Jon Speelman - Overview of Candidates so far

by ChessBase
3/15/2016 – A massive tournament like the Candidates is a tapestry with individual moves the threads that are woven together into games, rounds and eventually the complete picture. Early on, it's impossible to guess what form that finished article will take, but there are many indications of the form and state of mind of the players under a degree of tension they will have seldom experienced.

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I'm obviously in no way going to try to compete here with the splendid game by game accounts coming from Sagar Shah in Moscow. But I would like to highlight some critical moments, often quite small seeming things, which may indicate the players' level of confidence and of ambition.

We start with Viswanathan Anand.  When ChessBase published the fascinating analysis by James Jorasch and Chris Capobianco I, like many, was most struck by the low success rate - just 6.7% - accorded to Anand. The statistics generated by a million instances of a tournament certainly won't be inaccurate, but the initial assumptions are open to interpretation, and the events of the previous Candidates which Anand, supposedly coming into it in dire form, dominated: demonstrated that two years ago at the age of 45, he was more than capable of pulling out the stops.

Who cares about stats when your name is Anand?

His first round game against Levon Aronian in Khanty-Mansiysk 2014 was fearsomely smooth. This time against Veselin Topalov it was less so and of course Topalov missed a big chance for a near haymaker when he failed to play 20...Bxf2+.

Anand - Topalov

What would have happened had Topalov seen 20...Bxf2?

First round games can have a huge impact on a tournament the most obvious recent instance being Magnus Carlsen's loss on time against Topalov in the first round of Stavanger  2015 and the diametrically opposite trajectories the two players took thereafter. Admittedly, Carlsen also lost to Topalov in the first round of the Sinquefield Cup a couple of months later, but that was a normal game and he recovered while Topalov later sank.

The double miss of 20...Bxf2+ feels abnormal for two players of such class though both played reasonably thereafter and Anand was deadly after the time control. In a fourteen round tournament of unremitting tension it's important to use your energy wisely. Anand's second round game against Levon Aronian was an excellent example of this as he got a very decent position out of the opening and then tried neither  too much nor too little accepting that if Aronian played well it would end up about equal. His third round game against Fabiano Caruana was also well within limits with neither player going overboard.

In the pretournament statistical analysis, Caruana came out on top. This was hardly a surprise and he showed his mettle as early as the sixth move of his first round game against Nakamura.

Nakamura - Caruana

Position after 6. exd4

In positions like this 6...d5 might lead to slight suffering but should surely be perfectly defensible. I suppose it's possible that Caruana nevertheless really disliked it but if we put a positive spin on his choice of 6...Ne7 it was much braver and more challenging and although Nakamura later got an edge, Caruana defended himself pretty convincingly.

Nakamura: nerves betraying him?

Nakamura has been trying to persuade himself in public and I presume in private too that it's possible to treat the Candidates as a normal tournament. In round two against Karjakin, he certainly failed to do so. Recently Nakamura has started to move from the King's Indian to "proper" openings against 1.d4.  There is such heavy theory against  the KID that you can certainly see his point: scary though he is in these types of position the fear factor may not be enough against world class players. But he's still clearly not entirely comfortable in QID positions and the loss to Karjakin was pretty miserable. Nakamura never looked happy and convinced himself when he was worse but less so than he had been, that a combination worked that patently didn't.

Karjakin - Nakamura

Here Nakamura played 29...Nxg3??

Watching at home, I must admit  that I didn't instantly see that Qf2 and Rc7 wins, but I trust I would have done so in a game and Nakamura would surely only fail to do so one time in a hundred - hardly the hallmark of a normal tournament. He also got into trouble as White against Peter Svidler, who has shown excellent preparation: though he then dug in and managed to save himself in this nasty endgame.

Nakamura - Svidler

Nakamura showed great resilience defending this difficult position.
The problem being that he found himself in it at all.

Svidler came out last in the Jorasch-Capobianco analysis. This doesn't seem too unreasonable since against top guys he tends to operate on a fairly even keel so while there no reason at all that he should do badly, it's also perhaps unlikely that he'll do very well. A slight hint of a lack of ambition and conviction - or perhaps just realism - was evident in the second round game against Topalov where he chose to allow Topalov to bail out immediately with 23.a4 rather than 23.a3 which would surely also have led to a draw but was a little more combative.

Svidler - Topalov

After 22...a5

Svidler's very quick and assured opening play against Nakamura was most impressive even if he failed in the end to convert, but it could be argued that in order to be in contention he'll need to be converting advantages such as the rook endgame above.

Anish Giri came third in the pre-tournament simulation. He had that fantastic run last year when he didn't lose for some enormous number of (classical) games and is young, fit and extremely determined. The determination was in evidence in round one against Aronian when he was able to continue the fight to the bitter end, as well as the second round game against Caruana that was also a good fight with both players in pretty good form.

Anish Giri, one of the pre-tournament favorites

The round three game against Karjakin showed both acting decisively.

Giri - Karjakin

[Event "FIDE Candidates 2016"] [Site "Moscow RUS"] [Date "2016.03.13"] [Round "3"] [White "Giri, A."] [Black "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E15"] [WhiteElo "2793"] [BlackElo "2760"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2rqr1k1/3n1pp1/bppb1n2/p2p3p/N2P4/1P1NP1P1/PB3PBP/2RQR1K1 w - - 0 19"] [PlyCount "24"] [EventDate "2016.03.10"] 19. Bh3 Ng4 20. Nf4 g6 21. Bxg4 hxg4 22. Qxg4 Nf6 23. Qg5 Be7 24. Nxg6 fxg6 25. Qxg6+ Kh8 26. Nc5 bxc5 27. dxc5 Rf8 28. Qh6+ Kg8 29. Qg6+ Kh8 30. Qh6+ Kg8 1/2-1/2

Sagar Shah analysed this in detail yesterday but from my point of view the "truth " isn't as important as the players' ability under this still unusual degree of tension to access their normal playing strength and make sensible choices when faced with difficult decisions.

Karjakin's pawn sacrifice rather than trying to curl up into a ball showed confidence in his positional judgement, and 23...Be7, inviting almost commanding White to sacrifice, displayed further confidence in his calculations.

Giri obliged but then decided rather than trying 26.e4 (which gives more scope but should also lead to a draw) played 26.Nc5 which was aesthetically pleasing and forced Karjakin to find an only move 27...Rf8 but hardly a difficult defence. Online, I've seen some feeling that after sacrificing, Giri shouldn't then have forced a draw but I presume that his plan is to avoid defeat and win the odd game and he felt that "This is not the time, Anish" (with apologies to Pink Panther fans).

The only other player to consider is Aronian who began by defending himself staunchly against Giri:

Giri - Aronian

Aronian was in trouble in round one against Giri, but ultimately survived

You don't have to play 53...Rf4 here but you certainly want to and he showed good judgement - and nerves - to go into the pawn endgame and set up his fortress. Aronian next played Anand and kept his balance when things could possibly have gone wrong if he'd lost his orientation; and then picked off Topalov when he blundered.

So whose smiling picture will we see on the tapestry when the final threads are woven together in a fortnight's time? I'm afraid it's really too early for me to attempt a reveal yet but there are certainly some indications.

In London, in 2013, Carlsen and Kramnik made 8.5/14 (+3) while in Khanty-Mansiysk 2015 Anand was well clear also on 8.5. This doesn't at the moment look like a tournament which somebody is going to run away with so I imagine that either 8.5 or possibly 9 will win this time too. To get that sort of score the most likely plan is to play it fairly safe and pick the odd opponent off.

Of the top three, Anand looks in very decent shape but not at his absolute best, Aronian is moving through the gears and Karjakin has perhaps looked best of all with his calm ratcheting up of the tension against Nakamura which led to Nakamura's blunder and then the very decisive actions which led quickly to a draw against Giri.

The next two Caruana and Giri both look quite good and ready to pounce when the opportunity arises.

Svidler has shown some excellent opening preparation as Black (though the game as White against Topalov wasn't great) but (in terms of his beloved cricket) has failed to get to the pitch of the ball in the subsequent advantageous positions. Nakamura looks terribly nervous but could of course put a big run together if things click. And Topalov is in bad shape.

The picture should be much clearer by the next rest day.

About the author

Jon was born in 1956 and became a professional player in 1977 after graduating from Worcester College Oxford where he read mathematics. He became an IM in 1977 a GM in 1980 and was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980-2006.

Three times British Champion he played twice in the Candidates reaching the semi-final  (of what was then a knockout series of matches) in 1989 when he lost 4.5 - 3.5 to Jan Timman. He's twice been a second at the world championship for Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.

He's written for the Observer (weekly) since 1993 and for The Independent since 1998. With its closure (going online but without Jon on board) he's expanding online activity and is also now offering online tuition.

He likes puzzles especially (cryptic) crosswords and killer sudokus.

If you'd like to lambast Jon or otherwise he can be contacted via his email

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