History of the Candidates Tournament in Chess
There are numerous different ways to enter the Candidates Tournament in chess. The principle of the World Championship cycle is rather complex. In this competition, only first place matters, since it allows the winner to fight for the World Champion’s title.
From the beginning…
After Alexander Alekhine died, and Botvinnik won the tournament match in 1948, the necessity to create a just qualifying process for the title match became evident. The Tournament for Candidates took place in Budapest, in 1950. 10 participants played in two rounds. 7 of them represented the Soviet Union.
Isaac Boleslavsky dominated the entire tournament. However, at the finish line, David Bronstein managed to catch up with 12 out of 20 points. The two friends had to face each other in an additional match where they went stride for stride. After 12 games, the score was 6 to 6. The match continued until the first victory. Bronstein finally got the upper hand in the 14th game, which allowed him to face Mikhail Botvinnik. But that’s another story.
The 1953 Selection
The next competition took place 3 years later, in Zurich. The format was slightly different: 15 grandmasters played in 2 rounds. 9 players from the USSR clearly stood out from the competition. By the way, this trend continued up until 1985.
Vasily Smyslov scored 18 out of 28 points, winning the Tournament. Amazingly, he only lost one game throughout such a long streak, to Alexander Kotov. Bronstein, Keres, and Reshevsky, the latter representing the USA, were 2 points behind and ended up sharing 2nd place.
Vasily then had to fight the one and only Mikhail Botvinnik for the champion’s title.
Three years later…
The 1956 Candidates Tournament took place in Amsterdam. There were 10 participants at the start. Smyslov was the winner of a similar competition held in 1953. As well as the 9 top players of the 1955 Interzonal.
It’s worth mentioning that this time there were 2 players from Argentina, Panno and Pilnik. They were the second-largest national group after the USSR’s which consisted of 6 members.
The tournament concluded with Smyslov’s triumph. In the course of 18 games, he only lost once to Boris Spassky, scoring 11.5 out of 18 points. Keres was the next in line, while others lagged further behind.
Smyslov then proceed to compete against, to no one’s surprise, Botvinnik, who was already expecting his young opponent.
Mikhail the Undefeatable
In 1959, the competition was held under the auspices of FIDE in 3 Yugoslavian cities (Bled, Zagreb, and Belgrade).
8 participants competed in 4 rounds. Mikhail Tal outperformed everyone with 20 points in 28 rounds. Paul Keres came in second, scoring 1.5 points lower. The rest fell way behind. Young Fischer only took 6th place without any chance of claiming a higher spot.
The winners came and left. But Mikhail Botvinnik remained the undefeated World Champion. It was time for Tal to challenge him.
The next Tournament took place in an unusual location, the island of Curacao (Antilles). The local tropical climate had a significant effect on the chess-playing aspect and the overall balance of power.
Geller, Keres, and Petrosian famously agreed beforehand to draw ties against each other in order to conserve energy in the long term. Needless to say, the trio ended up taking the top 3 spots, leaving Fischer, who came in 4th, 3.5, and 3 points behind.
In the end, Tigran Petrosian was the one to challenge Botvinnik. While Geller and Keres shared 2nd place.
The collusion of the three participants was painfully obvious. Forcing FIDE to cancel the Tournament for a long time and switch to individual matches.
Soviet Old School
The last Candidates Tournament of the 20th century took place in 1985. However, this time around, 4 top players would qualify for the candidates’ matches. The winner also had to play in the so-called Superfinal. Only after achieving victory in this tournament, Anatoly Karpov got his shot at earning the World Champion’s title.
Getting back to the subject, it took place in Montpellier, France. 16 competitors played in one round. Almost half (7 people) represented the Soviet Union. Artur Yusupov, Rafael Vaganian, and Andrei Sokolov each scored 9 points out of 15. The match for the 4th and final qualifying spot between Timman and Tal ended in a draw. Ultimately, the victory was awarded to the Dutch grandmaster. He had better supplemental scores in the main tournament.
Evidently, Soviet players were in the top 3 of every single competition, which is astonishing. The Soviet chess school was truly relentless, and its opponents never stood a chance.
The format of the competition has changed several times throughout the history of chess. First, there was the Candidates Tournament. Then, Robert Fischer pushed for individual matches. Until everything changed in 2013…
Let’s take a step back and look at the events that occurred 2 years earlier. During the Candidates’ matches in Kazan. Prior to this tournament, Magnus Carlsen was considered the front-runner. However, he openly criticized the existing system for determining the World Champion. Moreover, he declined to participate in the tournament, leaving the chess dumbfounded.
The future grandmaster has never been famous for performing especially well in knockout tournaments. Even after earning the World Champion’s title, he tried to win the World Cup. But he kept losing, first to Bu Xiangzhi, then to Duda, like he did last year. This is the main reason for refusing to attend the Kazan event.
Magnus got lucky: the number of decisive games at the Russian tournament turned out to be low. Countless chess fans were disappointed. As a result, FIDE decided to bring back the Candidates Tournament, which had been canceled in 1985.
After the revival, the first competition took place in London, in 2013. All the top players attended, including Magnus Carlsen, Vladimir Kramnik, and Levon Aronian. Other participants also got their shots at winning the prestigious tournament.
Unsurprisingly, the battles between the 3 aforementioned favorites ended up being the most heated. Magnus and Kramnik demonstrated superior resilience under pressure.
With one round remaining, they were in the lead with a score of 8.5 out of 13 and played against Svidler and Ivanchuk, whose chances were slim. Nevertheless, both managed to lose somehow, although Magnus was a bit luckier. Thanks to having 5 victories under his belt as opposed to Kramnik’s 4, he qualified for the title match against Viswanathan Anand.
The tournament in London would make for a thrilling feature film. Amazing ending, just like in the movies!
The next tournament took place a year later in the cold Khanty-Mansiysk. 4 out of 8 participants represented Russia. But that didn’t prevent Vishy Anand from achieving a resounding victory. He reaffirmed his status as a luminary without having lost a single game.
Just like in London, Levon Aronian was in the lead at first. But his performance turned for the worse in the second round, undercutting the successful start.
In 2016, the Candidates Tournament took place in Moscow. 8 players participated. Compared to the previous century, the dynamics never get quite as turbulent these days. Sergey Karjakin surpassed his pursuers by one point. In the final round, he defeated his main competitor, Fabiano Caruana. He then proceeded to face the Norwegian genius.
Needless to say, Karjakin was in the lead together with Levon Aronian after the first round.
The next tournament was held in Berlin in 2018. This time around, Fabiano Caruana, possibly the second-greatest player of the generation after Magnus, took the lead. His success was a result of a brilliant performance in the first round, where he earned 5 out of 7 points.
Unfortunately for the fans of the Italian American grandmaster, he lost the title match to Magnus Carlsen in a tie-break.
The 2020 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg was truly one-of-a-kind. Games did get postponed occasionally in the previous century, but pushing back an entire tournament is nonsense. It’s highly unlikely that this scenario will ever repeat. But that’s a different subject altogether.
Teimour Radjabov declined to participate, as he believed it was irresponsible to hold a tournament on the verge of a global pandemic. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, a French grandmaster, took his place instead.
Ian Nepomniachtchi and MVL dominated the first round. But then the epidemiological situation spiraled out of control, forcing the organizers to interrupt the tournament for the participants’ safety.
It was only a year later that the players returned to Yekaterinburg. The Russian grandmaster came in first, while Vachier-Lagrave was 0.5 points behind.
The Undisputed Leader of 2022
The 2022 tournament in Madrid turned out to be no less surprising than the previous event. For the first time in history, a chess player managed to win 2 qualifying competitions in a row. The glory belongs to the Russian maestro Ian Nepomniachtchi.
The very manner in which he won the tournament was fascinating. Ian simply obliterated his competitors by finishing the first round with an amazing result of 5.5 out of 7. The next 7 games were merely a formality. Except for Nepomniachtchi, everyone’s performance was highly inconsistent. Caruana started out with 5 out of 7, but only earned 1.5 points in the second round. Although Radjabov and Ding were struggling initially, both played admirably later on. However, the 7 opponents were pretty much fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile, Nepomniachtchi destroyed them one by one, erasing any hope of victory.
There’s nothing left to do but to wish Ian good luck in the upcoming match for the World Crown against the Chinese grandmaster Ding Liren. And of course, to look forward to the next Candidates Tournament.