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Preparing for Candidates 2022

Karjakin appeal to CAS creates uncertainty


The 2022 Candidates tournament begins in Madrid, Spain, on 17 June. Eight of the world's strongest grandmasters will play each other twice to decide who will be Magnus Carlsen's next challenger for the world chess championship.

There remains some uncertainty about the participants because Sergey Karjakin has an appeal pending to the Swiss-based Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) against FIDE's decision to ban him from international play for six months. The appeal was filed on 6 May but whether CAS will make a decision soon is unclear. If the decision is not made in time, or if Karjakin loses his appeal, then he will be replaced by Ding Liren of China.

In a recent interview, Ding Liren said that he has received an invitation to Madrid, has applied for his visa and made his travel arrangements but is not yet 100 per cent certain he will be taking Karjakin's place.

The draw has already been made and the round one pairings are as follows:

Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) v. Richard Rapport (Hungary);
Ding Liren (China) v Ian Nepomniachtchi (playing under the FIDE flag);
Fabiano Caruana (USA) v Hikaru Nakamura (USA);
Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) v Alireza Firouzja (France).

Caruana, Duda and Rapport will today finish playing in the Superbet Rapid and Blitz in Warsaw, the second event in the 2022 Grand Chess Tour series, while Ding Liren is competing in the online Chessable Masters.

Four of the Candidates (Caruana, Nepo', Rapport and Firouzja) competed earlier this month in Romania in the first of the Grand Tour events, the Superbet Chess Classic. None of them did very well, Caruana (with 4.5/9) being the only one to score 50 per cent: one win, one loss and seven draws.

Nepo' and Firouzja each had one win and two losses while Rapoort had two losses and no wins. Hardly the best morale-booster for the Candidates, you might think, but they probably had to conceal opening ideas they had prepared for Madrid. Only time will tell. The tournament was won by France's Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in a three-way rapid tiebreak in which he defeated Levon Aronian and Wesley So.

Below we briefly discuss the eight Candidates and their route to qualify for the tournament. We take them in the order they are listed above.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland, 2750) is one of the most exciting young players in the world right now. He was born in 1998 and qualified as winner of the 2021 FIDE World Cup. Duda is currently 16th on the world ranking list, all of 114 rating points behind Magnus Carlsen but he has actually beaten Magnus a few times, including defeating him in the semi-final of the Cup. So despite having the lowest current ranking of all the Candidates, Duda is definitely a contender to upset the rankings and might even win in Madrid. The World Cup runner-up Karjakin also qualified but is now disqualified which created a vacancy (discussed below).

Richard Rapport (Hungary, born in 1996) was fifth on the May FIDE rating list at 2776 but after finishing joint last in the Superbet Classic he is down to eighth place at 2764 in the live ratings. He has an unorthodox style of play which brought him success in the Grand Prix series from which he qualified for the Candidates, winning the Belgrade leg. He may get found out in Madrid which is a very different type of event where stability will be important.

Ding Liren (China, 2806) will be 30 years old later this year. He is definitely a strong contender and had been one of the favourites for the previous candidates (played in Russia, half in 2020 and half in 2021) until his chances were badly affected by the Covid pandemic. He made a bad start and never recovered, after which, unable to leave China, he hardly played any classical chess until recently. But when the chance to be Karjakin's replacement arose, he quickly played three events in China and is currently second in the world rankings.

Ding would probably be one of the two or three players Carlsen would least like to meet in a title match because Ding has shown himself capable of beating capable in a rapid and blitz playoff. (In the 2016 and 2018 matches Carlsen seemed happy to tie in the classical part of his matches against Karjakin and Caruana respectively but comfortably beat them in rapid play.)

Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia, born in 1992) qualified as loser of the 2021 world title match but his mauling by Carlsen last year may undermine his motivation to succeed in Madrid. It also remains to be seen how he will be affected by the deservedly bad press Russia is getting in the West, though he has spoken against the war. Nepo's rating in May was 2773 but the points he lost recently brings him down to 2664, seventh in the rankings. (He leapfrogs Rapport but is overtaken by So and Aronian after their performances in Romania.)

Fabiano Caruana (USA, also born in 1992) lost the 2018 world championship on tiebreak. Currently he is fourth in the world rankings at 2782 (down from 2786 on the last published list) and must be considered one of the real contenders if he can regain his best form. At one time Caruana was rated just over 2800 and is capable of getting there again. His route to qualification was the FIDE Grand Swiss in Riga in which he scored 7.5/11 to be runner-up.

Hikaru Nakamura (also from the USA, 2760) is the second oldest candidate, having been born in December 1987, and was ince number 2 in the world rankings. He is currently 11th after making a surprise comeback to classical play to win the Grand Prix series: first in one Berlin leg and runner-up to Wesley So in the other. A formidable competitor in rapid and blitz, especially online, Nakamura can also beat anyone in classical play on his day and used to win many open tournaments. Nakamura has played one previous Candidates tournament: in 2016 when he finished seventh.

Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan, 2753) was born on 12 March 1987. which makes him the oldest Candidate. He is currently 13th on the world ranking list. Radjabov hasbeen a top grandmaster for many years but there have been some interruptions to his chess career. He qualified for the 2011 Candidates, when it was a match series, but was eliminated by Kramnik. In the 2013 London Candidates tournament, where he was the sponsors' nominee, he finished last. Making a comeback, Radjabov qualified for the 2020 Candidates by winning the 2019 World Cup, which was something of a surprise, but declined to travel to Russia when the Covid pandemic broke out. When that tournament (which was suspended half-way) was due to restart, Radjabov asked to be included but instead was promised the 2022 vacancy.

Alireza Firouzja (France) reached 2804 and second place on the FIDE rating list but has fallen back to 2793 and has been overtaken by Ding. He will only celebrate his 19th birthday on the day the second round is played in Madrid, making him by far the youngest competitor.

Firouzja left his native Iran in 2019 with his father because of that country's policy regarding Israeli players: he was not allowed to meet them in competition which would have made his progress to the top in chess impossible.

Since 2021 Firouzja has been a French citizen and France's previous top player Vachier-Lagrave has promised to help him at the Candidates.

Firouzja won the 2021 Riga Grand Swiss outright with 8/11 to qualify for the Candidates. Since then he won the gold medal for top board in the European Team Championship and broke 2800 in the live ratings, at a younger age than Magnus Carlsen did. He is definitely one of the players with a strong chance to win Madrid and is perhaps the opponent Carlsen would, parodoxically, most like to meet because of the inter-generational challenge.

There have also been suggestions (for example in the current New in Chess magazine 2022/1) that Magnus Carlsen does not wish to play another World Championship match unless the Candidates is won by one of the leaders of the new generation, meaning presumably Firouzja or Duda.

We still have a separate page about the 2021 world championship match between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen which was played last November and December in Dubai.