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On Chess: The road to the Candidates Tournament

Fabiano Caruana (left) and Wesley So are the two Americans participating in the 2018 Candidates Tournament.
Lennart Ootes | Saint Louis Chess Club
Fabiano Caruana (left) and Wesley So are the two Americans participating in the 2018 Candidates Tournament.

The World Chess Championship dates back to 1886. In fact, St. Louis played host to a portion of the very first world championship, between Johannes Zukertort and Wilhelm Steinitz. Over the years, there have been different methods by which the world’s elite come to challenge the world champion. Initially, the chess world was similar to boxing: any challenger who could raise the funds could face the world champion.

Today, the process by which players qualify is more democratic. Every two years, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) organizes an event known as the Candidates Tournament. It has a field of eight of the best chess players in the world, and the winner earns the right to challenge the world champion.

This year’s Candidates Tournament is held March 9-29 in Berlin, Germany. Not only will the players be competing for their right to face reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen, but also for the $460,000 prize fund. Invitations to the Candidates Tournament are awarded by FIDE for the top two players in the Grand Prix, the top two finishers of the World Cup, the top two players by rating, the previous world championship challenger and one wildcard.

Shakhriyar "Shak" Mamedyarov qualified for the Candidates by winning the 2017 Grand Prix series. Across the three events in Sharjah, UAE, Moscow, Russia and Geneva, Switzerland, Mamedyarov faced stiff competition, yet lost only one of his 27 games. He enters the tournament as the highest-ranked player.

Vladimir Kramnik was awarded a wildcard invitation from FIDE. The Russian grandmaster is a former world champion, defeating the legendary Garry Kasparov to become world champion in 2000. Kramnik is currently ranked third in the world.

Wesley So is one of two Americans to qualify for the tournament. Ranked fourth currently, So’s peak rating of 2822 placed him second behind Carlsen this time last year. So won the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, as well as the ultra-strong 2017 Tata Steel Masters. At 24 years old, So is the youngest competitor in the 2018 Candidates Tournament.

Sergey Karjakin faced world champion Magnus Carlsen in 2016 and narrowly lost. Since then, Karjakin has had strong performances in a number of events. In fact, he won the blitz portion of the Tal Memorial tournament just a few days ago. With the support of the entire Russian Chess Federation behind him, Karjakin has high hopes of once again challenging Carlsen for the title.

Armenian superstar Levon Aronian is a familiar name in chess circles. He is currently ranked fifth in the world and won the Gibraltar tournament in fine style last month. Aronian won the challenging 128-player World Cup to qualify to the Candidates Tournament by defeating seven elite players in knockout matches. Aronian enters the Candidates newly married and will be one of the favorites to watch.

Ding Liren is the highest-rated Chinese player ever and only the second player from China (after Wang Yue) to break into the world’s top 10. Ding finished second behind Levon Aronian at the World Cup last year to qualify to the Candidates. A child chess prodigy with a quiet affect, Ding’s mettle will be tested by the other contenders.

Alexander Grischuk is the second Russian grandmaster in the event. He is a veteran of the Candidates Tournament, having played it three times already. Grischuk finished second in the Grand Prix tournaments behind Mamedyarov to qualify for the Candidates. Perhaps most notably, Grischuk went undefeated across all 27 games of the Grand Prix.

Like his American counterpart, Fabiano Caruana qualified for the Candidates Tournament by his rating. After recently moving back to the United States, Caruana played board one for the gold-medal USA team at the 2016 Chess Olympiad. Caruana and his compatriot Wesley So will be the best hope for an American world champion since Gata Kamsky in 1996.

As the Candidates Tournament approaches, the chess world will wait to see who will come out on top and earn the right to face Magnus Carlsen this November. For more information about the Candidates, visit www.fide.com. The Saint Louis Chess Club will have an abbreviated commentary for the tournament March 22-28 at 12 p.m. CT on www.uschesschamps.com.

Tony Rich is the Executive Director of the Saint Louis Chess Club.