What can we expect from the Grand Prix series? If it had become a copy of the women’s series with big prizes and every last one of the top players answering the “call to arms” you’d only be able to admire the foresight of Andrew Paulson and FIDE in managing to seize the initiative from the organisers of the traditional supertournaments – and get it all.
But, judging from the way the Grand Prix will be organised, and that the series will include neither Carlsen nor Aronian, nor even Kramnik and Anand, the dream of organising a series of tournaments that would suit all the top players is still only a dream. Kasparov managed to do something similar with the World Cup in 1989-1990, although back then, despite the involvement of both “Ks” along with Timman, Salov, Jusupov, Short and Beliavsky certain players were sacrificed to market conditions… For instance, players like Ivanchuk and Gelfand were already posting results that were clearly superior to, let’s say, Nogueiras, but he played, while the youngsters had to fight for their places through qualifying.
This time round each of the “refuseniks” had his reasons for not taking part in the Grand Prix – Carlsen complained about his heavy tournament schedule, while Aronian and Kramnik talked about the need to prepare for the Candidates Tournament – but the fact remains… they’re not in the Grand Prix. And that’s despite Paulson having met each of them individually and having had a great desire to motivate them. If not with money, then with something else.
As for the other idea – returning chess to European capital cities – the Grand Prix should live up to its role. In the mid-90s the Intel Grand Prix organised by the PCA took the world by storm, while the first knockouts were also held in world chess centres. And now, 15 years later, we’re again back in London, Paris, Berlin and Madrid! So far it all looks pretty appealing, and it might end up being just as appealing to watch. After all, Agon is promising simply brilliant TV footage.
It’s time for chess to return from cosy villages to world centres. It should become the norm and, undoubtedly, it’ll benefit chess – both those who currently play and, of course, those who are planning to become part of it. London is a good place to start; we can thank the Russian Chess Federation for cutting down the idea of holding the 1st stage in Chelyabinsk. That would have made much less of a splash.
But let’s put aside our cautious enthusiasm. It’s time to assess the new supply of faces…
The London stage of the FIDE Grand Prix will involve 12 players, as will the other five tournaments. The allocation of players between the different stages hasn’t ended up being entirely uniform – and it looks as though the first will turn out to be the least formidable.
If you take the ratings of the players for August 2012 then the average Elo in London is only 2738.4, while the average rating of the full 18 Grand Prix players is 2747.1. It’s going to involve five (of the six) Agon nominees, three players from the last World Cup and three who qualified for the Grand Prix on rating, plus the World Championship runner-up Gelfand. The ratings favourite will be Nakamura (2783).
Our experts Vlad Tkachiev and Evgeny Atarov have attempted to define which qualities will help or hinder each of the 12 players as they compete for victory in the 1st stage of the Grand Prix. The grandmaster and journalist took as their starting point the fact that each of the dozen could be considered a candidate for victory given the right circumstances.
Hikaru NAKAMURA / USA
Pro & Contra: His usual motivation has recently been supplemented by a sharp rise in his opening knowledge. You sense someone’s powerful hand at work: perhaps it’s the remnants of his cooperation with Kasparov, perhaps someone new, or perhaps Hikaru himself has begun to work much more seriously on chess than before.
A big plus for Nakamura is the slightly uneven line-up of players, as in such cases the American is always dangerous. He plays for a win with either colour and has the ability and strength to win a lot of games while not losing a lot…
He could be considered the main tournament favourite if it wasn’t for his excessive excitability during games and, despite his rating and achievements, not having got into the habit of demonstrating brilliant results in tournaments of this strength. In recent years nothing comes to mind except his victory at Wijk aan Zee, where there were a lot of Dutch players, and his almost winning the Tal Memorial. Can Hikaru acquire that habit? We’ll see. But there’s no question he’ll be towards the top!
Vassily IVANCHUK / Ukraine
Pro & Contra: The result Ivanchuk posts at a tournament depends entirely on what form he’s in and his psychological state at that particular moment. It’s well-known that nobody can predict that… not even Ivanchuk himself.
He could end up anywhere from first place to mid-table, though it’s unlikely he’ll finish on a minus. You can say the same about the quality of chess he’ll display in London. At the Olympiad the variation in Vassily’s form was pretty wide – from his collapse against Aronian to the heights of his game against Wang Hao. But there’s no way you can use his play for the Ukrainian team to evaluate Ivanchuk’s current “quality” – it’s well-known that playing for the team works as a powerful aphrodisiac on him, just as it does on Aronian.
Ivanchuk has it all: calculation, imagination, determination – everything will depend on his condition. In recent years there hasn’t been a more unstable member of the chess elite, and while for most people such swings last a game or two, for him they can last whole tournaments.
Alexander GRISCHUK / Russia
Pro & Contra: The situation with Grischuk is the same: when everything’s in order with both his ambition and preparation he gets into a state when he strives to win all such tournaments. On the other hand, it’s hard to recall when he last did something similar in classical chess! In the previous Grand Prix Sasha was a contender on a few occasions, but he didn’t score a single first place. He also hasn’t won Wijk aan Zee or similar tournaments; Linares, where he’s played well on a number of occasions, stands out.
Among elite chess players he’s one of the most responsible in his approach to a game, striving to make each move count for as much as possible. You want to wish him well, but regretfully it’s still not possible to consider him one of the clear favourites for the Grand Prix. He needs the experience of victories… And, perhaps, London can be the first. The main thing is not to do anything stupid and to maintain his concentration.
If Grischuk doesn’t win he’ll undoubtedly be among the contenders. It would also be much easier if he could change his conviction that classical chess is… an unnecessary four hours “prelude” to rapid chess and blitz.
Veselin TOPALOV / Bulgaria
Pro & Contra: Recently his legendary preparation has disappeared, and we’ve barely seen any flashes of it. It’s the same with his “bursts of energy” and his old calculating ability. The current Topalov gives the impression of a pale shadow of his former self – at the Olympiad that led to a series of crushing defeats, and he managed to maintain his rating exclusively due to encounters with weaker players.
Given his Olympiad torments it seems the Bulgarian is no longer competitive in the company of elite or near elite chess players, but anything can happen. Say what you like, but “old habits die hard” and he has years of experience of demolishing tournaments at this level. The result will depend on the degree to which Veselin can combine that with his current sporting form. There shouldn’t be any illusions.
Peter SVIDLER / Russia
Pro & Contra: Last year he produced a couple of top-class tournaments. He decided to change his style and play much more sharply – the numerous draws in unclear positions disappeared and now Peter is almost consciously prepared to go through hell, forcing both himself and his opponents to give their all. After working with Grischuk he’s also begun to look very decent in the opening. All that remains to be seen is whether he’s willing to forego a life of ease in order to start fighting for the very top places. If he is and he manages to maintain his inner dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs he’ll be one of the favourites.
You get the feeling that spending time in the crucible of the World Championship title battle while helping his friend Grischuk has lit a fire in Svidler’s soul. He still has nondescript tournaments like the recent Superfinal of the Russian Championship, when he was unable to do a thing, but you also get ones like the World Cup, which he won in brilliant style.
WANG HAO / China
Pro & Contra: A bold chess player who’s capable of beating anyone in this field, as he recently demonstrated in Biel. He’s quite imaginative in the opening, but a lack of rigour and excessive excitability during play prevent him from fulfilling his full chess potential.
If he can gather himself together and contest every game he’ll fight for the top places, but otherwise his normal position will be mid-table, somewhere in the region of +1. It’s unlikely that even his heroic success in Biel has fundamentally altered anything in Wang Hao. His role is still likely to be that of a bit-part player, who occasionally surprises. There’ll be too much top-quality opposition in London.
Boris GELFAND / Israel
Pro & Contra: In terms of preparation he’ll no doubt look very good – in the past World Championship match participants have “fed off” their novelties for the next year or year and a half. However, preparing for Anand isn’t the same thing as preparing for a series of different types of opponents.
Gelfand might be helped by his long years of experience of taking part in supertournaments. But… that same experience suggests that for many years now Boris hasn’t, alas, been one of the contenders for victory. You can count on your fingers his successful performances, although he did well at the Grand Prix stage in Jermuk.
We’ll see. If we don’t count the Olympiad, at which Gelfand frankly didn’t dazzle, the tournament in London will be his first after the title match, and anything can happen! You can just as easily expect a memorable performance from him as a collapse.
Today you’re the World Championship challenger, while tomorrow...
Peter LEKO / Hungary
Pro & Contra: In terms of preparation he’s always looked good, and that’s still the case. The key role in the question of whether Leko will perform well in London will be played by motivation. In the last three years people have stopped inviting Peter to the most prestigious tournaments, but he’s not willing to accept that and wants to prove that he was unfairly excluded.
Whenever the Hungarian has the chance he tries to show everything he’s capable of. In Dortmund, at the Olympiad… But what might stand in the way of his “return” is his traditional unwillingness to take on too much risk. Neither Carlsen nor Aronian would manage to win such a tournament without taking risks. At some point he’ll simply be obliged to resort to violent measures, and the question of whether the current Leko is capable of fighting in such a style remains an open one…
What are his chances? If things go well in the opening and with which colours he gets – then it’s perfectly possible he’ll be towards the top. And then with a little luck anything can happen!
Shakhriyar MAMEDYAROV / Azerbaijan
Pro & Contra: He played brilliantly at the Olympiad, demonstrating a great number of ideas. We hadn’t seen such emotional outbursts from Mamedyarov for a long time. Of course the line-up will be a little different in London, but for Shakhriyar the strength of his opponents never had any great significance. What mattered was his own condition.
His case recalls that of Ivanchuk, so everything will depend on his form. Either he’ll be in a state of extreme motivation, or he’ll be “deflated”, which unfortunately is something that happens just as often with him… Mamedyarov currently has all the qualities needed to try and win the tournament, but god alone knows how it’ll all work out.
Leinier DOMINGUEZ / Cuba
Pro & Contra: While we talked about all the previous players as potential contenders for first place you can’t say that about Dominguez... Leinier didn’t play badly at the Olympiad, but it was a different level of opposition. He’s no doubt the player in London who’s most dependent on the opening; no-one else even comes close in that regard. If things go right in the opening he might end up on a plus, but if they don’t he’ll end up with a big minus, and nothing will be able to help him.
Anish GIRI / Netherlands
Pro & Contra: When you reflect on Giri it’s hard to escape the impression that recently his ambitious interviews and commentary has somewhat been a case of “putting the cart before the horse”. Whatever’s said, during play he “shrinks into his shell” too much and is hindered by an excessive respect for authority figures like Aronian or Ivanchuk.
In the London company Anish currently looks more like being a middling player, or even an outsider. He has good “homework”, but it’s time for him to stop being a child prodigy as that can impose a terrible self-restraint. Everyone who ended up in supertournaments too early on later found it very difficult to free themselves from respect for their older colleagues and to develop their own talent. Leko had that problem, and so does Giri.
The Dutchman should learn the lessons he received in Reggio-Emilia and Biel, where wonderful performances were marred by a series of nondescript games.
Rustam KASIMDZHANOV / Uzbekistan
Pro & Contra: A man of mystery. Six years ago he linked up with Anand and recently he hasn’t played often at all, preferring to give advice than sit at the board himself. However, when Kasimdzhanov nevertheless does that he’s always very interesting to observe in terms of the opening. Kasim is capable of giving any of the players in London a bloody nose. On the other hand, he’s never between a real “tournament wolf”, and over the whole course of his career he hasn’t claimed a single truly memorable victory.
His thing is the crazy tension of knockouts and an ability to outwit his opponents and find unexpected ideas in thoroughly worn-out variations… Maybe that’s why Vishy picked him, but it’s not easy to say what kind of a practical player Kasimdzhanov is nowadays. So however likeable he is it’s hard to consider him a top-half player, although surprises can’t be ruled out.
P.S. At the last moment it was announced that due to “family reasons” Peter Svidler had pulled out of the London event. His place in the tournament was taken by Michael Adams, who isn’t among the 18 participants of the FIDE Grand Prix.
FIDE Grand Prix, London. The start of a new era?