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On Chess: How the landscape changed, a look to the 2018 Candidates Tournament

Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi in the playoff round of the 2017 London Chess Classic
Lennart Ootes | Grand Chess Tour
Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi in the playoff round of the 2017 London Chess Classic

The last super tournament of 2017 ended with American grand master Fabiano Caruana edging out Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi in a tiebreak to claim victory at the London Chess Classic, ahead of World Champion Magnus Carlsen. This is a significant victory for Caruana, who struggled in tournaments at the beginning of the year.

Caruana’s main rivals who also eye the chess throne started the year in much better form. For example, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, known as “MVL,” won the Sharjah Grand Prix in Azerbaijan, and more notably his first place finish was ahead of the top three, Carlsen, Armenian Grandmaster Levon Aronian, and Caruana. Meanwhile, Aronian — who the BBC dubbed “the David Beckham of chess” — won almost everything: The Grenke Classic in Germany, Norway Chess and the World Cup. The long time world number two, Aronian, has had great opportunities to become the World Champion in past years, but he will get his best chance to date in March 2018 at the Candidates tournament.

The Candidates Tournament will be held in Berlin starting March 10, 2018. The best of eight players will be competing for first place, as the winner gets the right to challenge reigning World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, for the ultimate chess title.

The big favorites, Aronian and Caruana qualified for the Candidates; Aronian qualified by winning the World Cup, while Caruana qualified for the Candidates with high rankings on the FIDE rating list. Sadly though, everyone’s favorite, Frenchmen MVL, won’t make his appearance at the Candidates, because he lost a crucial match against Aronian in the World Cup. It was his last chance to qualify. Therefore, his only hope was to receive a wild card. Alas, the invitation was given to former World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik, who hopes to clash with Magnus Carlsen to become a World Champion for the fourth time. MVL will be a greatly missed at the tournament as he played wonderful chess throughout 2017.  

At the last tournament of the year, the London Chess Classic, however, some tendencies shifted. Aronian wasn’t as efficient as in the previous tournaments he played this year. On the other hand, the American Caruana showed steady improvement. He played, stellar chess in the London Chess Classic, and won a clutch rapid game against Ian Nepomniachtchi in an intense playoff match to claim the title. Caruana played aggressive chess, and he reaped the benefits for his efforts. He achieved a level of accuracy that could potentially be a big threat to Magnus Carlsen in the World Championships. Compared to Caruana, Aronian played with more inaccuracies than usual and that was one of the reasons he lost his last round game against Magnus Carlsen. MVL showed brilliant chess, but, as mentioned above, he is not going play in the Candidates Tournament in Berlin.

The landscape has changed since the beginning of 2017. The London Classic showed that an accurate player with an aggressive style can potentially challenge the reigning champion. Rounding out the eight player Candidates field will be Wesley So of the United States; Sergey Karjakin from Russia; Ding Liren from China;  Alexander Grischuk from Russia; and Shakhiyar Mamedyrov of Azerbaijan. The question is: Who will have the needed accuracy level to challenge Magnus Carlsen? We shall see!