Unprecedented Candidates Tournament to Reboot Monday


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Caruana-Nepomniachtchi (photo Maria Emelianova)


World Champion Magnus Carlsen won’t have to wait much longer. 

The Candidates Tournament, the eight-player event that determines who will next challenge Carlsen for his world title, will resume Monday, April 19 across physical boards in Yekaterinburg, Russia. The most-anticipated event on the International Chess Federation’s (FIDE) calendar began last March 2020, but was suspended at the tournament’s halfway point as the world shut down amid the global pandemic. 

Since the Candidates was first held in 1950, describing this particular episode of the event as unprecedented may not fully provide it justice. Several stunning moments served up headlines to the 2020 tournament before its moves were even played, the first less than two weeks before its scheduled start on March 16, when Azerbaijani GM Teimour Radjabov withdrew due to a lack of measures taken by FIDE in response to COVID-19. 

The prognostication of Radjabov, who earned the coveted seat in the Candidates by winning the 2019 FIDE World Cup, has maintained its own shocking storyline, as FIDE quickly replaced the Azerbaijani with World Cup runner-up French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and prepared to begin the Candidates as scheduled. And if enough exasperation was not received for pressing on in the face of global uncertainty, a now-infamous picture of the event’s opening ceremony did the trick, of nearly 1,000 mask-less attendees packed into the Yekaterinburg Expo. The claustrophobic image made quick rounds and was widely panned by the chess world and beyond. 

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Nevertheless, the 2020 Candidates began as promised and progressed seven rounds to its midway point, when its international players were forced to flee from Russia before air traffic shut down completely. And while impossible to assess the psyche of any player or the impact to the tournament’s level of play during those first rounds – here we are. The second act has arrived. 

After one failed attempt to restart the event in November 2020, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich announced “we are absolutely ready to start the Candidates Tournament” on Monday, April 19, just over 13 months later. 

“All players are aware of the medical protocol, and we are in daily contact with all participants and their teams,” Dvorkovich said in a Moscow press conference last week. “The wearing of a mask during the tournament is not necessary for the players. Players will be required to have negative PCR tests done no earlier than 72 hours before the start of the tournament. They will not be required to do the tests during the tournament unless a player has symptoms." 


2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament Standings
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2020-21 FIDE Candidates standings after 7 rounds. // courtesy FIDE

As the tournament stands, the eight players have met each other for one game and, per its double round-robin format, will now meet a second time with colors reversed. American World No. 2 Fabiano Caruana, who earned his seat as the previous Candidates winner and challenger to Carlsen in 2018, played to an even score in his first cycle through, with five draws, a win over Russian wildcard Kirill Alekseenko, and a loss to Chinese World No. 3 Ding Liren. 

With his 3.5/7 score, Caruana sits in a four-way knot in third place, one point off the pace set by Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi and Vachier-Lagrave in first. And with preparation 391 days in the making, Monday’s eighth round, with Caruana commanding the white pieces against the Frenchman MVL, couldn’t be seen as less pivotal. 


GMs Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana face off during the fourth round of the 2020 Altibox Norway Chess Tournament. (photo Lennart Ootes / Altibox Norway Chess)
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GMs Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana face off during the fourth round of the 2020 Altibox Norway Chess Tournament. (photo Lennart Ootes / Altibox Norway Chess)

Caruana has been relatively quiet during an otherwise booming era of chess that has seen many elite players active in a series of high-profile online events. The American has, however, appeared in the few over-the-board tournaments that made their way onto the quarantine calendar, including the German Schach Bundesliga last September and Norway Chess in October. He was last seen in January at the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, finishing a half-point behind first place in an effort that came up just short of dazzling. 

There in the Netherlands, Caruana tallied a win over MVL and a draw against Dutch World No. 7 Anish Giri, who is currently tied with the American in the Candidates. Caruana takes the white pieces against Giri next Saturday, the day after playing black against Nepomniachtchi. 

[pgn][Event "83rd Tata Steel Masters"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee NED"] [Date "2021.01.23"] [Round "7"] [White "Caruana, F."] [Black "Vachier Lagrave, M."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B97"] [WhiteElo "2823"] [BlackElo "2784"] [PlyCount "73"] [EventDate "2021.01.15"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Qb6 8. Qd2 Qxb2 9. Rb1 Qa3 10. Be2 Nc6 11. Nxc6 bxc6 12. e5 Nd5 13. Nxd5 exd5 14. e6 f6 15. Bh5+ Kd8 16. Bh4 d4 17. Bf2 Qc3 18. f5 Qxd2+ 19. Kxd2 c5 20. Bf3 Ra7 21. g4 g6 22. Bh4 Be7 23. Rb6 h5 24. h3 Ke8 25. Bg3 Rc7 26. Kd3 hxg4 27. hxg4 Rxh1 28. Bxh1 gxf5 29. gxf5 Bf8 30. Kc4 Rh7 31. Be4 Be7 32. Bxd6 Bxd6 33. Rxd6 Bb7 34. Bxb7 Rxb7 35. Rxa6 Rb2 36. Kxc5 Rxc2+ 37. Kxd4 1-0 [/pgn]


2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament Schedule
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2020-21 FIDE Candidates second half schedule. Daily rounds will begin at 7:00 a.m. eastern. // courtesy FIDE

The Candidates Tournament will play one game per day, using a time control of 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, an added 50 minutes for the next 20 moves, and a bonus 15 minutes to finish the game. A 30-second increment will be added after each move. 

First moves will be pushed each day at 7:00 a.m. eastern, and coverage of the event will be plentiful. FIDE itself will offer a live broadcast with multilingual commentary on the official website of the Candidates Tournament, and Chess.com, which has acquired broadcast rights to the event, has live commentary planned that includes five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, reigning US Chess Champion Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura and more, along with video footage of the players and tournament hall. The Saint Louis Chess Club has planned its “Today in Chess” broadcast hosted by GMs including Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley – and even the World Champion will offer commentary of his own, keeping tabs on his next challenger with a broadcast crew on Chess24.com. 

Carlsen’s fate will be realized after the conclusion of round 14 on Tuesday, April 27, or if rapid and blitz tiebreaks are necessary, by April 28. The winner of the Candidates will join the World Champion for a title fight in Dubai this November.

Carlsen has won the world title four times since 2013.