Predictions: Who will win the Candidates?

by Johannes Fischer
3/23/2020 – "It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future." This well-known witticism has been ascribed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Yogi Berra, and others, and applies, of course, also to the Candidates. However, after five of 14 rounds it is tempting to take stock and to look at the past to predict the future. | Photo: Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Taking stock

Before the start of the tournament, Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren, the world number two and number three, were considered the two biggest favourites to win the tournament. However, with his two surprising losses at the start of the tournament Ding quickly relinquished his role as favourite. But in round three he made a small comeback by beating Caruana in  a difficult game and now can still hope for a big comeback although after five rounds he is one and a half points behind the current tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Ding Liren | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Standings after Round 5

 

With a draw against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and a win against Kirill Alekseenko Caruana had a much better start and if his bold play against Ding in round three had paid off he would have been clear favourite to win the tournament. At the moment, however, he is at 50 percent with 2½ out of 5 and can be happy that he did not lose to Giri in round 5.

But if you take a look at the four previous candidate tournaments with eight players and 14 rounds you might be tempted to bet a lot of money that Nepomniachtchi will be Carlsen's next challenger. After all, as "Megalovic" pointed out on Twitter, all four tournament winners of the previous candidate tournaments started with 3½ out of 5.

But before giving your money to an online-bookie you should keep in mind that none of the four previous winners of the Candidates won at the first attempt. Okay, in 2013 Carlsen won the first Candidates Tournament he ever played but six years before, in 2007, Carlsen had gained valuable experience in the Candidate Matches.

And if it is indeed true that you need at least two attempts to win the Candidates, Nepomniachtchi, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Kirill Alekseenko and Wang Hao would statistically no longer have chances to challenge Carlsen this year, and the Candidates 2020 would whittle down to a race between Anish Giri, Alexander Grischuk and Fabiano Caruana.

If Caruana wins in Yekaterinburg he would be the second player in the history of chess to win two Candidates Tournaments in a row — a feat only Vasily Smyslov has achieved by winning in Zürich 1953 and in Amsterdam 1956. But here Yogi Berra cautions again: "Congratulations. I knew the record would stand until it was broken." In other words: Everything is still possible at the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg.

It is also uncertain whether the tournament will come to a regular end or whether it will fall victim to the coronavirus after all. Another open question is what the players will do after the tournament is over and how (and if) they can return home.

Caruana found it difficult to make predictions here:

"I'm not sure if I've anywhere to return to after this tournament as I may be stranded somewhere, and I'm not exactly sure where! The US state has sort of said that American citizens wouldn't be able to come back if they do not come back right now."

Giri claimed to be more optimistic:

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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".