Can we start talking Candidates Matches? First off, capital "C" in candidates or not? Second, apostrophe in "candidates'" or not? We have kids' menus and ladies' rooms, right? Ahem. So take your Strunk, your Funk, and take a hike, punk, because we're here to talk chess. You know, like we always do here. Mostly. Sometimes.
The entirely superfluous candidates matches of
2010 2011 are finally upon us, taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan Kazan, Russia as scheduled six months later than planned. Official site. Only the corruptness and incompetence of Ilyumzhinov's FIDE could finally give Vishy Anand a year off from what was turning into a world championship match marathon, and for that we thank them. No, wait, we don't. Creating a world championship qualification event out of thin air against the published rules just to have a tasty plum to give out in an election year (adding an organizer wildcard for extra sugar) is just good old-fashioned leadership. And hey, some of the announced 500,000 euro prize fund will probably even go to the players.
But we're supposed to ignore this latest example of why even the chess world championship -- especially the chess world championship -- is a political joke designed to scare off legit sponsorship and just talk about the chess, so let's get to it. The official site sez May 3, but that's for arrival and then there's the mandatory onslaught of folk dancing at the opening ceremony on the 4th. The games actually begin on the 5th at 7am EDT. Kazan is the capital of the region of Tatarstan and is also known for illegal music downloads and that Disney movie with Shaquille O'Neal as a genie. But srsly folks, I'm sure every reporter who isn't watching Will and Kate walk to their carriage on the backs of 400 contiguous peasants will be there to cover this important event. If Kazan goes well we can dream of holding our next big event someplace even less yaktastic. No! I kid! Really, it's lovely. Been there. Nice train ride. Book your summer vacation tours now.
In the run-up to these matches the biggest two stories have been 1) Magnus Carlsen dropping out and 2) Danailov saying Topalov will refuse to face a Russian opponent on Russian soil. Those are both better than, say, 3) "Mamedyarov and Topalov accuse each other of cheating and agree to settle things with a duel, eyebrows at ten paces." Topalov can't meet a Russian player until the final since Kramnik and Grischuk are in the other bracket, but it's not an unreasonable forecast since Topalov and Kramnik are favorites. Ironically, Topalov's first-round opponent, newly re-crowned US champ Gata Kamsky, is a Russian Tatar and could be considered the real hometown player in the group. I recommend that Kamsky insist they play outside in a field and piss on a tree to avoid the old cables in the ceiling gambit. My other suggestion is for him to take Sebastien Feller as a second and watch Danailov's head explode.
Let the bracketology begin. Top half winner faces bottom half winner.
Winner of 1) Topalov-Kamsky plays winner of 2) Mamedyarov-Gelfand
Winner of 3) Aronian-Grischuk plays winner of 4) Kramnik-Radjabov
If, in order to protect your sanity, your brain has purged the details from your mind, the first two sets of matches are just four games long, plus tiebreaks. There are no rest days during the matches, but there are two rest days between match rounds. The final is six games with a rest day in the middle.
First the usual disclaimers and caveats about how in a match this short, anything can happen. Done. Topalov has to be the favorite against Kamsky, who made the professional decision to collect $40,000 at the US Ch instead of resting/preparing for Topalov. They played a longer and rather terrible candidates match in 2009, dominated by a still-unconvincing Topalov 4.5-2.5. Kamsky continues to impress by how well he does on sheer talent against his opening handicap against the top 20. Still, a player of his match experience and grit can never be taken lightly and if he survives the openings against Topalov he might solve the organizer's concerns about the Bulgarian boycotting the final. As for Topalov, he's played so rarely of late it's hard to say what to expect. Losing to Anand seemed to take the wind from his sails and he hasn't played a classical event since his mediocre Pearl Spring appearance (4.5/10) way back in October. If he's on his game only Kramnik and Aronian are threats to him. I love Topalov's chess and would love to see him playing his best again, but of course I'm rooting for the Brighton Beach Bomber.
Mamedyarov-Gelfand has B-side written all over it, I'm afraid. Wildcard Mamedyarov is a serial underachiever at the elite level while Gelfand is overachieving consistently while only rarely nailing the big guys. Their recent database score in classical chess is 3-1 Gelfand, all four games decisive and won by white. Both players should be very well rested; like Topalov they've been mostly inactive this year. In a short match I'll take Gelfand's experience over Mamedyarov's energy, but it's really a toss-up.
I'd be happy to watch the other two matches go for twenty games. What great match-ups! Aronian-Grischuk pairs two of the most creative players of this generation. Aronian has a clear edge in strength and results, and usually on preparation, but Grischuk has very high peaks when he's on form. They've swapped wins several times in the past few years with the exciting games you would expect. Grischuk tanked pretty badly in Wijk aan Zee while Aronian cruised, but that was three months ago and the only event for either of them since then was Amber.
Kramnik-Radjabov is a wonderful clash of styles. The methodical majesty of the former world champion versus the scrappy chaos of the former wunderkind. I'm surprised at how rarely they've met; their last classical encounter was at Wijk way back in 2008. Big Vlad is the heavyweight in this entire event and everyone knows it. He has more match experience than all the other players combined according to my wild ass guess department. (Kamsky's up there.) But he was unrecognizable at Amber and merely good for most of 2010. Motivation can be an issue for him and I hope he'll be up for this event big time. He's not the invincible Kramnik of old, but he has an aura that will stay in place in Kazan until someone makes him tip his king. Radjabov has turned into the elite game's most unpredictable counter-puncher. He slacks off for a game or two and then can play with wild abandon.
There's an even split in the ages between the elders and the younger set. Gelfand is 42, Kamsky and Topalov 36, Kramnik 35. Aronian is 28, Grischuk 27, Mamedyarov 26, Radjabov 24. Yow, seeing the "youngsters" Aronian and Grischuk at 28 and 27 is a little depressing. Okay, now I'm definitely rooting for Gelfand. He's one of just eight players born in the 1960s left in the top 100. (Nigel Short, born in 1965, is the oldest player in the top 100.)
Predictions in KOs are for fools, so here I go: Topalov beats Gelfand, Aronian beats Kramnik, and in the final Aronian beats Topalov to challenge Anand! Sure, if I were betting the baby food and playing it safe I'd say Kramnik all the way, but this is consequence free and it's more fun to pick an upset and dream of what would surely be a dazzling world championship match with a new set of storylines. And it would be nice to get a next-gen guy in there before Carlsen decides take off the skinny jeans and put on his man pants and take over.
If this isn't enough match play for you, Hikaru Nakamura is playing Ruslan Ponomariov in a special ten-game challenge match in Saint Louis starting on May 17. (That's the first of the two free days before the candidates final, which is nice.) Six classical games followed by four rapid, should be a great match between two of the hardest fighters in the sport. (Impress me by finding a top player with a higher move average in drawn games with white, one of my odd-but-effective fighting chess metrics. Pono's is 44, Nakamura's 45. Topalov and Grischuk, other well-known fighters, also hit 45.) St. Louis Chess Club resident GM Ben Finegold will play a match against 80-year-old Viktor Korchnoi at the same time.