which is crucial in such a strong field.

Alexander Grischuk

Alex Grischuk at the 2017 Championship Showdown. Photo: Spectrum Studios

World Rank: 12

Fide Rating: 2767

Alexander Grischuk is one of the top players that I relate to the most. He’s the creative time-trouble addict, and he’s always an interesting addition to any tournament.

Grischuk has been one of the top players in the world for over a decade. He fell out of the top 10 in late 2015, but I’ve been really glad to see his recent resurgence. While I don’t see him as a top contender to win, I’ll definitely be rooting for him as an underdog.

Ding Liren

Ding Liren at the 2017 Champions Showdown. Photo: Lennart Ootes

“He [Ding Liren] is sort of the unknown factor in this tournament. I really don’t know how he will handle it because he’s the new kid on the block.”

-Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, “Candidates 2018”

World Rank: 11

Fide Rating: 2769

While Ding Liren is an excellent player and has been in the top 10 before, he has the least amount of experience with this field, giving him a bit of a disadvantage. I’m also concerned about Ding Liren’s level of resilience. In his 2017 Champions Showdown blitz and rapid match against Carlsen, Ding seemed to collapse after he fell a certain amount of points behind. There was one game where Carlsen refused to resign even though he was down a queen—and he actually went on to win.

Psychological toughness plays a huge role in competitive chess, especially when the stakes are so high. On the other hand, the match with Carlsen may have provided a nearly risk free opportunity for Ding to learn from his struggle, and he may arrive at the Candidates Tournament stronger and more prepared than ever.

Ding thrives when he has the initiative, and he won a brilliancy that was one of the most memorable games of 2017:

Who do you think will win the 2018 Candidates Tournament? Choose your guess on the Survey.

Watch live games and commentary on The 2018 Candidates Tournament runs from March 10-28 with games everyday at 9 a.m. EST except for the rest days on March 13, March 17, March 21, and March 25.

For more information, check out Ian Rogers’ “Couch Potato’s Guide to the 2018 Candidates”


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