News
9 Things We Learned — 2024 FIDE Candidates Tournament
Gukesh arrives. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

9 Things We Learned — 2024 FIDE Candidates Tournament

Colin_McGourty
| 110 | Chess Event Coverage

Seventeen-year-old GM Gukesh Dommaraju has become the youngest-ever world chess championship challenger after finishing half a point ahead of GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Ian Nepomniachtchi, and Fabiano Caruana. He’ll now play GM Ding Liren for the world title while GM Tan Zhongyi takes on reigning women’s world champion GM Ju Wenjun. But what did we learn from the 2024 FIDE Candidates Tournament?

  1. Gukesh Is The Chosen One
  2. Chess Is Brutal As Caruana Misses Out
  3. Nepomniachtchi’s Candidates Spell Has Finally Been Broken
  4. Vidit Is Nakamura’s Kryptonite
  5. Firouzja Remains A Mystery
  6. Tan Zhongyi Has A Future In Competitive Chess!
  7. Brother/Sister World Champions Could Happen
  8. The Venue Had Issues But The Toronto Candidates Was A Success
  9. Ding-Gukesh Can Be Massive For Chess

1. Gukesh Is The Chosen One

The GM Viswanathan Anand-inspired wave of Indian chess talent has long looked like the future of the game, but the big question was who would rise to the very top. There were many candidates, but one stood out on at least one criterion—age. An 11-year-old Gukesh, from Anand’s home city of Chennai, declared he wanted to be the youngest-ever world chess champion.

Many young players share that dream, but Gukesh earned the grandmaster title at 12 and has remained younger than all the rivals he’s competing with on the board. He’s currently the youngest player in the world's top 100, and while many, including the world's number one player, Magnus Carlsen, had thought the Candidates would come too early for Gukesh, he proved them wrong with a remarkably mature performance.


His one setback was a heartbreaking loss to GM Alireza Firouzja just as Gukesh had looked set to win and take the sole lead at the halfway point of the tournament.


What’s remarkable, however, is that Gukesh identified that moment as the point at which he began to really believe he could win the event:

"Obviously I was quite upset after that, but during the rest day I already felt so good even though I just had a painful loss. I was feeling at my absolute best and I don’t know, maybe this loss just gave me so much motivation."

Gukesh with his second Gajewski. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

It was that mental attitude (which had already shocked Anand and other Indian candidates in a dinner before the event), that enabled Gukesh to stay calm as the pressure grew. His second, Polish GM Grzegorz Gajewski, had worked with Anand for many years and had a fascinating insight into the two players:

"Obviously the similarity is the sharpness, which is outstanding for both of them, and for the difference, I would say mainly the character, because Vishy is the brilliant one, he’s the one who sees it first, whereas Gukesh is the calm one. It’s a huge advantage in chess when you manage to stay cool during the entire game and I’ve noticed that people were so impressed by this, by the way he managed to keep his composure even in the most stressful moments. Apart from being a brilliant chess player, I think this is the main thing that decided the tournament."

Vishy is the brilliant one, he's the one who sees it first, whereas Gukesh is the calm one. It's a huge advantage in chess when you manage to stay cool during the entire game.

—Grzegorz Gajewski

That shone through in the final game, when Gukesh didn’t give Nakamura a chance to play for a win with the white pieces. Gukesh still had to wait for another game to finish to find out if he’d need to return for a playoff on Monday. For once, the Indian teenager couldn’t take it:

"I was watching the commentary for a while, but then I couldn’t watch it. Me and Gajewski went for a walk, and once the result was done my father came running to us and said, ‘it’s over!’ Probably the walk was the turning point!"

When the dust had settled, it was the youngest player in the Candidates who had emerged triumphant, with a +4 score and a 2847 performance rating.


He deserved his hero’s welcome.

2. Chess Is Brutal As Caruana Misses Out

When the Nakamura-Gukesh game ended, Caruana-Nepomniachtchi was just warming up. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The final round was absolutely epic, but also heartbreaking. Caruana achieved the winning position he needed to beat Nepomniachtchi and force a playoff against Gukesh, but the win slipped through his fingers again and again. In the end, the 109-move thriller ended with both players defeated. Nepomniachtchi could say only, “I’m very sorry.” “My fault,” replied Caruana.

Asked the standard question at the press conference of how he felt, he responded, “I feel like an idiot!” He’d come so close. Despite suffering a devastating loss to Nakamura in round eight, just as he had in the same round in Madrid in 2022, this time, the U.S. Chess Champion didn’t collapse but stormed back to win three of his remaining six games. Four wins and he would have been the favorite to win the playoff and earn the second world championship match of his career.

3. Nepomniachtchi’s Candidates Spell Has Finally Been Broken

Nepomniachtchi fell just short of winning a third Candidates in a row. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

For most of the event it had felt as though Nepomniachtchi’s victory in the Candidates was as inevitable as death or taxation. He won two of his first four games, was clearly armed to the teeth, played an order of magnitude faster than his rivals, and, above all, showed incredible resilience to escape positions where others would collapse. There was also the incredible statistic that he’d led, alone or with others, for every round of the three candidates tournaments he’d played. His Achilles’ heel, reacting badly to setbacks, had never been tested—if you don’t count losing in round seven in 2020, when the pandemic gave him a full year to recover!

This year, Nepomniachtchi was never quite tested either. He was the only player of the 16 in Toronto not to lose a game, but after the penultimate round, Gukesh had broken the spell and taken the lead.

An unsuccessful opening against Caruana, and there was no catching the leader, and no getting revenge against Ding... at least for the next few years. 

4. Vidit Is Nakamura’s Kryptonite

We’re no longer surprised by Nakamura focusing on streaming while effortlessly justifying his status as one of the three best chess players in the world. Once again, as in Madrid, he missed out on a world championship match by the narrowest of margins since a win over Gukesh in the final round would have seen him win the tournament outright. That seemed a long way off in round two, when Vidit, who had a topsy-turvy event, unleashed some brilliant preparation with a bishop sac on h3 and went on to win in style.

Vidit stunned Nakamura in round two. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nakamura commented in his final recap:

"After losing a very, very brutal game in the second round of the event I very easily could have fallen apart and simply had a vacation for the last half of the tournament."

I very easily could have fallen apart and simply had a vacation for the last half of the tournament.

—Hikaru Nakamura

Instead, Nakamura described himself as “very proud” of the way that he played, only being finally thwarted by a “fabulous game” from Gukesh in the final round. The other part of the story, however, was another blow delivered by Vidit, who also won their round-nine clash in crushing style.

5. Firouzja Remains A Mystery

There were happy moments for Firouzja in Toronto, but few and far between. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Gukesh had qualified for the Candidates at the last moment by winning the hastily-arranged Chennai Grand Masters and snatching away GM Anish Giri’s FIDE Circuit spot. But Firouzja left things even later, ultimately skipping the World Rapid and Blitz Championship to score 7/7 in an open tournament in Rouen and qualify by rating ahead of GM Wesley So.

That spoke to the 20-year-old’s ambition, but for the second Candidates in a row, nothing went right for the player who crossed the 2800-barrier as an 18-year-old. Back then, it looked as though Firouzja might be the heir to Carlsen and GM Garry Kasparov— players who not only won the world championship title but dominated their eras. In Madrid in 2022, however, Firouzja lost four games and won two, while in Toronto, it was six losses and two wins. He was the one player to beat Gukesh, but he also swapped places with him on the live rating list.

Firouzja sank while Gukesh soared, climbing above World Champion Ding. Image: 2700chess.

GM Nijat Abasov’s struggle in Toronto was expected, but why did Firouzja do so badly? Has a split focus on fashion design and chess held him back? Does he struggle to cope with nerves? Or is this just a lull in a great career to follow?    

6. Tan Zhongyi Has A Future In Competitive Chess!

Tan Zhongyi played an almost perfect tournament. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Tan’s victory was even more impressive than Gukesh’s, as she dominated the Women’s FIDE Candidates from start to finish. She led after every round and ultimately finished 1.5 points clear of her rivals.

It was all the more remarkable as the 32-year-old Chinese grandmaster revealed afterward that she’s no longer focused on her competitive career: "Coming into this tournament I did not have high expectations because right now competitive chess is not my number-one priority. I have my own club in China and also I have a chess coaching career."

Competitive chess is not my number-one priority.

—Tan Zhongyi

She mentioned that in the run-up to the event she’d been preparing students for the Chinese Youth Chess Championship, but whatever she’d done worked to perfection. She’s already a former women’s world champion after winning the title in a knockout in 2017, before losing 5.5-4.5 to Ju in a match in 2018. Now we’ll get a rematch, with Tan vowing to set aside some time to prepare.

What's the secret to success? Being born on May 29, it seems!

The event stayed interesting in the final rounds thanks to her compatriot GM Lei Tingjie, who, in the middle of a sequence of four wins in five games, handed Tan her only defeat.

Lei would also have been a worthy winner, but she couldn't keep up Tan's pace. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Lei’s chances were all but over when she lost a drawable position to GM-elect Vaishali Rameshbabu in the penultimate round, but in the must-win final game, she did at least get to unleash one of the most amazing queen sacrifices you’ll ever witness.


She couldn’t quite remember or navigate the follow-up required to justify the brilliance and went on to lose to GM Humpy Koneru, but what an idea to play on such a stage!   

7. Brother/Sister World Champions Could Happen

The other big story in the women’s event was Vaishali's remarkable comeback from losing four games in a row to winning the final five.

It was a case of what might have been, but also yet more evidence of Vaishali emerging from the shadow of her brother GM Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu to become a real threat to the world’s elite. At 22, she still has the chance to reach the very top of the women’s game, particularly as the more established stars, Tan apart, failed to set the world on fire in Toronto.

Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa can both fight for the world championship title. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Praggnanandhaa suffered three costly losses with the white pieces—to Gukesh, Nakamura, and Caruana—but still finished on 50 percent and would surprise no one if he grew into a world champion in the years to come. Why stop at having brother-and-sister grandmasters in the family when you can shoot for joint world championship titles?

8. The Venue Had Issues But The Toronto Candidates Was A Success

The visa drama in the run-up to the Candidates threatened to see the event switched to Spain, but in the end, all the players were able to travel, with FIDE President and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich the one key figure who failed to get a visa.

The Great Hall became an intense chess arena. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The venue, the Great Hall in Toronto, Canada, proved to be a lot smaller than the name would suggest, with a number of players remarking that the space was cramped for 16 players and arbiters. There was also, as in Madrid two years earlier, an issue with old, creaky wooden floors, which suddenly took center stage when Firouzja reacted ferociously to suggestions from the chief arbiter on how to avoid disturbing other players.

The moment Abasov complained about the noise of a “stomping” Firouzja was captured on video so that you could see and hear where he was coming from.


The off-the-board drama died down after that, with the bigger question perhaps whether holding the overall and Women’s Candidates in the same venue increases or decreases the focus on the women’s event. You can probably make both cases with some evidence, though Tan felt it raised the prestige of the women’s tournament and wasn’t against the idea of potentially holding the two world championship matches together as well.    

9. Ding-Gukesh Can Be Massive For Chess

We’re used to all-Chinese women’s world championship clashes, but for the first time, the overall world chess championship title will be an all-Asian match-up. China’s Ding vs. India’s Gukesh has the potential to be huge for chess, with a 17-year-old potential champion capable of inspiring new levels of chess fervor altogether. Gukesh has already been congratulated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi…


…and one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Sachin Tendulkar.


A hero’s homecoming awaits the young star, and there’s every reason to approach the upcoming match, slated for November-December this year, with optimism. Gukesh overtook Ding on the live rating list during the Candidates and, given Ding’s shaky form, may even be considered the favorite. Ding himself noted, when contacted by Chess.com’s Tarjei J. Svensen that so far, he has the upper hand.


Both this and last year, Ding beat Gukesh with the black pieces in the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, but Gukesh picked up a first win, albeit in Chess960, in the Freestyle Chess GOAT Challenge in February.

Gukesh will face Carlsen in two weeks at the Grand Chess Tour event in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Can Gukesh become the youngest-ever undisputed world chess champion? And would a young champion on the throne perhaps be enough to tempt Carlsen back into the fray? We’ve got exciting times ahead! 

Daily coverage:

Previews:

Colin_McGourty
Colin McGourty

Colin McGourty led news at Chess24 from its launch until it merged with Chess.com a decade later. An amateur player, he got into chess writing when he set up the website Chess in Translation after previously studying Slavic languages and literature in St. Andrews, Odesa, Oxford, and Krakow.

More from Colin_McGourty
Carlsen Wins Superbet Rapid & Blitz Poland With 10-Game Winning Streak

Carlsen Wins Superbet Rapid & Blitz Poland With 10-Game Winning Streak

Wei Yi Powers To 2.5-Point Lead Over Carlsen

Wei Yi Powers To 2.5-Point Lead Over Carlsen