Eight Candidates Enter. One Challenger Emerges.

Photo courtesy of World Chess Photo courtesy of World Chess

The Challenger

Sergey Karjakin

  • Final Score: 8.5 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2855
Karjakin was severely underestimated before the tournament began. It seemed that no one really imagined him winning the event---with the exception of Carlsen himself:
“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
Two major accomplishments last year foreshadowed Karjakin as a top contender:
  • The resilience he demonstrated when he won the World Cup, which required 36 hard-fought games over one month. At one point in his match against Peter Svidler, he was behind in score and had to win two games in a row (a single draw and he would’ve been eliminated) just to stay in contention.
  • The Russia vs. China knockout match where Karjakin single-handedly defeated the entire Chinese team (the 2014 Olympiad Champions), including Wei Yi, Ding Liren, Ni Hua, and Yu Yangyi.
Not to mention, Karjakin was clear 2nd at the previous Candidates Tournament in 2014. Why was he so underestimated?
  • Karjakin is lower rated than the tournament favorites. He only recently re-entered the top ten in the world during this event. He’s one of the few competitors that’s never been over 2800.
  • Spectators didn’t get to see Karjakin play in as many top-level tournaments in 2015 because he wasn’t invited to the Grand Chess Tour. Although, it's debatable that he deserved to be invited to at least one of the tournaments---He would've been the returning champion to Norway Chess, which he won in both 2014 and 2013. (Note: He will be competing at Norway Chess this year.)
Where he impressed me: His comeback victory immediately after his loss to Anand. After being tied for first place for so long, it would’ve been very easy for someone to collapse from falling out of it (which unfortunately happened to Aronian), but Karjakin overcame this and regained his tie for first. In terms of resiliency, Karjakin may be one of the few players that is comparable to Carlsen. I think we’re going to see a very interesting, hard-fought match in November.

The Runner-Up

Final Round - Caruana Photo courtesy of World Chess

Fabiano Caruana

  • Final Score: 7.5 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2800
I think Caruana was a little off-form this tournament and that with the smallest change he would’ve won the tournament, possibly by a convincing margin. The fact that he was in contention throughout despite numerous missed wins shows how much he belonged as one of the top two. Where he impressed me: Despite having a less than ideal event, Caruana impressed me with his creative playing style and composure throughout. I’d say the biggest moment was his tweet, written just hours after his chance to become the Challenger was shattered: https://twitter.com/FabianoCaruana/status/714499079678660608 It shows an incredible attitude, and I have no doubt that Caruana will have his shot at the World Championship in future years.

Just Out of Contention

Vishy Anand

  • Final Score: 7.5 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2804
Anand's tournament had the most ups and downs with seven decisive games. He played fighting chess and achieved more victories than any other player. Every time he'd lose a game and seem out of the running, he'd win the next one and be right back in it. It was highly unfortunate that he was out of contention to be the challenger before the last round because of a technicality (more on the tiebreak system below). Where he impressed me: Defeating Karjakin in the 11th round and reaching the top of the scoreboard for the third time. This game was Karjakin's only loss, and Anand made it look easy.
[pgn][White "Viswanathan Anand"] [Black "Sergey Karjakin"] [ECO "C65"] [WhiteElo "?"] [BlackElo "?"] [PlyCount "139"] 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 O-O 6.O-O d6 7.h3 Ne7 8.d4 Bb6 9.Bd3 d5 10.Nxe5 Nxe4 11.Nd2 Nd6 12.Nb3 c6 13.Nc5 Ng6 14.Qh5 Bxc5 15.dxc5 Ne4 16.Bxe4 dxe4 17.Rd1 Qe7 18.Nxg6 hxg6 19.Qg5 Qxg5 20.Bxg5 f6 21.Be3 g5 22.Rd6 Re8 23.Rad1 Be6 24.b3 Kf7 25.R1d4 Bf5 26.a4 Re7 27.g4 Bh7 28.b4 Bg8 29.b5 Rc8 30.Rd7 Re8 31.b6 a6 32.Rc7 Kf8 33.c4 Be6 34.Rxe4 Kf7 35.f4 Rxc7 36.bxc7 Rc8 37.f5 Bd7 38.h4 g6 39.Rd4 Rxc7 40.hxg5 fxg5 41.Bxg5 Be8 42.f6 Kf8 43.Bf4 Rh7 44.Kg2 Bd7 45.Bg5 Be6 46.Rd8+ Kf7 47.Rb8 Bxc4 48.Rxb7+ Kg8 49.Rb8+ Kf7 50.Kg3 Ke6 51.Re8+ Kf7 52.Rc8 Bd5 53.Kf4 Ke6 54.Re8+ Kd7 55.Ra8 Ke6 56.Re8+ Kd7 57.Re3 a5 58.Kg3 Rf7 59.Kf4 Rh7 60.Re1 Kc8 61.Kg3 Rf7 62.Re8+ Kd7 63.Ra8 Kc7 64.Kf4 Rd7 65.Bh4 Kb7 66.Re8 Bf7 67.Re4 Bd5 68.Re3 Bf7 69.Kg5 Ka6 70.Re7 1-0[/pgn]


Anish Giri

  • Final Score: 7 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2776
Giri obtained his own hashtag over the Candidates, #GiriJokes, for his incredible and unprecedented feat of 14 straight draws. https://twitter.com/ChessMaldito/status/714284698877321220


All jokes aside, Giri was clearly pushing to win in several of the games. Take a look at his game against Anand where Giri sacrificed a piece with 24...Bxf2!---Definitely not a move that aims for a draw:

[pgn][White "Viswanathan Anand"]
[Black "Anish Giri"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "C50"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "2r3k1/bp3ppp/p2q1n2/8/P3rp2/2P2N1P/1PQ1BPP1/3RR1K1 b - - 0 24"]
[PlyCount "56"]
[EventDate "2016.??.??"]24... Bxf2+ $1 25. Kxf2 Qb6+ 26. Kf1 Nh5 27. g4 fxg3 28. Bd3 Rxe1+ 29. Rxe1 Nf4
30. Nd4 g6 31. Be4 Qf6 32. Bf3 g2+ 33. Bxg2 Nd3+ 34. Nf3 Nxe1 35. Kxe1 b5 36.
axb5 axb5 37. Qe4 Rb8 38. Qd4 Qe6+ 39. Kf2 Qb3 40. Ne5 Qxb2+ 41. Kg1 Rc8 42.
Qf4 Qa2 43. c4 Qa7+ 44. Kh2 bxc4 45. Bd5 Rf8 46. Qf6 Qa2+ 47. Kg3 Qa7 48. Kg2
Qa2+ 49. Kf3 Qa3+ 50. Kg4 Qa7 51. Kf3 Qa3+ 52. Kg4 1/2-1/2[/pgn]

Going undefeated against such strong opposition is an accomplishment. In addition, it's Giri's first time in the Candidates Tournament, and he was the youngest competitor by far.

Where he impressed me:

Giri was a great sport about the countless #GiriJokes and even joked about it himself:


Wild Card

Photo courtesy of World Chess Photo courtesy of World Chess

Levon Aronian

  • Final Score: 7 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2777
I was delighted when Aronian was chosen as the Wild Card. He showed his strength when he won the 2015 Sinquefield Cup. He plays with a lot of creativity and life in each of his games. He’s always entertaining and friendly in game post-mortems. Although certainly good enough to win the tournament, Aronian is the type of player that is either on form--- or nowhere close. In this tournament, he was one of the leaders for a while, but was unable to recover from his loss to Anand. He described the game as "pretty one-sided" and admitted that he was "not playing well". The disappointment of this loss may've cost Aronian a second point. Two rounds later, he pushed too hard for a win against Svidler and lost, ending his chances for first. The tricky thing with Aronian is, at age 33, he’s in a different age category than any other competitor. There were two main categories in the tournament:
  • The twenty-somethings: Giri (21), Caruana (24), Karjakin (26), Nakamura (28)
  • The Veterans: Anand (46), Topalov (41), Svidler (39)
The advantage of being in the younger category is more stamina and a little less pressure because most likely everyone in that age group will compete in a future Candidates Tournament. The advantage of being a veteran is experience. Anand and Topalov have both won Candidates’ Tournaments before. They’ve been there and know what it takes. I wonder if, in a way, Aronian has the worst of both worlds: not quite the same amount of stamina as a twenty-something, some uncertainty of whether his peak is ahead or behind him, but also lacking the wisdom one has if they’ve won this type of tournament before.
"Despite the fact that Levon is older than me by a few years, I consider him a chess player of my generation as we began playing at big tournaments almost at the same time." -Magnus Carlsen
I certainly hope Aronian gets another chance. He brings a spark and will to win that is very welcome in a tournament where 71% of the games ended in draws. Where he impressed me: His willingness to take risks and aim for the best chess possible at such a prestigious event, where so many played it safe unless there was no option.


Photo courtesy of World Chess Photo courtesy of World Chess

Hikaru Nakamura

  • Final Score: 7 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2776
Nakamura struggled during the first half of the tournament, and most of his fans were disappointed to see a touch-move controversy at such a high-level of chess. Chess Club Live even published a very dramatic article titled, “The Rise and Fall of Hikaru Nakamura”. Despite these setbacks, I doubt this spells the end for Nakamura. Before this event, he was having a fantastic year, winning in both Gibraltar and Zurich for the second time in a row. This was only his first time competing in the Candidates, and I’m certain he’ll have a much stronger performance in future ones. Where he impressed me: Anyone who’s ever had a slump during a tournament knows how hard they can be to recover from. Yet, Nakamura fought his way back mid-tournament and obtained an equal score by the end. Regaining composure in this way is something to be proud of.

Above Expectations

Peter Svidler

  • Final Score: 7 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2780
Svidler began the tournament with the lowest rating. Yet, he performed above it and had a very respectable tournament with one victory over Aronian, one loss to Anand and 12 draws. Where he impressed me: Despite being the lowest ranked competitor, Svidler held his own in nearly every game, was never at risk for finishing in last, and obtained an equal score.

The Fallen

Veselin Topalov

  • Final Score: 4.5 / 14
  • Performance Rating: 2648
Topalov’s performance over the last year shows the vast affect that confidence has on one’s game. Less than a year ago, he won Norway Chess over Carlsen and many in this field. Playing confidently after that, he began the Sinquefield Cup with victories over Carlsen and Nakamura---in clear first place. His rating  was comfortably over 2800 and, at one point in live ratings, he was second only to Carlsen. Midway through the tournament, he fell out of first place with a couple tough losses and finished near the bottom. He hasn’t recovered from that disappointment. His clear last place at the London Classic foreshadowed his performance in the Candidates. While I wouldn’t have considered him a top contender in Moscow, I doubt that his abilities have actually dropped so dramatically over 11 months. This sort of slump is almost always due to a case of lost confidence. Where he impressed me: Topalov accepted his unfortunate score with grace. In the post-mortem after the final round, he reflected on other strong players who lost their strength as they aged and humbly stated: "I don't have a problem to accept that my time is probably gone." He even reached a point where he could joke about it: "I was just thinking that my new goal should be to end the year above 2700."
"[Topalov's analysis in the post-game interviews was absolutely superb and hinted to me that he's still much, much stronger than his score in this tournament suggests. I wouldn't be surprised if the remarkable Topa story has another chapter left in it." -GM David Smerdon, "Candidates Wrap: Top Five Moments of the Final Day"

The Highly Debated and Confusing Tiebreak System

In the last round, even though Anand (who was half a point behind the leaders) was in contention for a tie for first place (if Karjakin and Caruana drew), he had no incentive to play for a win because he would lose on tiebreaks. This, among other things, poses some questions about the tiebreak system chosen for the tournament. Tiebreak Rules In fact, if we look at hypothetical tying possibilities for the top three, we end up with three different challengers: If only Karjakin and Caruana tied, Karjakin is the challenger. For the first tiebreak (head-to-head score), they are even. For the second tiebreak (most wins/losses), Karjakin has more wins and losses (while Caruana would've been undefeated in the case of a last round draw). If all three (Karjakin, Caruana, Anand) tied, Caruana is the challenger because he defeated Anand and, thus, has more head-to-head points than the other two. If only Karjakin and Anand tied (this would've been impossible only because Karjakin and Caruana were paired in the last round: so if Karjakin draws, so does Caruana), Anand would've been the challenger because Anand has more overall wins than Karjakin. The fact that these three scenarios each produce a different winner shows that the tiebreaks are not rewarding the strongest performance. In my opinion, the Candidates is too important of a tournament to deny the top contenders a playoff.
“The irony of the entire situation is that the rule [the most wins tiebreak] that was implemented to hopefully generate exciting play and provide players with the incentive to go aggressively for wins instead of conservative draws ultimately led to a situation in the final round where Sergey could play for a draw with White and Vishy, who still could win and tie for first, was already mathematically eliminated… Just think about that for a second: in the final, theoretically most exciting round of the World Championship Candidates Tournament, three players should have been motivated to go all out for the win as they could have tied for 1st and played a proper tiebreak... but instead only one was, and he was the player with the Black pieces [Fabiano Caruana] who was already facing a huge disadvantage before the game even started---with essentially draw odds against him.” -FM Elliott Liu
Numerous suggestions for a new tiebreak system or even a new Candidates system altogether have been proposed, including Greg Shahade's two blog posts on the subject. All-in-all, the Candidates Tournament produced some fantastic chess and was fascinating to watch. With a total of nine lead changes, it's clear that each and every player fought their hardest to reach the top. The upcoming Carlsen vs. Karjakin World Championship Match in New York City is a match I'm looking forward to.