Oh, the humanity!


Those of you following the Candidates will know that Round 12 was a day of high drama as the leaders swapped places. Carlsen lost his first game of the tournament, and that too, to a tail-ender in Ivanchuk. Meanwhile, Aronian continued his slide, falling to Kramnik as white.

That combination (and Kramnik’s current 4.5/5 run), means that Vlad takes a half-point lead with two games to play. Tomorrow, it’s Kramnik – Gelfand and Radjabov – Carlsen; on Monday, it’s Ivanchuk – Kramnik and Carlsen – Svidler.  It’ll be very interesting to see how Magnus responds and whether Kramnik continues his run.

I have a lot of thoughts on how things stand right now … so as the king said, I’ll begin at the beginning, but then I’ll go on till I pass the end of this event.

First, I should say that I was hoping to see Anand go up against some of the young blood in Carlsen or Aronian. While I think Kramnik’s chess level might never have been higher (his middlegame play has definitely improved since his 2008 loss to Anand, and his opening preparation is as deep but broader than in his 2000 win against Kasparov), I’ve already seen an Anand – Kramnik match. But chess-wise, it’s hard to argue with Kramnik. 

In this tournament, he’s only been in trouble once, and that was for one move against Gelfand. By his positions, he hasn’t always won the games that he was “supposed” to win, but things have evened out and he’s probably got the right number of wins now. Magnus hasn’t meanwhile has lost one and was clearly worse as black against Ivanchuk and Kramnik.

Still, it’s a bit weird that Chucky is the one who knocked Magnus off the top perch. There are only a few games in which Ivanchuk has not gotten into terrible time pressure (a win against Radjabov; quick – almost indifferent – draws versus Svidler and Gelfand; and then both games with Carlsen). So while Magnus didn’t play so well, he managed to face good Ivanchuk twice, while most of the rest of the tournament has barely seen him once! Magnus is no Newman, but it seemed to fit.

Just like the Kazan Candidates Matches revealed some flaws in the traditional match design, I think this event shows some flaws of the basic double-round robin. Unlike those matches, I think these are less serious (so I prefer this to the Kazan setup), but I think we could do better as well. In decreasing order of importance then … 

  1. The first is that in case of a tie for first, an actual playoff is pretty far down the list of tiebreaks. First is the head-to-head result; the second is who has more wins (equivalent to who has more losses, but who’s going to phrase it like that?!); the third is the S-B formula; the fourth is rapid chess. I don’t have a huge problem with the head-to-head result, but assuming that’s drawn, I’d then go straight to rapids. Why is number of wins part of the tiebreak at all? There are many better ways to promote real fights (and real fights are more likely to be decisive), and it’s hard to say the person who loses more games is the better candidate. And why should it matter so much that you beat somebody who finished on -3 as opposed to -4?
  2. The second is that tail-enders, people who are nowhere near contention for the real Challenger prize, can have outsize effects on the outcome. It’s still to be seen which Chucky shows up against Kramnik in round 14, but Chucky’s terrible handling of the two games versus Aronian stand in stark contrast to his handling of the two games versus Carlsen. Similarly, Radjabov hasn’t had much to look forward to after the first few games – while he’s a professional and will try, there’s no doubt that the losses have taken a toll.
  3. The third is that the top contenders can play each other early on in a cycle (e.g., Carlsen and Aronian) when the motivation to win is not quite the same. While neither one ended up getting anything in the opening, they may have also tried harder if there was something on the line. Instead, both were happy to tread water and move on to the relative fish in the event.

All in all, I still prefer the match system I proposed then (longer KO matches,  odd number of games, draw odds). I’d probably prefer a two-stage event (say two smaller, single-RRs with top two qualifying for a double-RR second stage), but my match system trumps all! [You can read all about those matches here and then read about some simulations I did here]

Anyway, looking ahead and assuming the order remains the same, this is probably good news for Anand, as I think his chances against Kramnik are quite a bit better than against Carlsen or Aronian (and even against them, I didn’t think he’d be a huge underdog).

Also, unlike Carlsen and Aronian, Anand has actually been able to make some dents in Kramnik’s armor without taking any hits back. It’s interesting that against the two other 2800+ players, Kramnik often presses with both colors,  is rarely in danger, and hasn’t lost to either of them since 2011. Meanwhile, against the next rating cohort (say Karjakin, Anand, and Caruana), he’s struggled quite a bit with no wins, few winning chances, and a handful of losses.


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