Speelman on the Candidates: Fog of War

3/26/2016 – In horror films the fog never lifts until the very end. Despite twelve ferocious rounds of chess, fog still lies heavy on the Candidates tournament, but there is some indication of what we'll see when it clears. Despite some vile blunders and dreadful tension it's less a case of pure horror, and more a case of whodunnit - or rather who will do it.

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All photos by Amruta Mokal

One rest day and three rounds ago - an eternity given the drama in-between - I suggested that if Sergey Karjakin wobbled then it would be the winner of Caruana vs Anand, if there were one, who would be favourite.

That winner was Caruana, who not only supplanted Anand in the lead with Karjakin, but also gained a tiebreak advantage over Anand. When Anand defeated Karjakin in the next round he gave Caruana a chance to pull clear, but Caruana wobbled both in what at one moment was a winning position against Veselin Topalov; and then as white against Aronian.

Caruana with his second Rustam Kazimdhanov

Karjakin's defeat as black against Anand must have been very painful, but it was also potential pain that he must have foreseen at the back of his mind from the moment he took the lead in round four by beating Anand for the first time in his life. Karjakin roared back into action by beating Veselin Topalov on Friday, and when Anand stumbled badly against Hikaru Nakamura, Karjakin regained his position as joint leader and is very possibly the favourite, whatever the statisticians may say. This is because he has the crucial advantage that if he ends up equal with Caruana after drawing their last round game then he will win since they will be equal head to head but Caruana having won fewer games (and so also lost fewer) will lose out.

With such a prize at stake, and it being so close, almost anything could happen and normal expectations may well not really apply, but what I can do is to rehearse the standings and the pairings in the last two rounds:

Karjakin and Caruana resume battle on Sunday with 7.0/12, ahead of Anand's 6.5/12. Svidler, Aronian and Anish Giri have 6.0; Nakamura 5.5 and Topalov 4.0. The last two rounds are

Round 13

Caruana vs Svidler

Aronian vs Karjakin

Topalov vs Nakamura

Anand vs Giri

Round 14

Svidler vs Anand

Giri vs Topalov

Nakamura vs Aronian

Karjakin vs Caruana (!)

The rest day on Saturday is really important because it gives the players the chance to regain some measure of equilibrium before the final shoot out. This applies especially to Caruana and Anand after Caruana wobbled in both rounds 11 and 12 and Anand had a bad reversal in round 12.

I guess under normal conditions Caruana would have a higher expected score as white against Svidler than Karjakin as black against Aronian, but the most likely result is presumably two draws. Then Caruana would have to beat Karjakin as Black in the final round which would be a pretty big ask. That said, having to draw as White isn't always easy, with the last round game Mikhail Gurevich vs Nigel Short at the Manila Interzonal in 1990 being a shining example.

Anish Giri has been the image of consistency: 12 draws in 12 games

In fact, it's mathematically possible for any of the three on 6.0/12 to make it with the "right" results even if pretty unlikely (if FC 0-1 PS, LA 1-0 SK and VA doesn't beat AG there could be a five way tie for first before the last round and a sole winner would then be first). However, Anand is of course not to be discounted if he can break Giri's run of draws by beating him or if the two leaders imploded before their final round meeting.

Just as I was completing this, the initial statistical report came through from the simulation by James Jorasch and Chris Capobianco. To my surprise, it puts Caruana at 50% to win ahead of Karjakin 42 and Anand 4.5.

Still, that isn't really the point. Three men have to hold themselves together for three more days until the fog disperses. It's been a real pea-souper and increasingly hard for everyone to breathe.

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 the Observer (weekly) since 1993 and 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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Pakultog_1914 Pakultog_1914 3/27/2016 09:06
Reading all these comments/opinions just cemented my conviction that Bobby Fischer is the best chess player of all time, next would be Capablanca.
Hawkman Hawkman 3/27/2016 07:48
"Anand, in my opinion, is not as engine-stricken and he is arguably stronger than the rest in both middle and endgame knowledge and understanding."

Agreed. The players who played before 96 learned to think and decide the best move for themselves and this makes them less computer dependent in their thinking and gives them an advantage.
X iLeon aka DMG X iLeon aka DMG 3/27/2016 10:39
@Golden If there isn't anything of essence to say, then don't say anything!!! Duh...
Bob the builder Bob the builder 3/27/2016 06:20
It would be good to see his views on choice of opening or perhaps the level of risk the different players would be likely to take.

For example, for Anand

.. how does he best tackle Giri? Maybe another English and go for long slow game - that would be my pick.
.. if in contention in the last round, does Anand play the centre counter or dragon (as he uncorked against GK many years ago). If your PS do you give Vishy a chance and play something interesting or make it lifeless and look for VA to hang himself trying to complicate?
Nostalgiac1972 Nostalgiac1972 3/26/2016 06:42
This seems really ridiculous. These young engine-stricken lads are only good at memorizing opening lines generated by computers, in the hope that their opponents may fall prey to it. if it happens, that's it; if not, from the middle game on they begin to make mistakes until one realizes it and possibly takes advantage (if they could). Caruana, Giri, Karjakin and the like are so computer-assisted that they cannot even win it when they happen to arrive at winning positions time after time. their mid and endgame knowledge is not extensive.
Anand, in my opinion, is not as engine-stricken and he is arguably stronger than the rest in both middle and endgame knowledge and understanding. He seems to have become incredibly microscopic and Magnus-sensitive in his approach to WC. So even if Anand can't make it in this tournament I'm sure the others will stand absolutely no chance against.... the Norwegian beast.
handikap handikap 3/26/2016 05:03

"Otherwise, the Viking will tear Karjakin into pieces..." Same goes for Caruana too in my opinion.

Rational Rational 3/26/2016 04:30
To be honest I would like to read more first hand details from Speelman about what it's like to play in a candidates and be so close to getting a WC match.
How they prepare, try to stay calm etcetera.
He has been a candidate twice and written a best games book full of resourceful chess, but the article doesn't say much more than it's 2 rounds from the end and really close.
LemonAnOnion LemonAnOnion 3/26/2016 04:22
@Hawkman Yah I agree with you. I think he just has some inside connection in chessbase. None of his articles has any value really.
Bertman Bertman 3/26/2016 03:46
chessdrummer chessdrummer 3/26/2016 03:27
What does brevity have to do with anything? It is the idea that counts.
Golden3y3s Golden3y3s 3/26/2016 02:48
@Hawkman @X iLeon aka DMG - Perhaps there is only so much to say on the last rest day before the penultimate rounds. Sitting quite high on our cozy captain's chairs aren't we?
X iLeon aka DMG X iLeon aka DMG 3/26/2016 12:46
@Offramp - that was a very superficial comment and actually the logic doesn't hold any water! We may like Speelman as a chess character, but his commentaries here have been poor - no excuse for it! In fact, this last one adds nothing more that what _I_ have already covered in my mere reader comments. Some basic common sense that we all have - don't need a GM and an article to tell us that stuff! @Hawkman is spot on with his remark!
Offramp Offramp 3/26/2016 11:55
Jon writes for British newspapers and is used to being succinct. British papers rarely give much space to chess reports.
GrandGuignol44 GrandGuignol44 3/26/2016 10:02
Hope Caruana will emerge as the candidate so to have a fairly interesting WC match. Otherwise, the Viking will tear Karjakin into pieces....indeed, another Carlsen/Anand match would intoxicate the whole chess world, the latter having no chance whatsoever. Perseverare diabolicum, sorry for the trillion sub-continent eager fans
Hawkman Hawkman 3/26/2016 08:57
Has anyone else noticed how few words he writes? I hope he's not getting paid for this.