Articles
7 Most Dramatic Candidates Games Ever

7 Most Dramatic Candidates Games Ever

NathanielGreen
| 13 | Amazing Games

If there's one thing The Queen's Gambit proved, it's that chess can be dramatic. Just ask those who have played or observed the Candidates Tournament, where one game can be the difference between playing for the world championship or becoming one of the many players whose paths stopped one step before the ultimate stage. No, you don't need to make up a story, no matter how compelling, to create a tense moment in this tournament.

How can you watch the year's most anticipated tournament? 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!

We didn't strictly define drama for this article. If the moment seemed big enough, it made it in here. See what you think of our list. 

Jump To: 1983 (Smyslov) | 1991 (Jussupow) | 1992 (Short) | 2013 (Svidler) | 1950 (Bronstein) | 1965 (Tal) | 1977 (Spassky)Honorable Mentions | Conclusion

Smyslov-Hubner 1983

What can be more dramatic than a match pushing its limit, remaining tied through the maximum number of games? The ending to the 1983 quarterfinal between GM Vasily Smyslov and GM Robert Hubner certainly was dramatic. But not in a chess way, oh no—in a gambling way!

It probably cannot be repeated too often that a drawing of lots was once the first tiebreak in a match after the set limit of classical games was reached. And, as if no one cared about the imagery of what kind of lots were used, they decided to head to the local casino and play roulette, which Smyslov won.

Yup, straight to the roulette wheel, like a tourist who just landed in Vegas. (Wait, that's the slot machine. Why didn't they think of that?) If tied after 14 classical games, you just played roulette. At the casino. To decide a chess match.

2022 Chess.com Dramatic Candidates Games Chess
Not pictured: Anything to do with actual chess. Heaven forbid you play a serious rapid game in 1983. Photo © Ralf Roletschek, CC.

To be fair, many popular tiebreaks only work in round-robins. But you could still play faster time controls, or even use the most wins with Black, which had gotten GM Lajos Portisch past Spassky in the previous cycle—although, to be fair again, that wouldn't have broken the tie in Smyslov-Hubner. But even sudden death (first-to-win advances, regardless of how many Whites each player got) was a fairer option. At least armageddon hadn't been invented yet.

Drawing of lots remains a tiebreak at times, but so deep on the list of options that it never comes up, practically speaking. FIDE had to have realized how ridiculous it was to see a match get decided by the spin of a wheel. The second spin, no less—the first one landed on zero! Couldn't make it up.

It's easily the most ridiculous Candidates story of all time, but dramatic describes it too. Read GM Robert Byrne's contemporary take on it at the New York Times website.

Ivanchuk-Jussupow, 1991

Eight years is a long time and by 1991 more people were willing to break ties with shorter games. Still a bit slow by modern standards, GMs Vassily Ivanchuk and Artur Jussupow had an hour for the game instead of 2.5 hours for 40 moves, but it was a huge step up from the friggin' casino. 

And lo and behold, when you let the great players play chess, you get great chess games!

I imagine whichever official had the idea to take Smyslov and Hubner to a roulette wheel now sweating out the Ivanchuk-Jussupow drama, but instead of caring who wins, just rooting for blunder after blunder to be able to exclaim, "See! I told you fast games are terrible!" to an empty room. Instead, they got what might at that point have been the most chess brilliance ever packed into the shortest amount of time.

Short-Karpov, 1992

Karpov had never lost a Candidates match when he reached this semifinal against GM Nigel Short in 1992. He was a perfect eight-for-eight, and against eight different opponents: GMs Lev Polugaevsky, Spassky, and Korchnoi in 1974; GM Andrei Sokolov in 1987; GMs Johann Hjartarson, Jussupow, and Jan Timman in 1989-90; and a young GM Viswanathan Anand in 1991 to advance and face Short in this match. 

Chess.com Candidates Chess Nigel Short Anatoly Karpov
Four years later, Karpov and Short (seen here with Timman and GM Ljubomir Ljubojevic) would be playing to eliminate the other from world championship contention. Photo: Rob Croes/Dutch National Archives, CC.

When Short played the Budapest Defense of all things and lost game one, he looked like just another player in the long line of Karpov victims. There was little reason to suspect the dominant Karpov would lose the match, even after Short held draws in the next two games.

But of the next three contests, Short won two, and the fight was on. Karpov responded with a win in game seven to tie the match again, but Short won the eighth game.

Two games remained and Karpov needed to win one of them to force an extension, otherwise he was out of world championship competition for the first time in twenty years. After a draw in game nine, it was do-or-die for Karpov; even another draw would end the match, so he went for the Sicilian Defense instead of 1...e5.

When it was over, Black hadn't won a single game. But while Short won four of his five games with White, Karpov only won two.

In retrospect, the stakes in this match were even much higher than anyone realized at the time. Short eventually became the challenger to GM Garry Kasparov and they held their match outside of the auspices FIDE. If Karpov had remained perfect in Candidates matches, the title would likely never have been split off, and more than a decade of confusion averted. As things actually went it wasn't until 2009 that another undisputed Candidates competition was held (a match between GMs Veselin Topalov and Gata Kamsky).

Carlsen-Svidler, 2013

Matches may provide more opportunities for drama, but if a round-robin is close, it's tough to equal. Multiple games matter, instead of one game at a time. It's like the chess version of the end of the 2011 baseball season.

If you look only at the final standings, the 2013 Candidates Tournament looks as if several players could have won, with GMs Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik tied at 8.5 points and GMs Peter Svidler and Levon Aronian just behind with eight. However, those scores were achieved by wins in the final round for Svidler and Aronian and losses for Carlsen and Kramnik.

That's right, only two players could win the tournament entering the final round, and they both lost their games! Carlsen resigned to Svidler and moments later Ivanchuk had toppled Kramnik. Come for Carlsen's dismay in the thumbnail, stay for Svidler's game analysis in this uploaded version of their postgame press conference:

Soon after, when Ivanchuk had sealed Kramnik's fate, Carlsen was obviously relieved.

This was Carlsen's first winner-take-all Candidates Tournament and almost surely his last. If he barely wants to defend the world championship, there's almost no chance he'd play his way in again even though several world champions from GM Mikhail Tal to Anand played in multiple Candidates Tournaments after losing the crown.

Boleslavsky-Bronstein, 1950

Going back in time a little bit, the first Candidates Tournament is still the only time a round-robin Candidates led to a tiebreak match for first place. To be fair, there have only been 10 round-robin Candidates Tournaments so far at all (1950, 53, 56, 59, 62, 2013, 14, 16, 18, 21) and the only other one to end in a tie for first, 2013, had a tiebreak system instead of games. The 2022 Candidates, however, will have a rapid match as the first tiebreak, so this 70-year-old record could be equaled this year.

We talked about Bronstein's win over GM Paul Keres at the end of the round-robin in our last Candidates article. Here's the game that finally decided the first official Candidates Tournament in history.

Tal-Larsen, 1965

When FIDE changed the Candidates to a series of matches in 1965, the capacity for drama only increased. Three of the five Candidates Tournaments from 1950-62 were decided before the final round. Now, seven matches meant seven distinct eliminations, providing more opportunities for late excitement than a single round-robin. The semifinal match between GMs Mikhail Tal and Bent Larsen delivered on this possibility.

Twice, after games one and five, Larsen took a one-point lead in the match, and twice, in games two and six, Tal immediately evened the score. Three draws after that, the best-of-10 match was tied 4.5-4.5 apiece. Then Tal pulled off one of his signature sacrificial gems.

Tal is one of the few players who could confidently sacrifice a piece in a game where a loss means the end of the competition. It usually paid off, like it did here.

Spassky-Hort, 1977

Three of the four quarterfinal matches in the 1976-78 Candidates were decided by a single point, and two of those matches were even more dramatic off the board. A third opportunity for drama unfortunately only existed on paper: GM Bobby Fischer was eligible to play since he was technically the runner-up of the 1975 World Championship, but of course he didn't.

Chess.com Dramatic Candidates Games 2022 Bobby Fischer
Why you always gotta be like that, Bobby? Photo: Dutch National Archives, CC.

GMs Viktor Korchnoi and Tigran Petrosian, who couldn't stand each other, met in Italy. What really made this match go was it being Korchnoi's first Candidates since defecting from the Soviet Union to the West, which was the biggest chess story of the decade that didn't involve Fischer. The first game of their match was a quiet draw, but the controversial Korchnoi eventually won 2-1 in 12 games. He went on to win the whole Candidates to play in the bizarre 1978 World Championship against Karpov.

The quarterfinal match in Reykjavik between GM Boris Spassky and GM Vlastimil Hort was even crazier than Korchnoi-Petrosian. It was also decided 2-1, but took 15 games and several turns: Both players maxed out on their allotted postponements—back then, each player could delay the match a set number of times, usually if they got sick—and Hort nearly eliminated the former world champion by default when Spassky needed another delay. But the match continued and then this tragic fate befell the great Czechoslovakian (later German) player: He lost on time in an easily winning position.

A draw in the next game and Hort was eliminated. Still around at the time of publishing, he is now 78 and never reached another Candidates.

Honorable Mentions

There were quite a few games to choose from and these just missed the cut:

  • Keres-Fischer, round 28, 1962. Keres needed to win to tie Petrosian at the top of the standings in the infamous Curacao Candidates, but Fischer held him to the draw.
  • Larsen-Portisch, game 10, 1968. After losing to Tal in same situation three years prior—tied at 4.5-4.5 in a ten-game match—Larsen used the Vienna Game to hit Portisch with the same fate in just 28 moves.
  • Spassky-Portisch, game 14, 1980 g14. A 77-move draw gave Portisch the match on a wins-with-Black tiebreak. We briefly touched on this one earlier.
  • Hubner-Korchnoi, game seven, 1981. Hubner played several bizarre Candidates Tournaments. Here, leading 2-1 in the final, he blundered terribly and lost. Hubner dropped the next game too and then resigned the whole match despite only being down a point with eight games remaining.
  • Sokolov-Jussupow, games 11-13, 1986. Sokolov won three straight games, turning a two-point deficit into a one-point lead before clinching the match with a draw in the next game.
  • Speelman-Timman, game eight, 1989. Timman recovered from game seven loss with White to win with Black and take match 4.5-3.5.
  • Gelfand-Grischuk, game 6, 2011. Both trying for their first World Championship match, 42-year-old Gelfand defeated 27-year-old Grischuk in regulation in the six-game final.
  • Caruana-Aronian, round 13, 2018. Caruana, who had just fallen back into a tie for first with a 12th-round loss, immediately bounced back to retake the tournament lead. He won in the last round for good measure too.

Conclusion

The first official Candidates Tournament was a round-robin only decided by a tiebreak match. Since then, the format has undergone many changes, but the 2022 format brings it back full circle: It too is a round-robin that, if it ends in a tie for first, will be decided by a tiebreak match.

The only difference is, that match will be played at fast time controls instead of slow controls. And the best part? It won't be held at the local casino. The only drama is on the board.

Catch the exciting conclusion of the Candidates Tournament until July 4 on your favorite Chess.com channel: Chess.com/TV, Chess.com/Events, Twitch.tv/Chess, or YouTube.com/ChesscomLive!

More from NathanielGreen
The 10 Most Brilliant Candidates Games

The 10 Most Brilliant Candidates Games

Is Magnus Carlsen The Tom Brady Of Chess?

Is Magnus Carlsen The Tom Brady Of Chess?