It’s been a very busy time in the chess world. As you know, the Charity Cup tournament in the online Champions Chess Tour recently ended, with Magnus Carlsen ultimately winning over runner-up Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
But in over-the-board play, we are still in the final leg of the 2022 FIDE Grand Prix, a three-leg tournament featuring twenty-four of the top players in the world. This tournament is one of FIDE’s signature events, and is important as the winner and runner up of the Grand Prix earn a place in the Candidates Tournament, the winner of which challenges for the World Championship.
In each leg of the Grand Prix, sixteen of the twenty-four players compete, meaning that each player competes in two of the three legs.
American GM and famous chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura won the first leg of the Grand Prix. While everyone recognizes Naka’s talent for chess, he is best known as a blitz and rapid specialist, so it was gratifying to see him perform so commandingly in classical time controls. Nakamura did not play in the second leg.
Hungary’s Richard Rapport played in the first and second leg, winning the second, while Nakamura is playing in the finals of the third leg, currently being played in Berlin.
With Rapport’s score in the first two legs, and Nakamura’s score after winning the group stage of the third leg, both have enough points that they are out of reach of the competition. Therefore, even though the final standings are not certain, and we do not know yet who will win the 2022 Grand Prix, we do know this:
Both Richard Rapport and Hikaru Nakamura are a lock for the top two spots, and that means that they will be competing in the Candidates Tournament in Madrid this June.
The Candidates Tournament is an eight-player double round robin, and the selection of the players is always some combination of chess mastery and chess politics.
A number of players automatically qualify, as follows:
- the runner-up of the previous World Championship (Ian Nepomniachtchi);
- the top two finishers for the Chess World Cup (Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Sergey Karjakin)
- the top two finishers in the FIDE Grand Swiss (Alireza Firouzja, Fabiano Caruana)
- the top two finishers in the FIDE Grand Prix (Richard Rapport, Hikaru Nakamura)
as well as one candidate nominated by FIDE.
And this is where politics, world events, and even COVID rear their heads.
Teimour Radjabov had qualified for the previous Candidates Tournament but bowed out because of concerns about the pandemic. You may recall that the 2020/1 Candidates Tournament was halted at the halfway mark when global lockdowns were first instituted. When the tournament resumed, about a year later, Radjabov petitioned to be reinstated in the tournament, but of course this could not be accommodated, as his replacement Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had already completed half the tournament, and was in fact in the lead.
And so it is logical, fair, and politically savvy to have FIDE’s nominee be Teimour Radjabov, the top player from Azerbaijan.
So this brings us to eight players in the Candidates, right? Well, not so fast.
Sergey Karjakin, who challenged Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship in 2016, was born in Ukraine but is ethnically Russian. He has been at odds with the majority of elite Russian players in being a vocal supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine. His outspoken, mocking tone in social media has caused him a great deal of trouble. To paraphrase Nakamura: “Sergey’s not going to get invited to the good parties,” meaning that he is unlikely to be invited to participate in tournaments.
FIDE had already taken a strong position on Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As a governing body of international competition, it disallowed Russian players from playing under the Russian flag, as the International Olympic Committee and many other organizations have done. But Karjakin’s outbursts on social media were ultimately so problematic that FIDE censured Karjakin (along with a few other Russian GMs), banning Karjakin from official FIDE events for six months.
This means that Sergey Karjakin cannot play in the Candidates, and misses an opportunity to challenge for the World Championship. But it also means that FIDE needs to find an eighth player for the event.
And here is where COVID rears its head yet again!
Of course FIDE has a protocol for selecting players when a qualified player drops out. The protocol is to go down the list of active rated players and invite the first one that isn’t already qualified for the event.
Right now the #1 player in the world by rating is Magnus Carlsen. #2 is China’s Ding Liren (who just overtook Alireza Firouzja.) So Ding Liren should be in the Candidates, right?
Fun fact. No.
It all hinges on the phrase “active rated player.” Because of travel restrictions due to COVID, Ding Liren has largely been absent from over-the-board chess. He had been invited to play in the Grand Prix but was unable to secure travel visas in time to participate. So even though Ding Liren is one of the highest-rated players in the world, his rating is not considered “active,” as he’s only played four rated games in the past year. For a FIDE rating to be considered active, thirty rated games must have been played in the past year.
This means that in order for Ding to qualify for the Candidates, he will have to play twenty-six rated games by the end of April! Apparently Ding is on course to achieve this. He is currently competing in a twelve-game tournament in Hangzhou, China, and if he keeps on his schedule, he will be able to qualify for the Candidates. He won two of his first three games in this tournament, and has edged out Alireza Firouzja for the #2 ranking spot. The current rankings are:
- Magnus Carlsen: 2864
- Ding Liren: 2805.7
- Alireza Firouzja: 2804
- Levon Aronian: 2785.7
Should Ding fail to reach thirty games in the coming weeks, we expect that Levon Aronian will be invited to the Candidates.
All in all, it’s been a very interesting time in the world of chess!
Here is Nakamura’s convincing win over the young Russian GM Grigoriy Oparin from round five of the group stage of the FIDE Grand Prix.