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Magnus Carlsen’s wait for challenger almost over as Candidates returns

Leonard Barden
·4 min read

The Covid-hit Candidates will resume in Ekaterinburg on Monday, a full year after the eight-player tournament to decide the official challenger for Magnus Carlsen’s global crown was unceremoniously and tantalisingly halted at halfway by the pandemic.

Only six of the players are still in realistic contention, though. China’s world No 3 Ding Liren is effectively out of it – tied last with the Russian outsider Kirill Alekseenko on a measly 2.5/7 – with six players ahead of him and only seven rounds left.

Related: Chess: new event gives chance for young talent to face Magnus Carlsen

The Candidates has a €500,000 (£434,000) prize fund but that is dwarfed by the €2m purse, split 60-40, for the 14-game world title series in November at Expo Dubai. Carlsen, 30, who many consider the all time No 1 ahead of fellow legends Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, will be aiming to cement his historic status and will be an assured favourite against whoever emerges as his challenger on 27 April.

There will be more stringent measures than in March 2020 to reduce the virus risk. Players will be required to have a negative PCR test no more than 72 hours before the start, and if a player is forced to pull out the tournament will continue without him.

Masks will not be required, and shaking hands with other players will be optional. A small number of spectators will be allowed in the playing hall who can show a negative PCR test result or have been vaccinated, while the lavish opening ceremony, which was widely criticised in 2020, has been scrapped.

Round eight, the first on resumption and starting at noon BST on Monday, will already be critical. Fabiano Caruana, America’s world No 2, who lost to Carlsen in the 2018 title match tie-break, plays White against France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who shares the seventh round lead.

During a year of lockdown Caruana has kept a low profile, preparing in depth for the Candidates resumption. Vachier-Lagrave has competed on the online tournament circuit, with mixed results.

Carlsen himself will be commentating on the first three rounds on chess24.com before leaving for the fifth leg of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, and his comments will be watched for signs of any preference for a challenger.

On form, the Norwegian will most respect Caruana for his near-miss in 2018. Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, the joint leader with Vachier-Lagrave, is the current Russian champion and has a plus score in his previous classical games with Carlsen, although most were long ago in youth tournaments.

Full round eight pairings on Monday (noon BST start), with current totals in brackets, are:

Fabiano Caruana (US, 3.5) v Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (Fr, 4.5)
Ian Nepomniachtchi (Rus, 4.5) v Anish Giri (Neth, 3.5)
Wang Hao (Chn, 3.5) v Ding Liren (Chn, 2.5)
Kirill Alekseenko (Rus, 2.5) v Alexander Grischuk (Rus, 3.5)

It’s unlikely to occur, but the above pairings could produce six joint leaders before round nine.

After his three-day commentary stint, Carlsen will be at the board for the $100,000 New in Chess Classic, the fifth leg of the Meltwater tour and honouring the leading chess magazine which has been acquired by the Play Magnus Group.

The world champion failed to win any of the previous four Tour legs, and this one may be his easiest opportunity so far, with three Tour regulars away at the Candidates. However, his new rivals include Alireza Firouzja, the 17-year-old “Crown Prince” who is widely predicted to become Carlsen’s challenger in the next few years.

Gawain Jones, 33, a regular player in strong online events, will become the first Englishman to debut on the Tour. The two-times British champion won a gold medal at the European Club Cup, and last December triumphed in the online European blitz championship.

India’s Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, winner of last week’s first leg of the Julius Baer Challengers Tour, earned a wildcard for an event on the main Tour for his success, and this is it. The Chennai 15-year-old has been compared to a young version of India’s world champion Vishy Anand, and is well capable of a successful debut at the highest level.

The opening of one of his games last week stunned me when I saw it:

Christopher Yoo (US) v Praggnanandhaa, Sicilian Defence. 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 h5!?

For decades this was my own main defence to 1 e4 in competitive play, and I never remotely considered 5…h5 as a possibility.

Praggnanandhaa, who was a GM at 13, won the 2019 world under 18s title and is one of the youngest ever to reach a 2600 rating, got the idea from another strong Indian player. One rationale for Black’s mysterious pawn advance is that after Bg5xf6 gxf6, Black’s f8 bishop sometimes comes into action at h6. In the Yoo game, Black got the worst of the opening but later recovered to win.

3719 1 Bh8! c3 2 Ke5! c2 3 Kf6 c1Q 4 Bg7 mate.