FIDE Grand Prix: The field of dreams

Top level chess is so withdrawn from the mainstream media that it is unlikely to ever generate much viewership except for the World Championship matches. Seldom do people know how the challenger is chosen to play the world champion.

This is done by the FIDE Candidates Tournament which is held during every world championship cycle. With so many grandmasters above the rating of 2700, how does one decide who goes to the Candidates tournament? Well, the rating list can be misleading. There is so little between these super grandmasters that it is unfair to decide the candidates based on the rating list alone. For instance, some might be taking breaks during the year letting others overtake them. That would be unfair and hence FIDE has a great system for choosing the candidates. Eight super grandmasters compete for the right to challenge the world champion. The runner up from the previous Championship, a sponsor’s choice, the top two finishers of the Chess World Cup, the top two in the rating list (average taken over a year) and finally two from the much maligned FIDE Grand Prix Series.

The FIDE Grand Prix series is a marathon series of four super tournaments. Sixteen Grandmasters tussle over four events to finish in the top two to get to the candidates tournament. They play three tournaments each (choosing to sit out of one out of the four) and their cumulative performance determines their standing. This year, the grand prix series was offered around. Though initially there were no takers, Baku (Azerbaijan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan) ,Tbilisi (Georgia) and Khanty-Mansiysk (Russia) were the four hosting places.

The series started without much ado in Baku. The pre tournament favourite, world number two at the time, Italian GM Fabiano Caruana started with a neat win over prodigy GM Sergey Karjakin (the youngest Grandmaster in history). As the rounds progressed, a surprise leader emerged. 46 year old GM Boris Gelfand of Israel (who was a Grandmaster two years before Caruana was even born!) displayed solid chess. In a crucial last round, Gelfand held on for a draw meaning Caruana and Gelfand finished joint winners. After the first leg of the Grandprix, Caruana and Gelfand led the way.

On they went to Tashkent without much of a break. This led to many boring theoretical games with players accepting swift draws. The lack of quality coverage also meant the tournament was even more less profile than the Baku one. Some exciting players like GM Anish Giri, the tempestuous GM Baadur Jobava, the likeable GM Maxime Vachier Lagrave joined in. The tournament itself was a bit of a damp squib and unheralded Russian GM Dimitry Andreikin finished the winner going undefeated with 3 wins and 9 draws in 12 rounds. GM Shakriyar Mamedyarov finished second. However, their dismal performances in Baku in the first leg meant that their victory didn’t propel them to commanding leads in the standings.

There was a well deserved break for the players after Tashkent. The new year arrived and Tbilisi was the destination for the third leg. The third tournament was much more exciting than the other two. This was due to a relative underdog, GM Evgeny Tomashevsky, who had finished midtable in both Baku and Tashkent, decided to shift a few gears. He won an astonishing five games out of 12 and finished clear winner and took the lead from leapfrogged Caruana and Nakamura (the two favourites) to take the lead in the overall standings.

So this is where we stand after three legs of the grand prix. Ahead of the final leg in Khanty Mansiysk, Tomashevsky leads the way with Mamedyarov at second. However Mamedyarov has already played three tournaments and his standing is just a false representation. Caruana and Nakamura are hot on the heels of Tomashevsky. Sergey Karjakin is lurking in midtable but an outstanding tournament at Khanty can see him race ahead. Karjakin is known for such come backs and it wouldn’t be a major surprise if he does it again. Caruana and Nakamura might be slightly at ease because they may anyway qualify through the ratings list, however, the competition at the top is very fierce with Topalov, Aronian, Grishchuk all in the dogfight to be the world number two.

And all this for just qualifying to the Candidates tournament where another huge tussle awaits with seven fellow Super GMs….and one winner will emerge.

All this for the problem…the final problem – the small matter of facing Magnus Carlsen for the world title