The World Cup, then and now

by Macauley Peterson
9/7/2017 – What happens if Carlsen reaches the final? What are the consequences for the players in the Grand Prix, or potential rating qualifiers? A brief history of the World Cup, what's at stake, and what to watch for. We break it down.

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What's this World Cup all about?

When the FIDE published the list of participants for the World Cup last month, there was a notable surprise: Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion himself would play. It's well known that Carlsen is a supporter of the knockout format, going so far as to suggest that it would be a preferable (or at least "more equitable") system for deciding the World Championship.

Of course the World Cup was used by FIDE as the World Championship before: from 1999 to 2004. Since then it has been part of the World Championship cycle at the qualification stage, often with the top finishers moving on to a Candidates Tournament. That is the case this year — two players will qualify — but the presence of both Carlsen (who won't play in the Candidates) and Karjakin (who's already qualified as the most recent Challenger) created a wrinkle in the qualification scenarios, which we'll sort out below. But first...

A little history

The knockout format has often been the object of criticism, stemming from the fact that the resulting "champion" (generally termed — derisively — "FIDE World Champion") was never the strongest player in the world by rating:

  • Alexander Khalifman was #44 in the world in Las Vegas, 1999
  • Viswanathan Anand was #2 in the world in Tehran, 2000 (and the top seed)
  • Ruslan Ponomariov was #7 in Moscow, 2001
  • Rustam Kasimdzhanov was #54 during Tripoli, 2004

In 1997, the KO format was introduced at the tournament in Groningen which served as a Candidates tournament of sorts. Anand fought through the KO matches to reach a final match with Anatoly Karpov who was (controversially) seeded there directly. The twenty-eight year old Anand lost the match 5-3.

KhalifmanLas Vegas 1999 was the first year the KO was used entirely as a "World Championship". Khalifman (pictured at left via beat Vladimir Akopian in the final match.

After 2004 — the last time the FIDE title was officially at stake — the same format has been called the World Cup and used as a qualifier to some other part of the World Championship cycle.

In September/October 2005, the FIDE World Championship was decided by an eight player double round-robin tournament, won by Veselin Topalov — then third in the world rankings — in San Luis, Argentina. Just two months later in December 2005, the World Cup was held in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. The top ten finishers there qualified for the 2007 Candidates Tournament — in order: Levon Aronian, Ruslan Ponomariov, Etienne Bacrot, Alexander Grischuk, Evgeny Bareev, Boris Gelfand, Sergey Rublevsky, Mikhail Gurevich, Gata Kamsky and a not-quite-fifteen-year-old Carlsen (in 10th place).

The 2006 World Championship match between Topalov and Vladimir Kramnik in Elista, finally unified the title. But Topalov's loss meant he was was out of the 2007 cycle, even through three other players (Anand, Svidler and Morozevich) from San Luis tournament qualified. They joined Kramnik, and the top four from the Candidates (the trio of Aronian, Grischuk and Gelfand above, plus Peter Leko) to the 2007 World Championship tournament in Mexico City.


Anand in a laurel wreath, Mexico City, 2007 | Photo: Frederic Friedel

Anand won, and won again the following year in Bonn in a match with Kramnik. Topalov meanwhile, as a sort of compensation for having no chance in 2007, was seeded into a "challengers match" in 2009. His opponent, was the winner of the 2007 World Cup: Gata Kamsky.

Fun fact for a pub quiz: En route to the World Cup title, Kamsky had to beat Carlsen — who was already a top-20 player rated over 2700 — in the semi-finals.

Gata Kamsky

Topalov beat Kamsky in Sofia, in February, 2009, but then lost the 2010 World Championship match to Anand.

Kamsky was close, but missed holding the trophy over his shoulder. In retrospect, this looks likely to be the closest he will get to an undisputed title shot.
| Photo: Macauley Peterson

Still with me? Good.

By this point, FIDE had firmly returned to the old competition format with the World Champion playing match against a single challenger.

The next World Cup was in 2009, also in Khanty-Mansiysk. But here only the winner (Gelfand) moved on to the next Candidates tournament, which was ultimately postponed until in May, 2011, in Kazan, Russia. Gelfand also won that Candidates and went on to play Anand for the title in 2012.

The 2011 World Cup took place once again in Khanty-Mansiysk, but this time in the late summer, and three players qualified to the 2013 Candidates tournament in London: Svidler, Grischuk, and Vassily Ivanchuk. The latter had to play a third place match with Ponomariov to earn his spot in London.

Of course, Magnus Carlsen won in London and proceeded to defeat Anand in Chennai to become the 16th undisputed World Champion.

Ilyumzhinov and Carlsen, 2013

Prize giving with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms J Jayalalitha, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Anastasia Karlovich (

But 2013 also witnessed another World Cup, at this point firmly entrentched as a biennial event. In Tromsø, Norway, it would be the two finalists who qualified for the 2014 Candidates Tournament, and they were Kramnik and Dmitry Andreikin. This year also established the principle of the Chess Olympiad host Federation also organizing the World Cup in the year prior to the Olympiad (usually in the same city).

Fun fact: Kramnik would have qualified for the Candidates by rating that year, so the fact that he won the World Cup (which took precedence) opened up a rating spot for Sergey Karjakin's first trip to the Candidates, where he finished in second place.

World Cup 2013 webcast

Andreikin agrees to a draw in Game 4 thereby resigning the match | Source: World Cup 2013 webcast

The next World Cup, 2015 in Baku, saw the dramatic final between Svidler and Karjakin, with all ten games decisive. In an intense five-minute blitz finale, Svidler blundered a whole rook, forcing immediate resignation.

This illustrates both the pro et contra of the KO system. For chess fans, most watching online, the format is exciting, because there are always surprises. That includes many grandmasters:

For the players, it can be torturous. As Svidler himself said after this match:

"It was just a little bit of a circus in the Roman sense of the word. Lions either won or lost. It’s up to the public to decide whether lions won or lost."

Others were not so charitable:

For Vishy Anand, it's a bit of both:

Everyone loves an underdog, and on a good day — sometimes you need two or three — the little guy can toss a favourite right out of the tournament. And that has often happened.

The World Cup today

As in 2013 and 2015, both finalists from the ongoing tournament in Tbilisi will qualify for the 2018 Candidates Tournament (dates and location as yet unknown).

But there's one caveat: The World Champion cannot participate in the Candidates Tournament — not that he would have any reason to since he's automatically in the World Championship match to defend his title.

There was some uncertainty on this point in the lead up to the World Cup, but on behalf of FIDE, George Mastrokoukos, serving as a consultant on the World Championship cycle clarified with ChessBase via email that, "the Candidates regulations specifically note that the event is only to determine the challenger for the World match." Therefore Carlsen may not play. Mastrokoukos also laid this out during the players technical meeting on the eve of the first round:

George Mastrokoukos speaking at the echnical meeting on September 2nd

So for Carlsen, it's just a new challenge, and an effort to win a tournament with nearly all the best players in the world; of the top-20, only Topalov is missing.

Fun fact: Since Topalov also skipped the Grand Prix series, he has no chance to play in the 2018 Candidates Tournament, barring an unlikely organizer nominee spot.

What happens if Carlsen reaches the final?

If Carlsen wins his next four matches, potentially requiring him to beat two top-ten players in the process, there would need to be a third place match to determine the second qualifier for the Candidates. This is not unprecedented; recall the same thing in 2011, when Ivanchuk qualified.

The same would have been true if Karjakin reached the final, since he is already in the Candidates by virtue of losing the 2016 World Championship in New York. Note that he and Magnus could never have played against each other in a final since they are in the same part of the draw. But if they had played in the semi-finals, then no further third place match would have been required, since the two Candidates qualifiers would simply be the other two semi-finalists. But now that's all moot after Karjakin's elimination in the second round against Daniil Dubov.

Nakamura, Radjabov and Karjakin

Nakamura and Radjabov take an interest in Karjakin's game | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Consequences for the Grand Prix

The two World Cup qualification spots take precedence over the Grand Prix, but all of the players in the Grand Prix (with the exception of Dmitry Jakovenko) are also playing in the World Cup.

So, for instance, if the two current GP leaders — Alexander Grischuk and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov — meet in the Final (which is possible), then the chances of qualification for other high scoring Grand Prix players, such as Teymour Radjabov, Ding Liren, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, dramatically increases.

Mamedyarov and Grischuk

Their success or failure impacts other potential candidates | Photos:

Even Hikaru Nakamura, Anish Giri and Peter Svidler could theoretically add enough points at the final Grand Prix tournament in Palma de Mallorca to qualify in this scenario. If any of them is eliminated, they will be rooting for a "Sascha vs. Shak" Final.

Rating qualification

There are a few other interesting consequences of the Candidates qualification regulations. The top two players with the highest average rating in 2017 qualify, but only if they participate in either the World Cup or the Grand Prix (or both). This is one reason why you see Vladimir Kramnik in the field in Tbilisi. Of course he can reach the Final and qualify, but even just by playing he has a strong chance at one of the two rating spots. He's neck-and-neck with Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana in terms of average rating over the 2017 calendar year:

Martin Bennedik is tracking the race closely. For all three players, a strong performance in the World Cup is critical, if not to reach the Final, than simply for the rating points. Caruana and So could meet in the semis, with the Candidates hanging in the balance.

If So, Caruana, Kramnik or Vachier-Lagrave are eliminated, they would logically root for one of their high-rated rivals to reach the final, thereby freeing up an additional rating spot. For instance, a Kramnik vs. Caruana or Kramnik vs. So final, would be excellent news for Vachier-Lagrave.

Correction September 8: The initial version of this story said that the top three players in the 2005 World Cup qualified to the 2007 Candidates. In fact it was ten players. The three mentioned (Aronian, Grischuk and Gelfand) ultimately also qualified to the 2007 World Championship tournament.


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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