Friday, March 11, 2016

Chess Candidates Moscow 2016 Predictions and Projections

What does one say about a tournament that features a field of eight players as hard-assed as the Candidates?  
Everybody has a stellar track record. Anybody could win.
One special factor of course, is the massive weight on first place in this event. The prize money is chickenfeed in that context. The first prize of €95K  is  less than a fourth of the guaranteed payoff for a challenger. who will receive 40 per cent of a guaranteed million-dollar purse. So, it would be rational for every player to push hard.
A second factor is that the Candidates is characterised by both its length and strength, as the porn stars might say. The format - eight player, double-round robin, classical time controls with increments  favours deep preparation. It is also a long tournament, which means physical stamina will count.
Unless somebody starts with a massive streak of wins (here's looking at you Fab Caruana! ), there will be ample time for a trailing player to recover. In the last Candidates at  Khanty-Mansiysk, Sergei Karjakin had a minus score after the first half and he eventually placed second.
So who can win this?
By the Ratings, the line up is Fabiano Caruana ( 2794), Anish Giri (2793), Hikaru Nakamura (2790), Levon Aronian (2786), Veselin Topalov (2780), Viswanathan Anand (2762), Sergei Karjakin (2760) and Peter Svidler (2757).
The Elo expectancies tell you nothing much really: if a 2794 player (top-rated) plays a 2757 player (bottom-rated) twice as in this event, the higher rated player will be expected to score 1.1 points or 55 per cent. The spreads will be even less in cases where there is less of a rating difference.  
Elo is an indicator of recent past form. The average Elo of the field is 2777.  Hitting first place will require scoring at least + 3 (8.5/14), or probably more, going by history.  That would imply a tournament performance rating (TPR) of higher than 2850.  These guys are all capable of hitting that sort of TPR.
In an event like this, somebody who can score high (maybe because he plays dynamically at the risk of losing more games as well) are more likely to do well (and also to do badly). So style and a positive attitude will count. So will stamina, quality of preparation, and maintaining a sense of rationality and balance  when things go wrong, as they will inevitably at some stage.   
To be noted: It may be entirely rational and balanced to go bald-headed for broke in the last stages because the payoff is so skewed in favour of the winner. However, a player who is not used to playing that way may not be able to switch methods on demand.
The expert opinion is quite divided.
Peter Heine Nielsen favours Nakamura and considers Anand and Aronian potentially strong contenders as well. He thinks it will take a score of plus 4  to win (9/14).   There's a thoughtful PHN interview - Carlsen, who is PHN's boss is believed to favour Levon Aronian, Anish Giri and Sergei Karjakin as possible challengers, more or less in that order.   
The online bookie's odds are with Nakamura. A due consisting of well-known inventor, James Jorasch and software engineer, Chris Capobianco, put together a software program that ran a million-plus simulated tournaments. Their results favour Caruana. The only difference with the ratings in these simulations is that Naka -Gri change places.  They wrote a long article explaining some of what they did  This also contains an averaged table of bookie odds. Obviously GiGO could apply and in any event, statistical outliers (Anand at Khanty-Mansisyk 2014  where he was seeded #4 ) can do the trick. Amazing scores can also be racked up (Veselin Topalov at San Luis Rey 2005
My personal take follows below.
First, whoever wins the Candidates could be setting himself up for a lot of grief.  Magnus Carlsen isn't exactly a pushover. Carlsen is a truly incredible player. He's the most error-free practitioner in history and one of the most universal as well.  He has become more rounded in style since he started playing world title matches. His preparation has also improved considerably. He has put together a formidable team, working with " The Dane"  (PNH) & "The Hammer" (Jon Ludvig Hammer) as his core team and also with Ding Liren, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave,  Laurent Fressinet, Ian Nepomniachtchi, and Levon Aronian.  
The "oldies", Topalov and Anand are wild cards. They are perfectly capable of winning this event in style. They are also capable of logging minus scores.  Neither comes to this event in good form as such. Neither really has a very good chance of beating Carlsen in a title match, assuming they did win Moscow.  
Levon Aronian is a creative artist. But his form is uncertain at the moment. He's also never done well in title sequence events, be it Candidates or World Cups. I don't think he can cross that barrier of nerves or whatever it is that holds him back in such events. if he does go that internal barrier, he is capable of winning this event with something to spare. Carlsen would beat him in a match however.  Aronian is a little too inconsistent. Also, Carlsen-Aronian have worked together and In such partnerships, the younger man always learns more.
Svidler cannot win this event though he can certainly do well. Peter S is not quite stable enough; not quite solid enough; his nerves could let him down as well.
Karjakin has the ability to win but his form is uncertain. He's a terrific  fighter however. If Karjakin does win, he would be a very dangerous opponent for Carlsen. He's pretty much the same age and if he did make it to challenger, the Russian establishment (some of it at least) would pull out all the stops in supporting him.
There's a cluster of three strong debutants in Caruana, Giri and Nakamura.
Of them, Naka has a terrible record against Carlsen  (0-11 in classical play I think) and the bad record is at least partly because the American has stylistic tics that Carlsen can exploit.  But Naka also has the ability to win and win big in very strong tournaments. He's a scrapper. So he could win the Candidates and if he does, he might surprise Carlsen.
Giri is the most solid player on the planet right now and he has a decent head-to-head versus Carlsen. However, I would not rate Giri's chances of winning the Candidates. He doesn't have a super gear. Unless he has radically changed style, Giri cannot go + 4 or even +3.  He might stay unbeaten and come second with +2 perhaps.
Fabiano Caruana is the only one IMO with a realistic chance of beating Magnus Carlsen.  Caruana has a super-gear. He can play absolutely perfect chess for several games in a row. He has splendid preparation and no real weaknesses. His top rating - in the 2840-plus zone - and his head-to-head score with Carlsen indicates he could take the title. Especially if he's playing in NY with home backing.
Does that mean Fabulous Fab could win this tournament? Well, he could. But he won't be handed it on a platter certainly.  
As I've before, my heart says Anand but my head says Caruana.


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