Who Will Win The 2021 Candidates Tournament?
Vachier-Lagrave and Nepomniachtchi are currently leading the Candidates Tournament. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Who Will Win The 2021 Candidates Tournament?‎

AlexYermo
GM AlexYermo
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143 | Other

The 2020-21 FIDE Candidates Tournament will take its place in the annals of chess history as an unprecedented event. Never before has a tournament stopped due to force majeure been resumed a full year later. Yes, the first World Championship match between GMs Anatoly Karpov and GM Garry Kasparov in 1984-85 was stopped because of its excessive length, but when the players returned to the board some 6 months later, they started with a clean slate.

That is not the case here, as the results from the first half of the tournament will count when the players come back to Yekaterinburg on April 19. Perhaps, it's the right time for us to take a look at the scoreboard.

Round 7 Standings

# Fed Name Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Score SB
1 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2767 2876 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 4.5/7 15.25
2 Nepomniachtchi, Ian 2774 2875 0 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 4.5/7 14.25
3 Caruana, Fabiano 2842 2764 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 3.5/7 12.25
4-5 Giri, Anish 2763 2775 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 3.5/7 11.25
4-5 Wang, Hao 2762 2775 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 3.5/7 11.25
6 Grischuk, Alexander 2777 2773 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 3.5/7 12.25
7 Ding, Liren 2805 2667 0 0 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ 2.5/7 8.25
8 Alekseenko, Kirill 2698 2683 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 2.5/7 9.25

(Tiebreaks: 1. Mutual score, 2. Number of wins, 3. Sonneborn-Berger.)

There is some odd symmetry in the standings. Two co-leaders, both at +2 each, followed by the middle pack of four at 50%, and then two tail-enders, both at -2. What can we expect to happen?

It is often a thankless job to be a prognosticator. The best I can offer is a study of the previous editions of the Candidates, going back to the 2013 London tournament—which was the first event when the current format, an 8-player double round-robin, was established.

London 2013

Standings after the first half:

1-2. Carlsen and Aronian 5/7
3-4. Kramnik and Svidler 3.5/7

Final Standings:

1-2. Carlsen and Kramnik 8.5/14
3-4. Svidler and Aronian 8/14

GM Levon Aronian showed his vulnerability to pressure by losing three games in the second half of the tournament. GM Magnus Carlsen also had a so-so going, surprisingly losing to the tail-ender GM Vassily Ivanchuk, while GM Vladimir Kramnik began to pile up victories. The drama of the last round is well-documented, as both Carlsen and Kramnik lost their games. Both GM Peter Svidler and Aronian won, but they were too far back to catch up. In the end, Magnus won due to his higher number of wins (5-4).

Who will win the candidates
Carlsen kept his lead and won the 2013 Candidates. Photo: Chess.com.

Khanty-Mansiysk 2014

After the first half:

1-2. Anand and Aronian 4.5/7
...8. Karjakin 2.5/7

Final Standings:

1. Anand 8.5/14 
2. Karjakin 7.5/14

In the second half, Aronian really dropped off the cliff by losing three games. All GM Viswanathan Anand had to do was to keep his own pace, which he did. However, there was an unnerving moment when Anand was objectively lost against the surging Sergey Karjakin in Round 13. Had Karjakin won that game then the margin would have shrunk to a mere half a point with one more game to go, while the number of wins favored the Russian.

Who will win the candidates
Anand playing against Mamedyarov during the 2014 Candidates. Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.

Moscow 2016

After the first half:

1-2. Karjakin and Aronian 4.5/7
3. Anand 4/7

Final Standings:

1. Karjakin 8.5/14
2-3. Caruana and Anand 7.5/14

Plenty of drama at the finish line. After 13 rounds of play, Karjakin and GM Fabiano Caruana were tied for first going into a head-to-head game. All sources were pointing out that the American had to win, because the Russian had the edge in the number of wins. Caruana gambled with a sharp Sicilian and lost. In the meantime, Aronian again was nowhere to be found in the second half of the event: two losses and no wins to his credit.

Who will win the candidates
Karjakin won the 2016 Candidates in Moscow. Photo: Lennart Ootes.

Berlin 2018

After the first half:

1. Caruana 5/7, 2. Mamedyarov 4.5/7
...6. Karjakin 3/7

Final Standings:

1. Caruana 9/14
2-3. Mamedyarov and Karjakin 8/14

At first sight, it looks like smooth sailing throughout for Caruana. Indeed, his final tally of 9 out of 14 is the highest score achieved in all tournaments analyzed above. Yet, after Karjakin beat him again in round 12, they were tied with the head-to-head tie-break edge going to the Russian. It took tremendous willpower on Caruana's part to respond with two wins in the last two rounds, his first victories of the second half. Again, we witnessed a strong second half from Karjakin (5/8), but it wasn't enough to catch up with Caruana.

Who will win the candidates
Caruana holding the winner's medal at the 2018 Candidates. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

Let's draw some conclusions. First off, a 4.5/7 score achieved by GMs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi predicts only 50% probability of success. Neither Vachier-Lagrave nor Nepomniachtchi has played in the Candidates before, so I'm not able to glean any information as to which one of them is going to fall unless I include regular tournaments into my study. In that case, Nepomniachtchi seems a more likely candidate to disappoint, as he had second-half collapses in some 2019 tournaments, such as the Grand Chess Tour event in Croatia and the Sinquefield Cup. 

We all remember the key game of round seven in Yekaterinburg last year, Vachier-Lagrave defeated Nepomniachtchi and caught up to him in the standings. It would have been a sign of bad things to come for Nepomniachtchi, but now, with a year-long break, it must be a distant memory.

Who will win the 2021 candidates
Vachier-Lagrave and Nepomniachtchi after their round seven game last year. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Secondly, the data above suggests that there has always been one player in every Candidates who was able to put together a strong second-half run. It was Kramnik in London and Karjakin (three times!) in the subsequent events. Neither Kramnik nor Karjakin is among the participants this time, so it has to be some dark horse. Caruana comes to mind as the likeliest of the bunch. Here is his second-round victory over GM Kirill Alekseenko:

who will win the 2021 candidates tournament
Could Caruana (left) make a run in the second half of the 2021 Candidates? Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

GM Anish Giri is another possibility when it comes to a potential second-half surge. He tied for first at the 2021 Tata Steel Tournament (losing the tiebreak against GM Jorden van Foreest) and then recently won the 2021 Magnus Carlsen Invitational. Not too many would agree with me, but I won't discount the possibility of GM Ding Liren making some noise either. Still, if the statistics shown above hold any weight, it's going to be Vachier-Lagrave or Nepomniachtchi ultimately prevailing and punching their ticket to a Carlsen showdown. I can't wait.

To help you pass the time until April 19, I would like to share with you my analyses of all 28 games played in Yekaterinburg last year. I know you have seen them all, annotated by some others, but what I can offer is a unique perspective. During the tournament, I served as a commentator on the Russian-language channel here on Chess.com and my partner, GM Vladimir Dobrov, and I was there for every game from start to finish. We tried our best to make heads or tails of what we saw without relying on engine help.

Originally I planned on using my annotations for the basis of a book that I never wrote. I might still do it when the Candidates are complete, but in any case, you are to get the first look.

Enjoy.

Annotated Games From The Candidates Tournament 

Who will win the Candidates