The road to the Candidates 2018

by Macauley Peterson
9/13/2017 – Checking in on World Championship candidates qualification, the twists and turns that have already occurred and are still to come as the drama mounts and the pool of players shrinks. For many potential candidates the World Cup is the only possible route to qualification, but some have multiple paths to follow. Will Mamedyarov and Caruana stay on track despite being eliminated from the World Cup? Who else can join Sergey Karjakin to attempt to overthrow Magnus Carlsen next year? | Player drawings: WorldChess.com/ratings

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FIDE Candidates to be held in Berlin

On Monday, World Chess, the organiser of the World Championship cycle and the commercial partner of FIDE, announced the dates and host city for the 2018 Candidates Tournament: Berlin, March 10-28. It will be an eight-player double round-robin (14 games), with the winner moving on to contest the World Championship in a match against Magnus Carlsen, the following November.

According to the World Chess press release, the tournament will take place in "Central Berlin" — although the venue is not mentioned — and represents a first for chess in the city. Previously the 2015 World Blitz and Rapid Championship was held at "BOLLE Meierei", a former dairy company in the Moabit neighborhood, but never a Candidates Tournament.

“[Chess] is immensely popular in this country, and we are very pleased to hold the tournament in Berlin and offer German fans a chance to witness this tournament live for the first time! We are also developing custom commentary and experiences in German for [the] local audience,” says Ilya Merenzon, CEO of World Chess.

Who's in, who's likely, and who'll be missing out?

Of the eight participants, only one is known: Sergey Karjakin of Russia, who was knocked out of the World Cup, but still automatically qualifies for the Candidates as the most recent World Championship challenger.

Karjakin

Karjakin's spot in the 2018 Candidates was earned in the March 2016 edition of the same

Each passing day brings us closer to knowing the identities of the remaining seven. Karjakin will be joined by the following (in order of when we'll know them):

  • The winner and runner-up of the ongoing World Cup in Tbilisi
  • The top two finishers in the World Chess Grand Prix Series
  • The two players with the highest averge 2017 ratings
  • A wild card choice

Sounds simple enough, right?

But — and this is key — the list above is also the order of priority for qualification, in case someone qualifies via multiple criteria. So, for example, if Wesley So were to have the highest average rating, after reaching the finals of the World Cup, then he would get in through the latter, and a rating spot would go to the next highest.

Let's break down the current status of possible candidates:

1. World Cup

As of now (and we'll keep this list updated over the coming weeks) the following grandmasters remain:
(Note: Consecutive names are paired with each other.)

  • Bu Xiangzhi
  • Peter Svidler
  • Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
  • Alexander Grischuk
  • Vassily Ivanchuk
  • Anish Giri
  • Levon Aronian
  • Daniil Dubov
  • Wesley So
  • Baadur Jobava
  • Vladimir Fedoseev
  • Maxim Rodshtein
  • Evgeniy Najer
  • Richárd Rapport
  • Wang Hao
  • Ding Liren

​2. Grand Prix

The Grand Prix is a series of four tournaments, of which three have already been played. Twenty-four players are in the series, with each player participating in three of the four.

Of the top five scorers, two — Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Grischuk — have already played in the first three events. But the rest have still one tournament remaining (November 16–27, in Palma, on the Spanish island of Majorca), and could theoretically overtake the leaders.

Players leading Grand Prix

Mamedyarov, Grischuk, Radjabov, and Ding have good chances | Source: worldchess.com

Here are the current standings:

Points are scored based on the place a player finishes in each tournament, with the top five places awarding points as follows:

Place Grand Prix Points
1st 170
2nd 140
3rd 110
4th 90
5th 80

Therefore, Radjabov must finish in clear 3rd place or better to surpass Grischuk. Ding more or less must do the same, but since points are split, and he trails Radjabov by a point, it's a little complicated. For instance, if these two finish tied for 3rd-4th, they each earn 100 points. Radjabov would win the series outright, but Ding would tie for second with Mamedyarov at 340, and so the second qualification spot would be decided by tiebreak criteria. The first two tiebreaks are:

  • Number of actual game result points scored in the three tournaments entered
  • Number of games played with black

Mamedyarov has scored 16 game points, and Ding currently stands at 11, so he would need to score 5 or more in Palma. But if Ding scores 5 and ties, he wins on number of games with black, since Mamedyarov has played just twelve black games, while Ding already has played nine (so he will reach thirteen in Palma for sure). However this all may be moot: judging from the results of the first three tournaments, it's likely that Ding would need to score 5½, to accumulate enough Grand Prix points.

Vachier-Lagrave's task is tougher still; he needs either clear 2nd, or a tie for 1st (preferrably with no more than two others!) to wrack up enough Grand Prix points to ensure qualification.

Vachier-Lagrave

Vachier-Lagrave during his third round tiebreak | Photo: Anastasia Karlovich, tbilisi2017.fide.com

Hikaru Nakamura has virtually no chance. Aside from almost certainly needing to score clear 1st in Palma, he would also have to rely on Radjabov, Ding, and Vachier-Lagrave all finishing poorly, and, he would absolutely need Grischuk to win the World Cup (and thereby vacate his top spot in the Grand Prix). That's a bit ironic considering that there's no love lost between these two.

[Update, September 14: Grischuk was eliminated in the fourth round tiebreak, therefore Nakamura's only chance is a Wild Card spot.]

Even if Grischuk is knocked out, he would still have a good chance to remain in second place in the Grand Prix, although if any of his pursuers passes him, then he's out. It's fairly likely we'll see Mamedyarov in the Candidates.

3. Rating

According to the regulations:

For the purpose of deciding the 2 rated player qualifiers, the average from the following twelve FIDE rating lists will be used: the sum of all 12 monthly lists starting from 1st January 2017 to 1st December 2017 divided by 12.

Only two of Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, and Vladimir Kramnik are likely to qualify on rating, but the race is extremely close, with only a single point separating their average ratings as of today. Martin Bennedik is tracking this day-by-day:

SoWith So still playing in Tbilisi, anything can happen. Caruana and Kramnik are both expected to play in next month's Isle of Man open tournament, which will affect their November and December numbers. Of course both players will now be rooting for So to win the World Cup, as they would then be assured a rating qualification spot.

There is a very slim chance for Vachier-Lagrave (in fourth place) to make it by rating, but now that Caruana and Kramnik have been eliminated, he would have to go on a massive winning streak for the rest of the year.

It's worth pointing out that the World Cup has in fact seen a huge rating transfer away from the elite players (see 2700chess.com). Of the top 20, only Svidler's rating has gone up. Everybody else has watched his rating leak away including Caruana (-5.2), Kramnik (-9.2), and Vachier-Lagrave (-7.8, but still playing).

4. Wild card

This remains a mystery. The idea of a wild card (or "organiser nominee") was once a kind of incentive for interested sponsors (public or private) to be involved in the Candidates funding. But now it seems to be up to the discretion of Agon / World Chess, and whether the announcement of Berlin has any impact on the pool of choices is unclear.

What is certain is that the potential wild card pick must hit a rating of at least 2725 on any 2017 FIDE list to be eligible. That reduces the pool to around 33 or so players (the year's not over yet), including all other possible candidates above.

Status quo

Like the Grand Prix series, the Candidates will be sponsored by EG Capital Advisors, an international asset management company, as "Official Partner"; Kaspersky Lab as World Chess and FIDE "Official Cybersecurity Partner"; S.T. Dupont as "Official Writing Instrument"; and Isklar as "Official Water".

World Chess logoThe Agon press release notes, the Candidates Tournament "will be broadcasted [sic] exclusively on worldchess.com and on media partners’ sites", implying that their efforts to discourage websites from independently relaying the moves of the live games will continue. The legal theory underlying the exclusivity claim for displaying live moves has been rejected four times in court proceedings in Moscow and New York.

One interesting new development is that the prize of €420,000, will be suplemented by 10% of the pay-per-view revenues from the event, with digital subscriptions expected to go on sale as early as October 4th.

Pay-per-view tickets will include, according to the press release, "German and English commentary, advanced analytics, behind-the-scenes footage, options to choose camera angles, and more, costing $15 altogether."

So, keep an eye on the official website for details in early October. The organization is not known for sticking to pre-announced dates — for instance, on June 7th, it was announced that the host city for the World Championship match itself would be revealed "in June of 2017". Nearly three months later, it remains unknown.

Part of the East Side Gallery, the longest preserved stretch of the Berlin wall | Photo: Max Avdeev / World Chess

Full Candidates Tournament schedule

March 9 Friday – Opening Ceremony
March 10 Saturday – Round 1
March 11 Sunday – Round 2
March 12 Monday – Round 3
March 13 Tuesday – Rest Day
March 14 Wednesday – Round 4
March 15 Thursday – Round 5
March 16 Friday – Round 6
March 17 Saturday – Rest Day
March 18 Sunday – Round 7

March 19 Monday – Round 8
March 20 Tuesday – Round 9
March 21 Wednesday – Rest Day
March 22 Thursday – Round 10
March 23 Friday – Round 11
March 24 Saturday – Round 12
March 25 Sunday – Rest Day
March 26 Monday – Round 13
March 27 Tuesday – Round 14/Closing Ceremony
March 28 Wednesday – Tie Breaks/Closing Ceremony

Update — September 21:

Karjakin, Aronian, Ding are in and the road just got a bit clearer:

Road to Candidates

Vachier-Lagrave and Radjabov have chances in the Grand Prix, Kramnik, Caruana and So fight for two rating spots | Graphic: Macauley Peterson; Player drawings: WorldChess.com/ratings

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Macauley is Editor in Chief of ChessBase News in Hamburg, Germany, and producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast. He was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.