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The 10 Most Brilliant Candidates Games

The 10 Most Brilliant Candidates Games

NathanielGreen
| 24 | Amazing Games

No other tournament in chess combines the tradition and importance of the Candidates Tournament, which determines who plays the reigning champion in a match for the title.

Depending how you count, it has been around for at least 70 years and up to nearly 140. Its winner becomes, at least for the moment, the second-best player in the world, with a chance at reaching the pinnacle. Playing a great game at the Candidates means more than it does almost anywhere else.

How can you watch the most important tournament of the entire year? It's easy, as the 2022 Candidates Tournament will air on all Chess.com channels: Chess.com/TV, Chess.com/Events, on our Twitch channel and on YouTube.com/ChesscomLive. Games begin on June 17!

Tournament and match play have long been linked. An apocryphal story goes that after the 1883 London tournament, someone asked "the best chess player in the world" to stand up to receive a toast, and co-victors Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort both did. Three years later, they played a World Championship, and Steinitz won. It took some time for an official Candidates Tournament to link directly into a World Championship match, but the seed had been planted, and something did sprout pretty quickly.

Jump Ahead: 1889 (Pollock) | 1938 (Botvinnik) | 1950 (Bronstein) | 1953 (Smyslov) | 1962 (Fischer) | 1974 (Karpov) | 1983 (Smyslov) | 1997 (Seirawan) | 2013 (Carlsen) | 2020-21 (Caruana)


New York 1889

No one called it a "Candidates" tournament but the intent of the 6th American Chess Congress in New York in 1889 was to produce a challenger for Steinitz. It ultimately did—but neither of the winners, Mikhail Chigorin and Max Weiss, ended up playing. Weiss's style of play served him well in the tournament, but it was no match for the romantic swashbuckling style employed by William Pollock (and indeed most 1889 players besides Steinitz and Weiss):

Instead, third-place Isidor Gunsberg sought and received a match with Steinitz, which the reigning champion won with six wins to four in 19 games. As an interesting side note, it was the first of three title bouts to that point to limit the number of possible games, which proved to be an important precedent as draws became more common down the line.

For decades after New York 1889, there was never a tournament with the express purpose of finding a challenger, but a player with a successful tournament in a strong field often used it as the basis of a challenge. The most obvious example is Frank Marshall's crushing win at Cambridge Springs 1904, without which it's difficult to imagine him challenging Emanuel Lasker in 1907 (although challenge is a relative term). 

AVRO 1938

Whether or not it was because neither winner chose to play for the championship, the idea of a tournament to select a challenger fell by the wayside in the following years as world champions from Steinitz to Alexander Alekhine accepted challenges on a case-by-case basis, although some hopeful challengers including Alekhine built their case for a match on tournament success.

It was under Alekhine's championship reign that things began to change as took the title from Jose Capablanca, knocked out GM Efim Bogoljubov twice, and then lost and regained the title to GM Max Euwe. By 1938, Capablanca was still hopeful for another match while the next generation, headlined by GMs Reuben Fine, Paul Keres, and Mikhail Botvinnik, was in the ascendant. Euwe, in fact, was planning on letting FIDE take control over the process of deciding a challenger had he defeated Alekhine in 1937.

Chess.com Best Candidates Games Alexander Alekhine Max Euwe
Alekhine's reassertion of his best-in-world ability in 1937 denied FIDE earlier control over the World Championship matches and Candidates tournaments.

Even though he didn't, the Dutch media company AVRO sponsored a tournament the next year with the idea of picking a challenger, which ended up being one of the strongest tournament fields in history. Keres won on tiebreaks against Fine, and negotiations to play Alekhine began, but the match fell through when World War II broke out. Keres thus joined GM Akiba Rubinstein as the players robbed of a world championship match by the world wars of the 20th century, one reason among many they are considered two of the best all-time players never to become world champion.

The AVRO tournament did not end up for naught as half of its field would end up playing in the 1948 World Championship tournament. The winner in 1948 who became world champion, Botvinnik, only finished third at AVRO (the same as Gunsberg at New York 1889), but he had a winning record of 7.5/14, and won the tournament's most celebrated game.

Budapest 1950

After Alekhine's death in 1946 and Botvinnik's 1948 achievement, FIDE was in full control of the world championship, and formal tournaments finally became the norm for challenger selection. The first official Candidates Tournament was held in Budapest, Hungary in 1950.

The games weren't terribly interesting but the intrigue was. The tournament, like New York 1889, ended up with a share for first. This time, both winners wanted to play for the title, but still on their own terms. Co-winner GM David Bronstein's story goes like this: GM Isaac Boleslavsky, not confident in his one-on-one chances vs. Botvinnik but instead hoping for a three-player championship against Botvinnik and Bronstein, supposedly maybe possibly allowed Bronstein to catch up. Alternatively, Boleslavsky just had a huge lead late and thought quick draws would be sufficient to hold it, but they weren't after Bronstein won his last two games. 

Either way, it was only after the tournament that FIDE and the Soviet federation decided Bronstein and Boleslavsky should play a match to decide who would play Botvinnik. Bronstein won, then missed the champion title by a half-game after drawing Botvinnik 12-12, in yet another match that some claim was intentionally punted.

Zurich 1953

Zurich 1953 is one of the most famous Candidates Tournaments thanks to the two books written about it, by Bronstein and GM Miguel Najdorf. It's hard to pick just one game to represent it:

  • Geller-Euwe in round 2 saw Euwe lure Geller into effectively self-trapping his own queen out of play.
  • Euwe-Najdorf in round 9 features a dramatic opening concept with excellent piece play. Euwe won some brilliant games in this tournament, but lost a lot of mundane ones and finished next-to-last.
  • Averbakh-Kotov in round 14 has an amazing queen sac and king hunt.

But in round 24 of 28, eventual tournament winner GM Vasily Smyslov played one of the great defensive games of all time against a Keres desperate for wins. Watch as all possible action on h8 is rendered innocuous by the battery along the a1-h8 diagonal, allowing a passed c-pawn to overcome the scary-looking mass of major pieces around Black's king.

Smyslov went on to also draw Botvinnik 12-12, before winning in 1957 after a second straight Candidates victory.

Curacao 1962

The post-war system went fairly smoothly at first. But if Zurich 1953 isn't the most famous Candidates, Curacao 1962 is, because of accusations from GM Bobby Fischer that the Soviet players were colluding. Colluding against whom? Well, all Western players, and for years before just 1962—but we know who Fischer was really worried about and, indeed, who in the West most concerned the Soviets.

Chess.com Candidates Bobby Fischer Pal Benko
GM Pal Benko, of course. Just kidding it was Fischer. Photo: F. N. Broers/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Fischer's own performance of 14/27 wouldn't have cut it even if the Soviets were playing things straight, but it is interesting how few great games anyone played at the Candidates. Unlike the 1953 Candidates, which featured several masterpieces, one struggles to come up with a game from 1962 that compares with any of them.

Perhaps one of Fischer's own games comes closest. In an endgame down a pawn, Fischer has a bishop vs. a knight with pawns on both sides of the board. It's enough to eventually gain a strong passed pawn, win an exchange and then win the game.

The evidence for collusion in 1962, or at least theoretical possibility in future events, was enough that FIDE changed the format of the Candidates. Instead of a round-robin tournament played all at once, the Candidates became an eight-player elimination bracket that took months to complete, because rounds were 10 games and couldn't be scheduled until both players were known. It would be more than 50 years before the Candidates returned to a plain round-robin format (there was an unusual hybrid structure in the 1987 cycle).

Moscow 1974

The 1974 Candidates, which concluded in the GM Anatoly Karpov–GM Viktor Korchnoi final in Moscow, turned out to be more important than anyone realized. It seems obvious in retrospect that Fischer's temperament would be an issue in defending his title, but at the time, everyone was hopeful an agreement could be reached. Fischer and Karpov actually met in person on multiple occasions, but never over a chessboard.

And so the 24-game Karpov-Korchnoi match retroactively became a de facto world championship.

Yes, a 24-game Candidates match, a record that will never be broken.

Candidates 1983

The 1983 Candidates featured several wild storylines that demonstrated some level of flimsiness to the match structure. Most notably, the Smyslov–GM Robert Hubner quarterfinal, tied 7-7 after 14 games, had the tie broken by a drawing of lots, specifically roulette, instead of literally anything else. The methodology was suspect even then and would be absurd today. 

Chess.com Candidates Vasily Smyslov
Smyslov, seen here at age 56 in 1977, is the only player with two games in this article, but if a roulette ball had landed on black instead of red, he wouldn't have had the chance. Photo: Koen Suyk/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Then, GM Garry Kasparov nearly forfeited his semifinal to Korchnoi when the Soviets did not want their young stud playing the defector Korchnoi in Los Angeles, and that match only happened when Korchnoi agreed to change locations to London, eventually losing to his future fellow dissident. In the end, the 21-year-old Kasparov met and defeated the 63-year-old Smyslov in the final in Lithuania, which set the stage for a World Championship that was somehow even wilder than the preceding Candidates.

But it was Smyslov's semifinal against GM Zoltan Ribli that produced the best games of the '83 Candidates, with the elder Smyslov toppling Ribli's Tarrasch Defense on multiple occasions. The Tarrasch is supposed to lead to an isolated pawn for Black, but Smyslov takes one on himself as White and runs Ribli out of the building.

This Candidates eventually produced the next world champion in Kasparov. A decade later, he left FIDE and threw the championship into chaos for the first time since Fischer's retirement. And with that came Candidates chaos as well.

Groningen 1997

FIDE ran its own match, won by Karpov, when Kasparov left in 1993. Both FIDE and Kasparov's Professional Chess Association (PCA) tried to retain the Candidates Tournament at first. However, it only lasted one cycle each. The PCA fell apart as an organization, and FIDE meanwhile began to shift to a large-field knockout championship.

Chess.com Candidates Garry Kasparov Anatoly Karpov
The two longtime rivals, seen here in 1988, would both beef with FIDE a little more than a decade later. Photo: Rob Bogaerts/Dutch National Archives, CC.

The first time they tried this, 97 players battled down to one before facing sitting champion Karpov in the final, so the rest of the tournament was effectively a Candidates. The lone survivor was GM Viswanathan Anand, who had also won the 1995 PCA Candidates.

As often happens with two-game knockouts, upsets happened in the meantime. 39th seed GM Yasser Seirawan used an incredible 22-game miniature to topple #5 GM Vassily Ivanchuk in the second round. Even with a closed center, keeping the king in the middle can be dangerous.

The whole event was kind of a mess, though. Kasparov didn't play, so Karpov was seeded into the final, and as a result, Kramnik didn't play. Additionally, the Groningen tournament wrapped up on December 30, 1997 and an exhausted Anand began his match against a rested Karpov on January 2, 1998 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Anand still went 3-3 to push Karpov to rapid tiebreaks before succumbing. 

It would soon be Karpov's turn to get flustered and quit the cycle, as the next year FIDE moved the entire world championship to a large knockout with no unique special benefit for the sitting champion. At the same time, the loser of a Candidates Match for Kasparov's title, Kramnik, wound up challenging him and winning. No one was happy with the split title, and it finally reunified—barely—in 2006.

London 2013

It would still be some years before a traditional Candidates Tournament returned, as Anand, Kramnik, and GM Veselin Topalov all either held the title or had legitimate grievances regarding why they did not. These were finally resolved in 2010 and FIDE then returned to traditional eight-player Candidates Tournaments.

Viswanathan Anand Chess.com Candidates
Anand won a 2007 tournament, 2008 match vs. Kramnik, and 2010 match vs. Topalov to secure the undisputed throne. None of those were the result of his three career Candidates tournament wins: PCA 1995, FIDE 1997, and FIDE 2014. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The first of these new Candidates Tournaments, in 2011, continued to use a knockout format, still using short (four-game) matches from earlier super knockouts rather than the 10-game matches from the postwar system. Carlsen, who was already world #1 by this point and qualified for the tournament, decided not to play because he thought short matches were too random.

And so, in 2013, FIDE reverted to round-robins. This time, Carlsen played, and things went well. After the 11th round of 14, he led with a 7.5/11 score. He lost his first game in round 12, but recovered with a trademark endgame rundown in round 13.

Entering the 14th and final round, Carlsen and Kramnik led the field by 1.5 points. Somehow, both lost. Unlike in 1950, however, tiebreaks were applied instead of a match being played, and they went to Carlsen for having won more games.

Yekaterinburg 2020/21

The Candidates hasn't changed formats at all since 2013. It remains an eight-player, 14-round double round-robin, and Carlsen remains world champion no matter who has challenged him. The most significant change in the cycle since 2013 has been... timing.

Thanks to the Candidates Tournament, chess was just about the last international sport to stop official play during the coronavirus pandemic. The writing was somewhat on the wall beforehand and GM Teimour Radjabov withdrew from his first Candidates opportunity in nearly a decade. (Don't worry, he's playing in the upcoming one.)

The tournament finally resumed a year later. Some of the match bracket-style tournaments that the Candidates used from 1965-93 lasted months, but it was unique among round-robins. An epic game, featuring months of opening preparation and a nerve-wracking endgame, immediately ensued between GMs Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

The game left both players tied for second place. The leader, GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, went on to win the entire tournament before playing Carlsen in November-December 2021, the first championship in an odd-numbered year since 2013. With the next title bout planned for early 2023, the two-year cycle may have been interrupted, but it wasn't overthrown.

Conclusion

It's now been nearly 140 years since New York 1889 and over 70 years since Budapest 1950, and at this point it's difficult to imagine chess without a Candidates Tournament (even if that is what happened from 1998-2011). The sheer amount of games played at these stakes has produced quite a few beauties. How many great games will we see out of the 56 at the rapidly approaching 2022 Candidates? Only one way to find out.

Don't miss Chess.com's coverage of the 2022 Candidates Tournament starting June 17! All the information is available in our tournament guide and our Events page.

NathanielGreen
Nathaniel Green

Nathaniel Green is a staff writer for Chess.com who writes articles, player biographies, Titled Tuesday reports, video scripts, and more. He has been playing chess for about 30 years and resides near Washington, DC, USA.

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