Candidates: Opening moves

by Macauley Peterson
3/10/2018 – And so it begins. The eight candidates were presented on the ground floor of the Berlin "Kuehlhaus" last night to a crowd of assembled guests including the keynote speaker, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Highlights from the opening press conference and party, along with live games of round one starting at 15:00 CET (9:00 EST). | Photo and drawings by World Chess

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Round one

Round-up Show

The first round takes place on Saturday, March 10th, starting at 15:00 CET (9:00 AM EST). Players receive 100 minutes to play 40 moves, 50 minutes for the next 20 moves and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game, plus a 30-second bonus starting from the first move.

Live games


Industrial techno mood at the opening

At the opening press conference, World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon said that the eight players in this Candidates tournament "will definitely feel like rock stars". One of the reasons for holding the event here in the Kuehlhaus is to make chess visually appealing for journalists to film chess and present it in a new way.

And for a brief moment, as they were beckoned onstage at the opening ceremony/party later in the evening, they probably did. As the music swelled, a thick cloud of artificial smoke shot up all around with the lighting designed to fully conceal the players from view, until they were all assembled in a neat line. On cue, the lighting changed and they were the centre of attention in the multi-floor Berlin Kuehlhaus.

Player reveal

Players emerged from a thick cloud of fake smoke | Photo: Macauley Peterson

The venue is a gritty industrial space, with exposed brick and reinforced concrete beams, that is used as a "cool" exhibition space. The vibe was good, and although it was far from a capacity crowd, that meant that visitors didn't need to wait too long for a chess-themed cocktail on offer (choice of three).chess cocktails

At the outset, the most prominent guest, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, kicked off the proceedings, with remarks in Armenian, translated into English. He will make the ceremonial first move of today's round. Sargsyan noted that despite having a tiny population (Armenia as a whole has about half a million people fewer than the city of Berlin), Armenia is a "chess superpower".

He highlighted the positive effect of chess on children and touted the introduction of chess into the school curriculum, and particularly called out the benefit of instilling "respect for the opponent".


Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan quoted Lasker, "When you see a good move look for a better one" | Video frame: World Chess on Facebook

The centrepiece of the opening party was an ice sculpture containing two pieces of the Berlin Wall from the studio of Thierry Noir, the French artist who is said to be the first street artist to paint the Berlin Wall in 1984. He also gave brief remarks which concluded by urging the audience, "do not repeat the mistakes of your parents".

Thierry Noir

Theirry Noir, in front of his paintings on Berlin Wall fragments encased in a cubic meter of ice | Photo: Macauley Peterson

The MC of the night, clearly a "professional presenter" with little-to-no knowledge of the chess world, made the unfortunate faux pas of referring to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov as "Russian". He also pronounced "FIDE" alternatively rhyming with "hide" or as "feed", eliciting some chuckles.

Several players appeared at the venue with their seconds. Mamedyarov was accompanied by Russian GM Alexey Dreev, Karjakin's second Vladimir Potkin was there, as was Vlad Tkachiev, Grischuk's second, and Ding Liren had Wei Yi by his side throughout. Not present were Kramnik's second Anish Giri and Caruana's second Rustam Kasimdzhanov, although both are also here in Berlin.

Wesley So is currently without a second, having split with Vladimir Tukmakov several months ago, and was joined last night by his adoptive mother Lotis Key. Levon Aronian was with his wife Arianne Caoili and his father. He maintains a house in Berlin where his parents live about 30 minutes east of central Berlin, but stays in the official players' hotel, the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz, for the sake of convenience.

Opening press conference

The press conference and opening ceremony webcast are so-far available only on the World Chess Facebook page.

Kramnik called Germany "maybe my second home". After it was noted that there will be a Chess Boxing event in Berlin next weekend, he jokes that he should try his hand at the hybrid sport because he's one of the few heavyweights in the field and the Klitschko brothers — well-known Ukrainian boxers — are his friends.

In response to a journalist question, Kramnik lowered expectations for his own performance, suggesting that we're more likely to see "Kramnik the artist" than Kramnik the world championship challenger, although with the caveat these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. 

"The most important is to play well and then, 'risky' or "safe' — these are details," he said. He also suggested wryly that he might have gotten the wild card nomination due to his contribution to the opening theory of the Berlin Defence and therefore awareness of the city of Berlin.

Rebutting prognosticators who point to the Russian number one's difficulty with long events, Kramnik said intends to win games at the end of the tournament by getting his opponents tired. He said that "plus two or plus three" (two or three more wins than losses) should normally be enough to win, but on the other hand, he noted that making accurate predictions is difficult — in London 2013, after all even plus four wasn't enough for him.

Press conference

(L to R): PhosAgro CEO Andrey Guryev, Kramnik, Georgios Makropoulos, Ilya Merenzon, Ullrich Krause (president of the German Chess Federation) | Photo: Macauley Peterson

A question about AlphaZero, prompted Kramnik to say he would be the first one to sign a petition for chess players to give up the use of computers for opening preparation, but he compared the situation to nuclear disarmament. "I'm sure everybody would be happy about it but I'm afraid I will not be in the majority."

Speaking of "artificial intelligence", Merenzon said he would welcome somenone from Google to friend him on Facebook "immediately". "What we would like to do is to develop, lets say, an AI mechanism which teaches chess individually [on your smartphone]." He proposes that there should be a "virtual Vladimir" or "virtual Fischer" who can talk to you personally and teach you the game.

Once again citing the specious YouGov survey data from 2012, as a basis for setting expectations of viewership, Merenzon says the goal is to reach 20-30 million people who will follow the Candidates in Berlin regularly. He asserted that 10 million people followed "almost every game online" during the 2016 New York World Championship match.

Georgios Makropoulous suggested that there remains a chance of chess to be accepted into the Olympic games, an outcome which is generally regarded as unlikely.


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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