Preview: 2020 Candidates Chess World Championship

Between the 17th of March to the 3rd of April, the 2020 Candidates Tournament will be held in Yekaterinburg, Russia. The results of this tournament will decide who will challenge Magnus Carlsen for the title of Chess World Champion.

In this article, we will first introduce each of the eight contestants and describe how they were selected. Additionally, we analyse how they have historically performed against each of the other candidates, as well as against reigning champion Magnus Carlsen.

Each of the 8 competitors are listed below, along with their FIDE rating and current world rank:

#NameRatingRank
1Caruana, Fabiano28422
2Ding Liren28053
3Grischuk, Alexander27774
4Nepomniachtchi, Ian27745
5Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime27678
6Giri, Anish276311
7Wang Hao276212
8Alekseenko, Kirill269839

Originally, Teimour Radjabov had been selected to play in the Candidates tournament. However, after Radjabov withdrew citing health concerns he was replaced by France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

Unique regulations are in place for this tournament  to ensure the best challenger is selected:

1) These 8 players are due to play in a double round-robin tournament, meaning that each competitor plays two games against everyone else, one game with white and one with black. This ensures that no player will be disadvantaged by randomized pairings.

2) These games will be played at a classical time control of 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, then an additional 50 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then an additional 15 minutes to finish the game. There will be a 30-second increment starting from the first move. These longer time controls allow the competitors to play at the height of their technical ability.

3) Competitors are not allowed to offer a draw before the 40th move has been reached. Before move 40, a draw can only be achieved through a three-fold repetition, or if permitted by the chief arbiter.

If two players end the tournament on an equal number of points the winner will be decided by a number of factors, in order of importance:
– The number of wins the player has. This criteria encourages players to push for decisive results rather than draws.
– The Sonneborn–Berger score, which is a common mathematical system of tie-breaking in chess.
– Finally, if there is still no winner, the players will compete in a rapid and blitz play-off to decide the winner.

Let’s examine the contestants, how they qualified, and their history against their competition:

#1 Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana is the highest rated competitor playing in the 2020 FIDE candidate tournament.

Fabiano Caruana is the second-highest rated player in the world with a 2842 FIDE Elo, behind only the reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen. Caruana qualified for the 2020 Candidates through winning the previous Candidates tournament and playing for the World Champion title in 2018 against Magnus Carlsen in a long struggle he eventually lost. He was also runner up in the 2016 Candidates tournament.

Let’s see how he has performed against the other competitors from this tournament under classical time controls (totals not including games against Carlsen):

Opponent     WinsLossesDraws
Carlsen51036
Liren226
Grischuk3311
Nepomniachtchi106
Vachier-Lagrave6421
Giri3225
Hao054
Alekseenko000

Total vs Candidates:              +15 -16 = 73

We can see he performs well against the field, with the exception of having a bad history playing Wang Hao (seeded 7th, #12 in the world), whom he has a +0 -5 =4 score. It will be interesting to see if Wang Hao continues to be his Achilles heel, despite being one of the lower-ranking competitors.

#2 Ding Liren

Image result for ding liren

Ding Liren is the 3rd highest-ranked player in the world with a FIDE rating of 2805 Elo, and the highest-rated Chinese player in history. This will be the second time Liren has competed in the Candidates tournament, previously coming 4th in 2018. Liren’s qualification for the Candidates came through being the runner up at the 2019 FIDE World Cup behind Teimour Radjabov, who was originally also on the Candidates roster.

As recently as August 2019 Ling won the Sinquefield Cup by beating Magnus Carlsen in the play-offs (blitz), but how well does he do against the other candidates?

OpponentWinsLossesDraws
Carlsen018
Caruana226
Grischuk208
Nepomniachtchi117
Vachier-Lagrave2410
Giri2220
Hao627
Alekseenko202

Total vs Candidates:                +17 -11     =60

From the table, we can see that Liren has good results against almost all of the candidates with an overall positive score. Here, Liren only has a losing record against France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and has an excellent record against Wang hao.

#3 Alexander Grischuk

Image result for alexander grischuk

Alexander Grischuk, FIDE rating 2777 Elo, qualified for the 2020 Candidates by placing first in the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix. This will be his third Candidates tournament, achieving 6th in both 2013 and 2018. Grischuk first entered the top 10 at the age of 19 in 2003, and is the oldest player in the tournament at 36 years old. He holds a reputation as an exciting player due to his willingness to enter complicated positions, where his excellent calculation often prevails. Some commentators have speculated that Grischuk’s age and high-energy style of play may have an impact on his stamina for the tournament.

OpponentWinsLossesDraws
Carlsen169
Caruana3311
Liren208
Nepomniachtchi226
Vachier-Lagrave2114
Giri1211
Hao125
Alekseenko101

Total vs Candidates:               + 12 -10          = 56

Grischuk holds a solid record against all of the candidates, undoubtedly a top competitor, and is predicted to play some of the most exciting games of the tournament.

#4 Ian Nepomniachtchi

Image result for Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi, rating 2774 Elo, qualified as runner-up of the FIDE 2019 Grand-Prix behind Grischuk. This will be his first Candidate’s tournament. Despite being a top player for over a decade, Nepomniachtchi only broke into the top 10 for the first time in February 2020, skyrocketing to #5 in the world. Nepomniachtchi is known for his exciting playing style, where he is willing to take risks to play for the win and avoid early draws. This style has led to interesting fluctuations in his past tournament results where his approach may lead to exceptional or mediocre results. He is the only candidate with a winning record against current world champion Magnus Carlsen.

OpponentWinsLossesDraws
Carlsen416
Caruana016
Liren117
Grischuk226
Vachier-Lagrave157
Giri232
Hao112
Alekseenko000

Total vs Candidates:                +7 -13          =30

#5 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Image result for vachier-lagrave

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, dubbed MVL by his many fans, is the 8th highest-ranked player in the world at a FIDE Elo of 2767. This will be his first Candidates tournament, and was selected to replace Teimour Radjabov who withdrew. MVL is considered a natural replacement, as he has missed out qualifying for a Candidates tournament by extremely narrow margins on four separate occasions: First, in the 2019 Chess World Cup, where the top 2 qualify, he placed 3rd. Second, in the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix, where again the top two qualify, he also placed 3rd. Third, qualifying by rating list where he was 5th, when 4th was sufficient to qualify. Finally, these results qualified him for the wildcard pick, which was instead given to Kirill Alekseenko (39th in the world). MVL holds a significant fan base largely due to his exceptional blitz chess skills, where he is currently ranked #1 from June 2019.

OpponentWinsLossesDraws
Carlsen2818
Caruana4621
Liren4210
Grischuk1214
Nepomniachtchi517
Giri3323
Hao102
Alekseenko100

Total vs Candidates:                 +19 -14        =79

MVL seems to hold consistent results against all of the other candidates.

#6 Anish Giri

Image result for anish giri

Anish Giri, rated 2763 Elo, qualified through having the highest average rating (of those not yet qualified) over a 12 month period. This will be Giri’s second Candidates tournament, the first being in 2016 where he notoriously had draws in all 14 of his games. The solidity of Giri’s playing style, resulting in a lot of draws, has led many people to criticize his chances in this tournament unless he is willing to switch it up and play for a win. However, Giri was as high as #3 in the world in 2016 almost crossing the 2800 mark at 2798 Elo, and from the beginning of 2019 Giri was #4 in the world, so he is certainly a serious contender.

OpponentWinsLossesDraws
Carlsen1420
Caruana2325
Liren2220
Grischuk2111
Nepomniachtchi322
Vachier-Lagrave3323
Hao133
Alekseenko100

Total vs Candidates:                +14 -14          =74

It is clear that Giri can hold his own against all competitors in this tournament, however, the question is whether he will be able to achieve the decisive results required to prevail. Giri has suggested in interviews that the Candidates tournament has been his focus for a long period now and that he has been keeping his A-game hidden in preparation for this. 

#7 Wang Hao

Image result for wang hao chess

Wang Hao, FIDE 2758 Elo, is playing in his first Candidates tournament. Hao qualified as the winner of the 2019 FIDE Grand Swiss in which Carlsen, Caruana, Grischuk and many other strong players were also competing. Hao also recently came equal 1st at Gibraltar, tied with fellow candidate Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

OpponentWinsLossesDraws
Carlsen232
Caruana504
Liren267
Grischuk215
Nepomniachtchi112
Vachier-Lagrave012
Giri313
Alekseenko000

Total vs Candidates                 +13 -10        =23

Despite being the second-lowest seed, Hao boasts a phenomenal +5 -0 =4 record against the highest-seeded Candidates player, Caruana, and holds one of the few winning records against Giri. The only blemish on Hao’s record is against fellow Chinese player Liren, whom Hao has the most experience against.

#8 Kirill Alekseenko

Image result for Kirill Alekseenko chess

Kirill Alekseenko, FIDE 2704 Elo, is playing his first Candidates tournament and was eligible to be selected as the wildcard due to placing 3rd in the FIDE Grand Swiss. Despite only being 39th in the world, Alekseenko outplaced Carlsen, Aronian, Grischuk and many others in the Grand Swiss, and holds a recent win over World Championship runner-up Sergey Karjakin. Although it seems unlikely that Alekseenko will win the tournament, it is likely he may produce a number of upsets.

OpponentWinsLossesDraws
Carlsen001
Caruana000
Liren022
Grischuk011
Nepomniachtchi000
Vachier-Lagrave010
Giri010
Wang000

Total vs Candidates                  + 0 – 3      =3

With his recent success at the Grand Swiss, and an aggressive playing style, it is clear that Alekseenko could produce some of the most shocking moments of the tournament

Who do you think will win?

What upsets will occur?

Who is your favorite player?

Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

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