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Candidates 2018 Preview
GM Danny Gormally

06 March 2018

Aronian is the favourite - but don’t underestimate Karjakin and Ding.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

Not just the brilliant Stones record but also a sentiment that could capture the general chess public’s mood as the 2018 Candidates approaches.

Although I’m convinced that the majority of chess followers would relish the prospect of the ever inventive Levon Aronian, or perhaps the dashing attacking brilliance of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov winning through to take on Magnus Carlsen, there is also that unspoken dread that lingers in the background: the idea that we could be forced to endure the second instalment of Karjakin-Carlsen; the first edition of which surely threw up (both literally and figuratively) one of the most boring World Championship matches in history.

The bogeyman of the 2018 Candidates tournament?

It won’t happen, we all tell ourselves. God isn’t that cruel, is he?

Quite apart from the P.R. issues of the Putin-loving Karjakin taking his entourage to London for the World Championship match, at a time when his idol is sending agents to kill people on British territory, I don’t think anyone wants to see a repeat of the 2016 match in New York.

A match where Karjakin adopted a rear-guard methodology that wasn’t in the least bit pretty, even if it turned out to be fairly effective and nearly helped him to bring off a huge upset and redefine the world order in chess. No, Life or God simply can’t be that cruel. Karjakin just won’t win.

I think the problem with that logic is that we only have to go back to the 2014 to see how a similar scenario developed. Anand was coming off the back of an extremely limp defence of his title, in a match against Magnus which was just as tedious as the Karjakin one. And yet he qualified with ease in Moscow, to face the Norwegian again, and yet again the match was incredibly boring. So the argument is flawed from the start. Clearly what we want isn’t what we always get.

Another reason why Karjakin should not be underestimated is that he is uniquely suited by this sort of test. Unlike a tournament like Wijk aan Zee, where the opportunity to pick off the lower rated players presents itself at regular intervals, there are no weak links in this stellar eight man field. Wins are much harder to come by, and such tournaments tend to suit those who have ample resources of patience and enjoy buckling down and defending inferior positions, thus maintaining their position in the standings. This is Karjakin to a tee.

With the Cheltenham festival just around the corner, Karjakin would be described as a “stayer”, i.e. someone likely to grind it out and stay on when others have had enough. If any punters are brave enough to venture forth their hard-earned on the candidates, then what they won’t get by backing Karjakin is dazzling displays of tactical pyrotechnics. What they will get though, is a run for their money from a genuine battler.

Who will prevail to face the World Champ?

On that note, I thought we should take a look at the odds, provided by Marathon Bet:

  • Levon Aronian: 15/4
  • Fabiano Caruana, Sergey Karjakin: 9/2
  • Wesley So, Vladimir Kramnik, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov: 11/2
  • Alexander Grischuk, Ding Liren: 10/1

Nothing jumps off the page here. The bookmakers agree with me that Aronian’s superb form over the last few months, claiming the World Cup and Gibraltar amongst other wins makes him favourite. Karjakin is also given a lot of respect.

To those unfamiliar with betting, if you placed a £100 bet on Karjakin, you’d get £550 back, i.e. £450 profits and your £100 stake with it. When you think about it like that, a bet on him doesn’t seem very tempting, as it seems that bookmakers have almost overreacted to certain factors and dismissed ratings altogether, as Mamedyarov and Kramnik are rated world number two and three respectively and yet both are rated below Aronian, Karjakin and Caruana in the betting.

Let’s look at each individual candidate in order of rating, and try and assess their chances both in the candidates and in a possible match against Carlsen:

Shakhiyar Mamedyarov (FIDE rating 2809)

It’s tempting to tip up Mamedyarov as the most likely winner, simply because his form over the last few months is so persuasive. I’m a great believer in momentum, and that when you get on a roll in life you can be very hard to stop.

Mamedyarov has attributed this great form to giving up alcohol. He’s somebody who plays with a great deal of confidence and when completely on song, can resemble an unstoppable force. There do though remain some doubts.

What makes you strong also makes you weak, in the sense that the personality that gives Mamedyarov this awesome tactical ability can also be lacking when it comes to the patience to defend inferior positions. To some extent when you have this problem, you either find a balance to your play, or you make your strengths so powerful that they mask your weaknesses.

The problem is that this can work fine when taking on inferior opposition, but when facing the very best players they have a great ability of exposing any potential defects, however well hidden they might be.

Chances against Carlsen

I think this is one of the best match-ups from Carlsen’s point of view. I think he’d view this as a fairly routine title defence, if such a thing can be said when playing the world number two, given his excellent head to head record against the Azeri, whose extravagant attacks have foundered against the rock that is the Norwegian World Champion.

Vladimir Kramnik (FIDE rating 2800)

Kramnik is the Tiger Woods, or the Phil Mickelson of the chess world, trying to resist the march of father time and the ever-increasing pool of hungry young players, desperate to put their mark on the chess world.

To some extent “Big Vlad” has reinvented himself, shrugged off some shoddy form of some years back and is now looking like the formidable chess player of earlier in his career. He is rocking a 2800 rating well into his forties, an impressive achievement in the computer dominated era.

Some of this reinvention has come through an overhauling of his repertoire, adopting the Reti and honing this seemingly innocuous opening into a dangerous weapon. He won’t lack for confidence, and his strong record in Germany, where he dominated the Dortmund tournament for many years, is another powerful pointer in his favour.

Vlad is a maximalist, someone who likes to dominate every scenario, therefore how he starts I believe is very important; if he begins well, he will then believe that he’s the best player and could very well push on. There are one or two possible banana skins though. He has quite a poor record against Karjakin, someone he will have to face twice. And Vlad can often push the boat out, his ego driving him on to developing razor-sharp battles on the board, a situation that perhaps he might now be best advised to avoid, as his nerves are not as strong as they were twenty years ago.

Chances against Carlsen

There’s no doubt that Kramnik would absolutely relish a match against Carlsen. He said in an interview that Anand was “scared” of Carlsen, and I’m pretty sure that while Kramnik respects the world champion, he certainly doesn’t fear him.

Kramnik is especially formidable with the White pieces, and he will try to neutralise the world champion with Black and put him under extreme pressure when he has the advantage of the first move.

I think the problem with Kramnik as a challenger is that he doesn’t feel as comfortable defending slightly worse positions against Carlsen as Karjakin did. Despite his famous adoption of the Berlin defence, if Kramnik were to qualify and play Carlsen, his best chance would be to keep the games fairly short. Long grinding games would just suit the younger, fitter man.

Wesley So (FIDE rating 2799)

Young Wesley is a likeable character who has clearly improved since his transplantation to the United States, when previously he represented the Philippines.

I think one of the advantages that Wesley has is that he lacks scar tissue; while several of these players have tried and failed in this very same format, I believe that I’m right in saying (astute readers might correct me) that this is his first attempt at a candidates tournament. That fact in itself, along with his very strong all-round game and serious chess talent, makes him a very tempting bet.

If I had to look for a negative in Wesley’s chances, it could be his nerves. I don’t think I was the only one to find the whole thing of him writing notes to himself during the US championships slightly odd; which if we’re being particularly harsh might point to a defect in his character. And when he played Ding Liren in the World Cup semi-finals, he looked extremely nervous in the tie-break.

Chances against Carlsen

I think Wesley would have good, but not great chances of defeating Carlsen in a match. He could look on it like this: I’m a young, improving player who is going forward with his chess career, while the World Champion himself, is somewhat washed up in a classical sense and is mainly an online blitz player these days. But that would be putting an extremely rose-tinted view upon it.

Levon Aronian (FIDE rating 2794)

There’s no doubt that Aronian is approaching the 2018 Candidates tournament with a huge amount of his trademark confidence, and playing, even by his exalted standards, with a fantastic amount of elan and creativity. There’s also few doubts in my mind that when he really gets it together, he possesses more gears and ability to do serious damage than anyone else in this tournament.

I guess the problem when assessing Aronian’s chances is that we’ve been here before. He’s come into candidates tournaments in the past with a similar profile, as one of the favourites to qualify, and has just as often preformed dismally.

It’s clear that he puts himself under a lot of pressure to perform, as he realizes what a carrot a world championship match would be - as it would be fantastic for a chess mad nation like Armenia to have a World Championship challenger.

The pressure of carrying an entire nation’s hopes on your shoulders can often be too much as we’ve seen with Ding Junhui in the snooker, for example.

So why should this year be very different? Well I believe there are valid reasons to think so, which are fairly obvious to even the casual observer. For example, he got married recently, so is in a very good place in his private life, which to a player like Aronian, who often plays well depending on his mood, is very important. He also has a good affinity with Berlin having lived there for many years.

Chances against Carlsen

I think his chances of beating Carlsen would be excellent, maybe better than anyone else in the Candidates, as his talent level is going to be something that even Magnus could struggle to handle. And his confidence upon qualifying would be truly enormous, because I believe that the biggest hurdle for him is the candidates itself; and getting past that would be like removing an anchor, it would free him up. Combine that with a formidable support team of Armenian’s leading grandmasters and you have a serious challenger.

Fabiano Caruana (FIDE rating 2784)

I got some interesting info from Lawrence Trent recently. He has the inside track on Caruana (Trent used to be his manager) and the word is the Italian-American has been working harder than ever in preparation for this event. I wonder though if this is inside information of limited value, as surely all the players in this event will be working harder than they ever have before?

In other words, if you’re not motivated for this, why are you bothering to play chess at all?

And perhaps most importantly of all, isn’t Caruana a workhorse in the first place? How can he possibly work harder than ever?

However, there could be an argument that Caruana’s slightly spotty form in recent years, has been down to a waning of motivation. As a chess player, once you get on that gravy-train of high 2700, low 2800, then you are playing the same players, going to the same hotels, the same places, and you would not be human if your motivation didn’t drop off a little.

Cast your mind back to Caruana’s astonishing 7/7 start at the Sinquefield cup in 2014, and we can see that a fully-motivated Caruana is capable of demolishing even a world-class field. Knowing that information, I’m tempted to bet on him myself. (Then again, I’m tempted to bet on everybody!)

Chances against Carlsen

Another player who I believe would have an excellent chance of defeating Carlsen, especially because he has often defeated the Norwegian in tournament play. Has a good all-round game, is extremely principled and is a typical product of the “computer generation”. I’m not sure the match would be the most exciting one in history though, as Fab has a worrying predilection for Boring Berlins when defending as Black.

Ding Liren (FIDE rating 2769)

The dark horse of the candidates? The first Chinese world chess champion? I’m not completely convinced, although a good friend of mine believes that Ding is right up there with the very best players and is only clearly worse than Magnus himself.

I think there are several arguments in Ding’s favour. Firstly, he clearly has a very good temperament, as shown by his qualifying for the final of the World Cup, only just losing out to an inspired Aronian. That shows that he has the calibre to go very far in this tournament.

Secondly, he has the huge motivation of becoming the first Chinese player to ever qualify for a World Championship final. That would be absolutely massive for chess in China, as although they have several very strong players over there, it’s not as popular at a grass roots level as it is in India, for example.

Sometimes you also just get a feeling. I have a feeling, just a gut instinct, that Ding might surprise a lot of people here. And I have a history of following my gut feelings off a cliff, so why not do the same with Ding?

Chances against Carlsen

Clearly if he can pull of a huge upset win in the Candidates, then Ding wouldn’t be underestimated by Carlsen. Ding has a good attacking game; and likes to defend with the King’s Indian when facing 1.d4. That might make him easier to beat than some other players but also gives him a chance to pull-off a counter-attacking win.

What tempers confidence is their recent blitz match which took place in St Louis, where Ding was absolutely routed by the Norwegian. I don’t believe though that will affect Ding’s confidence one bit when approaching the candidates at least - he will just think

“Well, that’s Magnus, he can do that to you.”

Alexander Grischuk (FIDE rating 2767)

Grischuk is another one who comes under the header “dark horse.”

The oddsmakers are fairly dismissive of his chances, and they might well be right - but again some “inside” information here, in the form of an obscure YouTube video, where at the recent Mikhail Tal memorial Grischuk confessed to a reporter from Chessbase India that he had been preparing fairly hard for the candidates, at least by his own usually lazy standards.

Grischuk is is well-known for having good nerves. But is that going to be enough? I have my doubts, especially as he has come up short at this level before. You have 14 rounds to get through, in time-trouble against some of the best players in the world, and it’s hard to believe that you’re not going to have some accidents in that period.

Chances against Carlsen

Another match-up that I think Magnus will fancy. I don’t think he will believe that Grischuk will pose him any serious problems - he will just feed off his time trouble issues. How can you beat someone with no time on your clock who plays as well in blitz as Magnus does?

Sergey Karjakin (FIDE rating 2763)

As mentioned above, the “party pooper” of the candidates. While I don’t think his rating should be taken literally when assessing his chances - clearly he thrives in this kind of format - I’m not sure it should be dismissed entirely. Does the bottom-ranked seed really deserve to be second favourite?

Chances against Carlsen

Although a lot of commentators, including myself, were critical of Carlsen’s play in the previous world championship match, there’s little doubt that a lot of his struggles were due to Karjakin’s skill in defence. I don’t believe that many players would have been able to resist as well against Carlsen in such situations.

On the negative side for Karjakin I’d be very surprised if Carlsen didn’t learn some important lessons from that match, which he would be very eager to implement in the rematch. Put more simply, I think Carlsen would win a lot more easily second time around.


There’s no doubt that this is perhaps the most closely matched candidates tournament in history, which is saying something. There is less than 50 points between the highest ranked player and the lowest. No one player is more likely to win than the rest of the field put together, and if Carlsen himself were to take his place in this field, he would be no better than a 2-1 favourite.

Who do I think will win? If you put a gun to my head, I would say Aronian, but I doubt his price represents value. There’s just a nagging feeling that Karjakin could qualify again, or that Ding could shock everyone.

Of the players, I believe that Wesley So and Ding carry the least scar tissue, a factor I think that is important. If players who have failed in the past get behind they might just think “here we go again.” and get down on themselves.

From a chess point of view, I hope that we have a qualifier who will help to bring us some memories of some of the great chess world championship matches from the past; the Match of the Century in Reykjavik, with Fischer taking on the Soviet Empire and Boris Spassky, and the fantastic struggles between Kasparov and Karpov.

Although I have been critical of Karjakin and Anand in this preview, there’s no doubt that Carlsen has been their partner in crime. The recurring theme in all of these boring matches is that Magnus has been involved in all of them, and to some extent it reminds of that joke about the bear and the hunter “Why do you keep coming here George?”

For that reason, I believe that Carlsen needs someone who will bring out the best in him - someone who will provide a contrast in styles. In the chess game of rock-paper-scissors, Karjakin is rock to Carlsen’s rock - Magnus really needs a scissors, or a paper, which could come in the shape of an Aronian or Mamedyarov.

Although I believe there’s a very good chance that Carlsen will remain world champion for several years, there’s also little doubt that anyone who does qualify will go into a match with Magnus carrying a huge amount of confidence from winning such a strong event, and also know that Magnus has shown a large degree of vulnerability in classical games in the last few years - they will realise they won’t be without a chance.

As it’s in London, I’ll be hoping to bag a front-row seat.

About the Author
GM Danny Gormally

Danny Gormally is a talented English Grandmaster. He lives in the bustling market town of Alnwick, somewhere near Scotland.

Danny’s first DVD for Ginger GM, Improve Your Practical Play was released in September 2013.