Throwback Thursday: Carlsen wins the Candidates

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/18/2021 – Now that FIDE has announced that the second half of the Candidates Tournament will be played in April, it’s a good time to remember how Magnus Carlsen qualified to play for the World Championship title for the first time, in 2013. The Norwegian was the favourite and started strong, but Vladimir Kramnik made an impressive comeback in the second half. The Russian, however, fell barely short at the very end, and Carlsen won the tournament on tiebreaks. | Photos: Ray Morris-Hill

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A double round robin

After many years of FIDE — under Presiden Kirsan Ilyumzhinov — promising but not finding a way to create a stable and fair World Championship cycle, a big step forward was given in 2013, when the Candidates Tournament was organized as an 8-player double round robin. Magnus Carlsen, who was already the highest-rated player in the world, had twice rejected to participate in Candidates matches previously, but now agreed to take part, arriving in London as the clear favourite.

The tournament took place in the Institution of Engineering and Technology in Savoy Place, a historic building in England’s capital, from March 15 to April 1. The main sponsor was the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), and the prize fund shared by the players totalled €510,000.

Levon Aronian, Vladimir Kramnik, Boris Gelfand

Levon Aronian, Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand in good spirits

FIDE Candidates 2013 chess

The playing hall

Carlsen and Aronian start strong

While a 22-year-old Carlsen was the favourite, there were doubts regarding his ability to show his best under such pressing circumstances. Moreover, pundits and fans had many reasons to consider Vladimir Kramnik and Levon Aronian completely capable of outperforming the young Norwegian due to their experience in similar competitions.

Carlsen and Aronian drew their first-round encounter, and both won two out of their next three games, becoming the early co-leaders. They continued to fight neck and neck until reaching halftime, with both getting one more win in round 6. The co-leaders had a 1½-points lead over Kramnik and Peter Svidler after round 7.

Standings after round 7

FIDE Candidates 2013 chess

Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian

Replay all six decisive games played by Carlsen and Aronian in the first half of the tournament with expert analysis.


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

Kramnik’s comeback

By then, the whole narrative of the event was focused on whether the young favourite would manage to outscore Aronian, who had broken the 2800-rating barrier back in 2010 and had been considered as a major contender to get the world title for many years. 

But the second half was all about Kramnik, who won 4 out of 5 games from rounds 8 to 12, only drawing Carlsen from the white side of a Catalan in that interim — in round 12, the Russian defeated Aronian by playing a Semi-Tarrasch Defence with the black pieces. In the meantime, the Armenian star had also lost his encounters against Boris Gelfand and Peter Svidler.

Going into the penultimate round, Kramnik was in fact the sole leader. But he was caught up by Carlsen, who beat Teimour Radjabov after the latter cracked under pressure in a minor-piece endgame.

The two top seeds reached the final round sharing the lead, with their closest pursuers unable to catch them. It was a two-horse race.

Standings after round 13

FIDE Candidates 2013 chess

Vladimir Kramnik

Vladimir Kramnik | Photo: Pascal Simon

Replay all decisive games played by Carlsen and Kramnik from rounds 8 to 13.


A dramatic final round

Some criticism to the regulations of the tournament was voiced once it was clear how the winner would be decided in case of a tie for first place. The first criterion, which has always been well-received by players and fans alike, was the head-to-head score among tied players. In this case, Carlsen and Kramnik had drawn both their games, so the second criterion would be decisive — the number of wins achieved by each player (or the number of losses, as critics of the system pointed out).

Carlsen had won one more game than Kramnik. The players were tied in points, but the Russian was undefeated with one round to go, while the Norwegian had lost against Vasyl Ivanchuk in round 12. Therefore, a tie would give Carlsen tournament victory; furthermore he had the white pieces in the last round (against Svidler) while Kramnik had black (against Ivanchuk).

The odds were in Carlsen’s favour, but the outcome would have more to do with how the players behaved in this unique, highly-tense situation, as Jeff Sonas explained:

So everything hinges upon the outcome of those two games. It is possible to simulate millions of possibilities, and to quote odds of each player winning the tournament. But these are not as trustworthy because the two games are not independent: obviously Carlsen and Kramnik will be paying close attention to each other’s games, and certainly adjusting their own plans accordingly.

Nerves were at breaking point, and both players ended up losing their games. Carlsen had gained the right to challenge Vishy Anand for the World Championship title.

Final standings

FIDE Candidates 2013 chess

Magnus Carlsen

Carlsen at the press conference, while Ivanchuk and Kramnik were still playing

Replay the two games that the co-leaders lost in the final round, analysed by grandmasters Mihail Marin and Daniel Gormally.



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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