Tuesday, 19 March 2013

2013 Candidates: Taking Stock after Round 3


Today (Monday) is the first rest day of the 14-round FIDE Candidates' Tournament being held in London until 1 April. So it's a good day to take stock of what's happened so far, from a personal perspective.

Leader after three rounds: Levon Aronian, 2½/3, setting a hot pace.
The first thing to celebrate about is that chess is being played at all. There were more than a few mutterings and rumours in the days leading up to the event about difficulties over arrangements at the venue, but all obstacles appear to have been overcome. The most important thing is for the players to be comfortable with the set-up and there have been no complaints at the press conferences held after each game. Spectators seem reasonably happy from a small sample of opinions which I taken; and I'm pretty sure members of the press are happy with the space and comfort of the facilities provided. So far, so good, on that front.

What of the play? Four draws in round one attracted some of the usual pessimistic commentary about the 'death of classical chess' but the demise of standard-play has been much exaggerated. Round two provided two decisive games and round three featured a positive bloodbath (will there be four decisive games in round four? OK, deep breaths and calm thoughts... I'm getting overexcited).

Comparisons had previously been made with the London Classic, where players are alleged to be chosen for their reputation as attacking players, whereas competitors in this tournament have qualified by right (well, at least seven of them did) and are (according to one hypothesis) more likely to play cagily and negatively than might be the case if a tournament organiser were judging them on the sexiness of their chess style. But another equally important factor in the FIDE Candidates' competition is that only first place counts, so that anyone who wants to win has to get his skates on. It might have been different if we had endured three rounds with four draws each, but with Levon Aronian now setting a hot pace on 2½/3, his rivals cannot afford for him to get too far ahead of them.


The other day I noticed Natalia Pogonina on Twitter making a point about Magnus Carlsen being the only non-Russian speaker: "With 7/8 Candidates speaking Russian fluently, Magnus will be the only one not sure if it's about the weather or about chess". Someone borrowed that as a question to ask Magnus at a press conference but he was unfazed: he put on his usual lopsided grin and batted it away with some throwaway words. If journalists are hoping to build this event up as 'Magnus versus the Russophones', I fear they will be disappointed. For one thing, Magnus doesn't seem to suffer from Fischeresque paranoia: he just does his thing at the board and doesn't worry who's talking to who. For another, the world of chess has long since been privatised, there is no Soviet Chess Federation any more and all the players are out for themselves.

Magnus Carlsen 2/3 - relaxed about who is talking to who

Another factor which militates against the old-time 'Russians versus the World' geopolitical split in the chess world is that all the players are very good English speakers, in some cases, significantly better than most Britons. It doesn't always seem like it in the press room here (where loudly-spoken Russian often drowns out softly-spoken English) but English has become the lingua franca of the chess world, as it has pretty well in every other walk of life, of course.

An aside: I wonder whether top players sense that their linguistic performance in press conferences has become almost as important to their careers as their results, rating and attacking flair at the board. Interviews are often webcast to the world these days and a good performance in a press conference can help build a reputation and perhaps generate invitations to major events where organisers are at pains to improve the quality of their video material in order to attract more visitors to their sponsored websites.

Until recently, the players who received the most coverage in the chess press would have been Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand, Nigel Short, Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Svidler, and part of their appeal has been their facility to produce a well-phrased English language sound bite. Things have developed fast with the ubiquity of video-recorded webcasts, and tournaments like the annual Gibraltar Chess Festival even going to the expense of building a dedicated video/commentary suite for annual congresses.

Levon Aronian and Magnus Carlsen now spend a lot of time in English-speaking countries (USA and Australia as well as the UK) and it has done their fluency and language ability no end of good. London 2013 has revealed that Teimour Radjabov is also a very fluent, confident speaker - he's almost as garrulous as Vlad Kramnik in full flow. Teimour revealed at one conference that he pays regular visits to both Paris and London so that explains his language skills. Alexander Grischuk is a man of fewer words but he has a penchant for laconic, deadpan humour, not to mention excellent comic timing. These too have developed considerable commentary room appeal and might have caught a few tournament organisers' eyes.

That leaves Vassily Ivanchuk and Boris Gelfand, who have been having a hard time in London and consequently have had slightly less to say at press conferences, but I know from personal experience that they can both be charming and entertaining conversationalists. Vassily gave a superb master class in Gibraltar recently, while Boris gave me a great interview for CHESS Magazine a year or so.

Make no mistake, talking a great game is becoming almost as important a skill for chess professionals as playing a great game.


The score after three rounds: Aronian 2½, Carlsen and Svidler 2, Grischuk, Kramnik and Radjabov 1½, Gelfand and Ivanchuk ½. With only one place really worth playing for, the tournament takes on something of a knock-out flavour, so at present it is more a question of who is looking to be out of the running rather than who is going to win. Things already look very bleak for the two forty-somethings, Gelfand and Ivanchuk, who are marooned in joint last place, a point away from the field and two points adrift of the leader. But these two tough guys won't have given up all hope yet, although their major contribution to the tournament is more likely to be the possibility of wrecking someone else's chances in a one-off game. They'll be hurting right now, and doubly determined to win a game or two to ease the pain.

Vassily Ivanchuk and Boris Gelfand, both ½/3: smiling through the pain

Aronian leads: could it be third time lucky for Levon in London, after his two indifferent London Classics in 2011 and 2012? So far he has defeated the old two older players in games where the clock played a big part, as did a couple of 'senior moments' but you have to give the Armenian credit: it is akin to the way that Carlsen bamboozles his opponents in the latter stages, with Aronian tending to draw blood in the late middlegame. If perhaps he does feel he's been a bit lucky, it is no bad thing. A bit of superstitious belief in your own good fortune often helps boost morale.

Carlsen's minimalist style didn't bring him anything much in rounds one and two but his third game victory will give him further confidence that his endgame grinding technique works as well in a world qualifier as it does in super-tournaments. Tucked in just behind the leader is a satisfactory start for him. 

Those are the expected front runners, but bracketed on the same score as Carlsen at present is someone not singled out by many pundits as a likely winner...

Peter Svidler 2/3: 'home player'?

Peter Svidler is just half a point off the lead and I don't think we should allow ourselves to be beguiled by his self-deprecating comments and light-hearted whimsy at press conferences. The guy wants to win it - and anyone who has piled up six Russian Championship victories can win it. Peter looks in great physical shape (though he's getting a bit fed up with the press talking about it - sorry, Peter), he's in good humour, and he's practically an honorary Englishman with his love of cricket and his immaculately idiomatic language skills. So he's the next best thing to a home player, and a great favourite with everyone who knows him. Home advantage and popularity should count for something.

Vladimir Kramnik 1½/3: survived 'trial by Carlsen'

Vlad Kramnik was relieved that his 'trial by Carlsen' ended painlessly in round one and he's had two blacks out of three, but he will be a bit disappointed not to have put away his fellow countryman Grischuk in round three. These are very early days, but he will want to achieve a decisive result soon as he is a man who can get stuck in a draw rut when things don't go positively for him, and there is a slight risk that a slow start might leave him too far behind if an Aronian/Carlsen race kicks off. 

Vlad won his world title in London and he's won a London Classic so he might also feel he is playing on home turf. And I may be getting a little over-excited after seeing three decisive games in round three: maybe the pace of the tournament will settle a little in the next few rounds and allow time for him to get his engine going. No need to panic yet, of course. I'm guessing that 'panic' is one word in English that Vlad might not know as the concept is alien to him.

Alexander Grischuk 1½/3: deadpan humour

Alexander Grischuk... I'll be frank, I don't see him as a potential winner. I cannot really articulate why. He's had some very pretty good results in this sort of field so I suppose he must be in the hunt, but somehow his languid manner and deadpan humour don't have 'world championship challenger' stamped on them. I wonder if he has the intensity of some of the others or the single-minded will to reach the very top, but maybe I've just been fooled by his laid-back schtick. One thing is for certain, he put up some damned fine play to defend himself against what could easily have become a routine Kramnik win with White in round three, so he's certainly hard to put away. He's right there in the hunt, everything to play for... (I'm out of clichés so let's call a halt.)

Teimour Radjabov 1½/3: gambler?

That leaves Teimour Radjabov. I think he actually has pretty good chances. Maybe his status as the 'wild card' detracts from people's expectations of him but it pays to bear in mind the rating list where he is an impressive number four. As Carlsen himself said recently, "the rating list doesn't lie". Like Alexander Grischuk, Teimour likes to wisecrack at press conferences, and sometimes answers questions in far more detail than he needs to, but there is a definite intensity about those deep, dark eyes, like another well-known player from Baku a few years ago. This guy wants it. He's prepared to gamble for it, too, by taking chances. My main reservation is that risk-taking chess, King's Indians, etc, may not quite suit the context of a world championship qualifier where there are no weak players or easy games, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

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