The FIDE World Championship Candidates Matches are now underway in Elista, Kalmykia and will be going for the next three weeks or so. I've put up links to the official site and games at the BCM website.
It's good that we once again have some sort of world championship cycle in place. It does seem slightly 'cart before horse': a series of preliminary matches leading up to a final tournament (rather than the other way around). But we are at least promised a matchplay format in the long run. If Kramnik is dethroned, he gets a shot at the tournament winner in 2008 while, if he wins, he has to play Topalov again.
Back to the Candidates matches: I thought I'd try my hand at a bit of punditry and predict the outcome of the matches. Of course, I'm cheating because I've already seen the first game of the round one matches.
Aronian to beat Carlsen: it is a great pity that these two were paired at this stage as I think Carlsen could have got through to the Mexican final if he could have avoided Aronian. But the Armenian is gaining strength all the time and arguably close to the big KATs (Kramnik, Anand, Topalov). But I wouldn't rule out Carlsen altogether: I think he is the greatest prodigy since Fischer.
Shirov to beat Adams - but if it comes down to rapidplay, then Adams to win the 'penalty shoot-out': I'm completely biased and want Mickey to win, but I'm also a natural pessimist. I think both of them are not quite as sharp as they were. Mickey excelled at the old two-game, fast time limit FIDE knock-out format but I'm not sure the standardplay format will suit him as well. The other thing that worries me about Mickey is that he doesn't take a second with him to big events. Shirov has GMs Nisipeanu and Ganguly. I cannot see how a player can succeed at this level without some kind of team around him but Mickey tends to 'travel light'. I hope Mickey proves me wrong. Not that I've anything against Alexei: I had dinner with him once and thought he was very pleasant and easy to talk to. Should be a good match.
Ponomariov to beat Rublevsky: the young Ukrainian has proved his matchplay credentials by winning a FIDE knock-out championship, whereas Rublevsky is inconsistent. However, the standardplay time control may swing the match back in favour of the older man.
Grischuk to beat Malakhov: most of us have hardly heard of Malakhov, apart from that game in the Euro Champs a few years ago where he let Azmai take a move back. He seems a self-effacing fellow. It is well known that Grischuk has been playing a lot of poker and that may take the edge off his advantage.
Leko to beat Gurevich: this one is a no-brainer. Any other result would be a sensation of the highest order.
Polgar to beat Bareev: I paced up and down my office for a while before typing my conclusion. Really, it's too close to call. Polgar is higher rated but Bareev is a resourceful and resilient player who can raise his game. He has been doing a lot of chess teaching recently. That may detract from his chances but then maybe he could do what the semi-retired Khalifman did in the 1999 FIDE knock-out.
Kasimjanov to beat Gelfand: also close to call. Kasimjanov won the last FIDE knock-out but owed much to resourceful tactical play in time trouble. The standardplay format may favour Gelfand, who has had a few very good results recently and has lost nothing of his appetite for the game. But I'm basing my prediction as much as anything on age: 27 to beat 38. Maybe.
Kamsky to beat Bacrot: Bacrot seems to keep a low profile despite his great strength. Apparently he is another poker man and the distraction cannot be good for his game. Kamsky, on the other hand, has made a come-back to chess, and his former record as a formidable match player, as well as some recent top-level practice, must give him the edge.
Now my predictions for the second round of matches, assuming my first round predictions go as above...
Aronian to beat Shirov (or Adams): the fast improving Armenian will be too tough, I think. I'd love to see an Aronian vs Adams match, though.
Ponomariov to beat Grischuk: very close run thing, but my feeling is that Pono is getting back into chess, while Grischuk may be 'over-pokered'.
Leko to beat Polgar: the unofficial championship of Hungary would be a great match, but I think Leko would prevail.
Kamsky to beat Kasimjanov: once again based on standardplay match experience. But I've a sneaking feeling I may be underestimating that long lay-off from chess which may yet undermine Kamsky's chances at this (or the earlier) hurdle.
That would leave us with a line-up in Mexico of...
From that line-up I would pick Anand as winner, with a mouth-watering prospect of an Anand vs Kramnik match to follow in 2008. And the winner of that match would be...
... enough already. Let's get back to enjoying the matches in Elista.