Cracking the Candidate Code (2)

by ChessBase
6/20/2022 – In the June issue of the venerable British Chess Magazine, Macedonian GM Aleksandar Colovic takes a deeper look at the strengths and weaknesses of the eight players fighting for a chance to be the next world champion. In agreement with BCM, ChessBase will publish BCM’s evaluation of the chances of the individual players. Today we are publishing a part of the evaluation that takes a deeper look at the chances of two players: Fabiano Caruana and Alireza Firouzja. While Caruana (29) is a perennial favourite when it comes to the Candidates ever since 2016, the whole world will probably have their eyes set on Alireza Firouzja, who will turn 19 at the start of the event.

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The perennial favourite

Fabiano Caruana (29) is a perennial favourite when it comes to the Candidates. He is a regular since the 2016 event, when he lost the final-round game to Karjakin that decided the winner. Caruana won convincingly in 2018 but didn’t show his best in Yekaterinburg; yet even there he fought for first and eventually finished in a shared third place.

There is one event that seriously affected Caruana since the end of the last Candidates. He parted ways with his long-time second GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov and, connected or not, his results started to become more uneven.

As everybody, during the pandemic Caruana put emphasis on faster time controls and raised his level significantly, but in classical chess he didn’t have the same aura of solidity. For example, immediately after Yekaterinburg 2021 he finished on a minus score at the Superbet Classic and was then eliminated in the third round of the World Cup. Then he managed to tie for first in the US Championship, but his result cost him 10 rating points. His saving grace was the qualification from the Grand Swiss, where he shared second place.

This year he again started badly: only 50% in Tata Steel and a new loss of 11 rating points. These losses saw him drop out of the top three that he was so used to occupying. His fine win at the American Cup in April was immediately followed by a 50% result at the Superbet Classic in May.

This instability doesn’t bode well for the American, but he is too experienced and knows what’s needed to win a Candidates.

In the last events Caruana experimented a lot in the openings, thus successfully hiding his preparation (a 1.e4 e5 player with Black, he even ventured the Sveshnikov!). If he manages to find an appropriate substitute for Kasimdzhanov and comes to Madrid in good form, Caruana can become the second player in history after Smyslov (who won back-to-back in 1953 in Zurich and 1956 in Amsterdam) to win two Candidate Tournaments.

All eyes on Firouzja

Probably the whole world will have their eyes set on Alireza Firouzja. He will turn 19 at the start of the Candidates and will thus become only the third teenager to play a Candidates Tournament, after Spassky in Amsterdam in 1956 (also 19 at the time) and Fischer in Yugoslavia in 1959 at the age of 16.

Firouzja qualified by winning the Grand Swiss in convincing style. He ended 2021 furiously with an incredible eight out of nine and a tournament performance TPR of 3015 on the first board for France at the European Team Championship. These events propelled him to a rating of 2804, a world number two and making him the youngest player in history to pass 2800.

After these events the record-breaking prodigy took a prolonged break from classical chess of more than five months. His return wasn’t up to his latest standards. At the Superbet Classic he ended on a minus score, losing 11 rating points and conceding the second spot in the world to Ding Liren.

In those five months he must have prepared extensively for the upcoming Candidates. It is also very likely that he was helped by GM Ivan Cheparinov, the main generator of opening ideas for the former World Champion Veselin Topalov. Cheparinov and Firouzja were photographed together in Romania during the Superbet Classic, so their cooperation is confirmed. With this in mind, we should expect opening bombs from the Iranian-born man in Madrid.

I find it difficult to evaluate Firouzja’s chances. Purely chess-wise, he can beat anybody. However, there have been too many episodes in the past when the young player’s nerves failed him. As a reminder, here’s the most shocking one. [You can click on moves in the following notation to get a replay board. Click on the fan icon for analysis assistance of a chess engine].

 

The only way to have a realistic chance of winning in Madrid is for Firouzja to have overcome these moments of complete breakdown. The Candidates is a high-intensity event that lasts for three weeks and the tension will rise with every single day. An ability to consistently withstand the tension and the pressure and to perform at the highest level under those circumstances is an absolute requirement for a Challenger. For me, the question is whether Firouzja will mature and obtain the inner force of character, or will he become the next Vasyl Ivanchuk. At 19, I still think it is too early to expect him to win.


The above series appears in the June 2022 issue of The British Chess Magazine, the world's oldest chess publication. It is reproduced with kind permission.

BCM covers the international and British chess scene. In a blend of current event coverage and thought-provoking analysis of the chess world’s most topical issues, BCM gives readers what they need to understand and enjoy the Royal Game and its wider context in society. BCM’s interviews with top players and key chess world influencers and participants (actors, businessmen, artists, politicians, top chess world administrators), detailed games analysis and historical articles provide in-depth coverage of chess events and wider chess themes.

Published monthly, each issue of The British Chess Magazine contains 64 pages packed with exclusive articles and annotations. You can buy a subscription (£55 per year, £4.58 per issue) or download a sample copy free.

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