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Greg on Chess: Handicapping the Candidates Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
May 3, 2011
greglead.jpgIn a new series of articles, "Greg on Chess", IM Greg Shahade, also the founder of the US Chess League and the US Chess School, will voice his strong opinions on everything from tournament formats to how to popularize chess. In his first piece, he gives his thoughts on the Candidates Matches. Don't agree with Greg? Login as a USCF member and post a comment! 

The FIDE Candidate matches begin in just a couple days (see the complete schedule on the official site.), so it’s a great time to take a look at the different matchups and make some predictions as to who is most likely to win the Match Tournament and move on to face Viswanathan Anand for the World Championship.
While the tournament boasts some of the top players in the world, it’s definitely a major letdown that GM Magnus Carlsen withdrew from the event. Carlsen is a player with lots of star power, and for him to not be taking part causes the event to lose a lot of luster. Despite his absence, every other super elite GM is taking part, so it remains a very interesting tournament.
 The way I see this tournament, there are three players who have the bulk of the chances to move on and face Anand. Meanwhile there are five guys who are going to need to play the tournament of their life to make it to the World Championship Match.

The obvious favorites are Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and newly 2800+, Levon Aronian. While Aronian is currently the highest rated of the group, I would say that his lack of match experience could cause him some difficulties.

In a follow up article I’m going to talk about what I like about match tournaments compared to regular Round Robins, mainly because in a match tournament, both players are playing for the exact same prize. In Round Robins, you will often have a situation where one player is playing for a huge prize, while their opponent is playing for very little. This is a situation that’s likely to lead to a higher frequency of cheating, and anyone who doesn’t think that this kind of cheating is rampant, even at high level chess, is living in a fantasy world. I’ve personally witnessed many examples and have been told about many others, even in some of the highest level tournaments in the last year or so. This is another reason why I do not approve of Round Robin type tournaments or tournament series’ determining any of the participants of a World Championship series, as someone can easily buy their way in. One thing I admire about our biggest star, GM Hikaru Nakamura, is that when someone tried to buy a game from him a few years ago, not only did he decline, but he immediately went to the tournament director and reported his opponent. Sadly this fails to occur in about 90% of such cases, even if the offer is refused.

Let’s take a look at every first round match, and then give some overall percentages as to whom is most likely to win the event:
1.       Vladimir Kramnik (2785) vs Teimour Radjabov (2744)

    Kramnik is the obvious favorite here. He has a ton of match experience, and has played matches against all of the top players in the world for the past ten years. For various reasons, I’m not a big fan of Radjabov, and don’t believe he deserves to be in this event. Despite that, Radjabov is a strong player and very capable of beating anyone in a short match. In a four-game match, anything can happen. I’ll give Kramnik about a 70% chance of advancing. I would give him a higher percentage, but his form has been less than stellar as of late.

2.       Levon Aronian (2807) vs Alexander Grischuk (2746)

  Grischuk is always a game opponent, but you can’t argue with the recent results that Aronian has been showing. This is a match between two guys who have really exciting styles of chess, but it’s clear that at this moment Aronian is at a slightly higher level. I’d give Aronian about a 70% chance of victory as well. The winner of this match will face off against the winner of Kramnik vs Radjabov.

3.       Veselin Topalov (2775) vs Gata Kamsky (2732)

Of course I will be rooting heavily for Kamsky, not only because he is American, but also because he’s a very nice guy and also because of Topalov’s close association with Silvio Danailov (he is Topalov’s manager) and many of the behaviors that Danailov has displayed. Unfortunately I think that Kamsky will be up against it in this match.

Gata Kamsky by Betsy Dynako May CL Mag
Despite Kamsky having just won the U.S. Championship with relative ease, the level of chess he’s going to be facing here is at a much higher level. He already lost convincingly to Topalov in a longer match a few years ago. The good news for Kamsky is that Topalov’s results have been a bit up and down lately, but he has always had very strong results against Kamsky. I’d never discount Kamsky and his strong fighting spirit, but I’m giving Topalov a 72% chance to win this match.

4.       Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (2772) vs Boris Gelfand (2733)

Gelfand has slipped under the radar for the past 20 years, remaining as one of the world’s elite. He’s never really a true contender for the World Championship title, but he’s always just underneath that level. He reminds me of Vassily Ivanchuk, except with a much more boring style. I think it’s Gelfand’s solid style that results in Ivanchuk having so many more fans. Gelfand is facing Mamedyarov, whose rating has shot up to a very impressive 2772. Gelfand has so much top level experience that I’m only going to make him a small underdog against his higher rated opponent. Honestly though I wouldn’t blame you if you felt that Gelfand was the favorite.

These two are both lucky to have avoided playing the Big three in Round 1 (Kramnik, Topalov, Aronian), and this will likely be the least anticipated match of the first round.

Let me make it clear that I have a strong rooting interest for Gelfand. It would be interesting if two of my favorite players, Mamedyarov and Radjabov, face off in the final match. It would be especially funny if Radjabov wins. In any case it seems that many top organizers share my opinion on these guys, as they aren’t getting so many high level invitations these days.
So I’ve predicted Kramnik, Aronian, Topalov and Mamedyarov to advance to Round 2. Let’s take a look at the Round 2 matches:
1.       Vladimir Kramnik (2785) vs Levon Aronian (2807)

 This is about as even as you can get. Because I like him, I’m going to give Aronian a 53% chance to win the match. In honesty though, your guess is as good as mine. Kramnik has been around forever and while Aronian is playing awesomely, it’s never easy to beat someone as cagey as Kramnik in a match format. Still, my gut tells me that Aronian is ready to breakthrough….he’s not 2800+ by accident and he’s coming off an amazing result at the Melody Amber rapid+blindfold combined tournament.
2.       Veselin Topalov (2775) vs Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (2772)

I’m aware that the two players have virtually identical ratings, however Topalov’s top level experience should make him a clear favorite here. I’ll give Topalov a 70% chance to advance to the final. Topalov definitely has the best draw in the field, as he doesn’t have to face Kramnik or Aronian until the final match.

The final match is slated to be six games long, instead of the previous four game matches. Based on my predictions, the final would be:

Final Match: Veselin Topalov (2775) vs Levon Aronian (2807)

Now even though I seem to be harping on the experience factor of Topalov and Kramnik, I just have a gut feeling about Aronian. I think he’s finally turned the corner into being one of the absolute best in the world. Meanwhile Topalov’s play has been a bit unsteady in the last few years. However I do think that it’s close, and will give a 55% chance to Aronian, which is roughly the same chance I’d give to Kramnik if he faces Topalov in the final.
So here are my combined odds for victory. Note that Topalov is so high because I think he has the easiest path to the final. I’ve given the big three (Topalov, Aronian, Kramnik) a combined 70% chance to be the challenger for Anand.
Veselin Topalov: 25%
Levon Aronian: 24%
Vladimir Kramnik: 22%
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov: 7%
Alexander Grischuk: 7%
Boris Gelfand: 6%
Gata Kamsky: 5%
Teimour Radjabov: 5%

Are Greg Shahade's opinions different than your own? Feel free to share your thoughts and predictions in the comments section and stay up to date on the match via the official site, the Internet Chess Club,chessbase, chessvibes, chessninja, The Week in Chess and wherever else you get your chess news. Also look for more controversial articles by Greg in the coming months including pieces on round robins, tiebreaks, cheating, complaining chessplayers and more!

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