2021 Candidates Tournament – Round 13 Preview

Round 12 Recap

In a shocker of a 12th round, all four games saw decisive results! Ding Liren scored a win over Grischuk to climb out of last place in the standings. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave kept his slim tournament hopes alive by beating Alekseenko on demand. And in the game of the day Anish Giri managed to outmaneuver Caruana, eliminating the latter from contention to win the event but setting himself in contention. At the point those three games concluded the final game looked drawn, which would have left Giri tied for first place with almost a 40% chance to win the event, while our leader would have had just under a 60% chance to win it. We wouldn’t have been too far from a coin flip.

But Ian Nepomniachtchi wasn’t done with Wang Hao. He played on and managed to squeeze a win out of that equal endgame, locking up sole possession of first place as we head into the final rest day, followed by the final two rounds of the tournament. After today’s games, here are the current standings and, at the top, the odds of tournament victory for those players still in contention:

NameRatingScoreNew Win%Prior Win%Avg Finish
Nepomniachtchi, Ian2797.3884.9%74.6%1.2
Giri, Anish2791.57.513.5%11.7%1.9
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2754.16.51.7%2.0%3.5
Caruana, Fabiano2816.060.0%11.3%3.9
Grischuk, Alexander2770.85.50.0%0.5%5.5
Wang, Hao2753.350.0%0.1%6.3
Ding, Liren2790.150.0%0.0%6.1
Alekseenko, Kirill2696.94.50.0%0.0%7.6

We can see that thanks to this win, Nepo is in great shape. Giri’s win did slightly increase his own odds, but it wasn’t the dramatic jump he might have seen had Nepo drawn, as it failed to close the gap in the standings. Not only is Giri half a point behind, but he loses all potential tiebreak scenarios so he has to find a way to outscore Nepo by a full point in the last two rounds. MVL can win any tiebreak he might end up in, but at 1.5 points behind the leader with two rounds left his margin for error is almost nonexistent. He has to win both his games and see Nepo score no more than half a point and also see Giri score no more than one point out of two. Such perfection is not likely, as the odds show, but at least he still has a sliver of a chance.

Round 13 Preview

So when play resumes on Monday the 26th, what games are we looking at and what impact can they have on the results?

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (13%)Draw (59%)Black wins (28%)
WhiteAlekseenko, Kirill0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackDing, Liren0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

This one won’t affect who wins the tournament. Both players are eliminated from contention. However they sit half a game apart at the bottom of the standings so it does have implications there. Ding was having a very disappointing Candidates Tournament playing well below his expectations and falling from third to fifth in the world live rankings, but he salvaged some pride with his recent win and perhaps will want to build on that momentum. Alekseenko exactly flips that script, as he was overperforming his low expectations and had brought his rating above the 2700 threshold, before his loss this past round brought him back down to earth. He may be able to rebound and win this game, or that last loss could be the beginning of a freefall if he drops yet another game here. Last place is on the line and both players may fight to avoid it.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (14%)Draw (65%)Black wins (21%)
WhiteWang, Hao0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackCaruana, Fabiano0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

Fabi could have been in serious contention if he won with white last round, which is presumably why he pressed and the result was disaster. He is now mathematically eliminated from the tournament – as while there are some extremely unlikely ways he could still tie for first, even then he loses those tiebreaks. The question then is how he will react. If neither player in this game has any interest in playing, as both are eliminated from the only prize that really matters in this event, we could see a quick bloodless draw. But also perhaps one or both may instead decide they have nothing else to lose and choose complications. If the latter occurs we may get a treat of a chess game, even if it isn’t impactful at the top of the standings.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (20%)Draw (66%)Black wins (14%)
WhiteGrischuk, Alexander0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackGiri, Anish13.5%0.8%11.4%41.3%

Giri’s chances are slim because he trails the leader and has losing tiebreaks, so of course a draw wouldn’t do anything to improve his situation. He could still win the event with a draw, but those scenarios are out of his hands and rely on Nepo losing games. The far more promising path would be to win this game, which opens up a world of possibilities for Giri to chase sole first place, as we can see. Of course winning with black is easier said than done, but then again he did it last round against the second best player in the world, and now he may need to do it again to really get on track.

If you recall our event preview, we noted that prior to round 8 Giri had just a 4% chance of winning this event, but if he were able to guarantee seven decisive results and zero draws those hopes would increase to almost 12%. He didn’t quite go that far but he’s produced three decisive results in five games so far, and critically those have all been wins! This has gotten him into his current position and now he needs at least one more win, maybe two, to reach the top. Our model says it’s unlikely, but the chance is definitely there. Winning this game would help tremendously, but again remember that it isn’t quite a must-win either.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (35%)Draw (53%)Black wins (12%)
WhiteNepomniachtchi, Ian84.9%98.4%85.3%39.4%
BlackVachier-Lagrave, Maxime1.7%0.0%0.0%14.5%
Giri, Anish13.5%1.6%14.7%46.1%

And finally we have the game of the day. This is either Nepo’s chance to lock the tournament up for good, or MVL’s chance to create carnage. Note in the table above we were able to include Giri’s chances to win the event in any of the three scenarios as well, but keep in mind those numbers are with the Grischuk/Giri game still being randomized. Winning on demand with black is certainly not easy, and MVL has been much maligned for his struggles with black in both this tournament and Tata Steel earlier this year, but that could be predictive of another struggle – or it could be the setup for a redemption arc! If MVL can find a way to win this game, it throws the standings into chaos, as depending on Giri’s results we may go into the final round with three contenders and no clear favorite!

It’s notable that Nepo has some added value from a win over a draw. A draw would open the door for Giri to tie him for first place prior to the final round, while a win nearly clinches things. That said, a draw probably still is enough to get him to the World Championship match so it would be reasonable for him to play it safe. A loss and he might no longer even be the favorite, although he would still have a chance to recover in the final round.

With only two games that affect the results, we’re able to put together a crude chart of all *nine* possibilities across those three games as well. Here are all the possible ways the odds could look prior to the final round (at low sample sizes, please forgive us of one of these results occurs and our round 14 preview gives different numbers):

If you prefer words to numbers, essentially the scenarios are thus:

If Nepo wins and Giri doesn’t, it’s over. Nepo clinches first place. Also if Nepo draws and Giri loses, ditto.

If Nepo and Giri both win – or if they both draw – it’s over for MVL, Nepo remains a huge favorite, but Giri has a chance in the final round (he would have to win and Nepo would have to lose in the final game).

If Giri wins and Nepo draws, MVL is eliminated and it’s basically a coinflip.

If MVL wins, everything depends on Giri’s results but no matter what all three players go into the final round with a chance.

In Conclusion

For fans of Nepo, the hope is that this round brings a win or a draw, and an uneventful drama-free tournament win with no final-round surprises the following day. For fans of Giri, MVL, or just those who love a dramatic finish, the hope is that MVL upsets Nepo creating all sorts of new possibilities. Either way round 13 will be dramatic with all eyes on the critical game, that will either clarify the tournament with a round to spare or set up an absolute must-see finale. We’ll find out how it all shakes out on Monday!

2021 Candidates Tournament – Round 12 Preview

Round 11 Recap

The most important game of the tournament so far did not also prove to be the most exciting. Nepomniachtchi did not choose violence with the white pieces; instead the leader steered his most dangerous rival into a dead even position for a straightforward draw, maintaining his full point lead over Caruana now with just three rounds left to play. Elsewhere however Anish Giri did strike through with a win, moving into sole second place just a half point behind Nepo. We also saw a second decisive result when Grischuk defeated MVL, leaving the two of them tied for fourth and almost entirely ending MVL’s hopes to win the event.

Following today’s games, here are the updated standings sorted as always by each player’s chances to win the tournament according to our model:

NameRatingScoreNew Win%Prior Win%Avg Finish
Nepomniachtchi, Ian2792.7774.6%67.4%1.4
Giri, Anish2785.96.511.7%4.0%2.6
Caruana, Fabiano2821.6611.3%18.0%2.8
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2750.05.52.0%10.0%4.5
Grischuk, Alexander2775.65.50.5%0.2%4.7
Wang, Hao2757.950.1%0.3%5.7
Ding, Liren2785.340.0%0.1%7.2
Alekseenko, Kirill2701.04.50.0%0.0%7.2

We can see that drawing his game against Fabi was a positive result for Nepo, helping solidify his lead as he improved from roughly a 2 to 1 favorite over the field before the game to roughly a 3 to 1 favorite now. MVL’s loss was crippling, as he now sits 1.5 points back with just three rounds to play, but he isn’t strictly eliminated as he gets an opportunity to play Nepo later and a win there, while unlikely with the black pieces, could still reinvigorate his dwindling hopes. However realistically there are only two players we should consider as threats to the leader. Fabi still has chances if wins a must-win game or two and Nepo falters. And Giri’s win puts him similarly in contention. It is notable that because Caruana has some chances to win on tiebreaks while Giri’s dreadful tiebreak math leaves him only able to win outright, Fabi at a full point back and Giri at half a point back are in roughly identical spots as far as their chances at first place are concerned.

Round 12 Preview

So what’s next? As more players are eliminated from realistic contention, we will begin to see more games with no potential impact on the top of the standings, and we do have two such games this time around, but we also have two important games as we continue to get closer to sorting out Magnus Carlsen’s opponent for the upcoming World Championship match in Dubai this November.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (27%)Draw (60%)Black wins (13%)
WhiteDing, Liren0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackGrischuk, Alexander0.5%0.0%0.3%2.0%

Grischuk’s win put him in the same spot in the standings as MVL, but while MVL still has a 2% chance to win the event, Grischuk would have to beat Ding Liren with black just to get to that same 2% mark. Why are his chances so much worse than the lower rated MVL? Schedule. Of course it’s extremely difficult to close a 1.5 point gap on the leader in just three rounds no matter what, but Grischuk has to play three of the top four players in the event in those final three rounds, he has two of those three games with black, and the only top player he *doesn’t* face is Nepo who would be the most useful (as beating the leader, difficult though it may be, is the most effective path to a comeback). Essentially it’s the worst schedule he could have. The only way this game does anything even potentially interesting regarding the race for first place is if Grischuk wins it and gets some fortunate results in the other games. Should that happen we’ll happily tell you all about it in our Round 13 Preview but we can’t recommend that you hold your breath in anticipation.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (36%)Draw (52%)Black wins (11%)
WhiteVachier-Lagrave, Maxime2.0%5.2%0.8%0.0%
BlackAlekseenko, Kirill0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

MVL’s slim hopes rely on a sequence of key events. It absolutely must start with a win here, in the best possible opportunity (white vs. Alekseenko, who has played above expectations so far in the 2021 portion of this event but remains the lowest rated player in the field by a large margin). If MVL accomplishes that his odds will still be slim, but he gets his shot at Nepo in the following round and if he goes into that game closer in the standings than he currently is, it would become an interesting opportunity (albeit with the black pieces) to reshape the tournament narrative if he could knock off the leader and put himself (and some others) back into serious contention. Although his odds of winning two games in a row are just 4%, due to the difficulty of beating Nepo with black in the penultimate round, our model says that if MVL does win two in a row he would suddenly go into the final round as the favorite at 34%, with Giri, Fabi, and Nepo all in the 20-25% range (depending of course on how other games went) for a potential blockbuster final round with four players having borderline equal chances. If you are a bigger fan of drama than you are of any individual player, this seems like the outcome you must root for. It can’t all happen in this game, beating Alekseenko is the (relatively) easy part of this scenario, but it would start with an MVL win here.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (16%)Draw (69%)Black wins (15%)
WhiteWang, Hao0.1%0.3%0.0%0.0%
BlackNepomniachtchi, Ian74.6%50.3%74.2%93.9%

Nepo should probably not take risks with black in pursuit of a win, as he would drop from a clear 3 to 1 favorite to approximately a coin flip against the field. A draw is a perfectly fine result for the leader here. However it’s hard not to eye that 94% chance of winning the tournament over in the right column if Nepo does score a victory in this game. While we’re talking about scenarios that could lead to an incredibly dramatic final round, there is also a chance for Nepo to take almost all of the drama out of the event right here even with two full rounds left to play. So the question in this game becomes what will Wang Hao do? He has the white pieces and the chance to play spoiler. He will certainly have every other contender rooting for him, but also should he falter he could practically punch Nepo’s ticket to Dubai.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (33%)Draw (55%)Black wins (12%)
WhiteCaruana, Fabiano11.3%27.0%4.0%0.1%
BlackGiri, Anish11.7%1.3%13.6%38.6%

And for our game of the day we have something resembling an elimination match for second place. If this game is decisive one of these players walks away with serious chances of making a move to win the tournament over the final two rounds, although they would still be a clear underdog to Nepo, while the other can give up the dream entirely. Of course it’s not quite so simple, because this is chess and draws are also a possibility. Caruana really can’t afford such a result; as the higher rated player, and with the white pieces, a large chunk of his 11% chance of winning the event relies on winning this game as the first step of the comeback. It’s not quite so simple for Giri whose odds actually increase with a draw (as his expectations here are lower, and he is closer to the leader in the standings), but the biggest winner if this game is drawn will be Nepo. We don’t list players not involved in the game on these what-if tables, but Nepo’s odds if this game is drawn increase to over 80%, from his baseline of under 75% at the present. He would rather have two players chasing him and not making progress as one-third of the remaining opportunities slip away than to have just one player chasing him but that player pick up a win.

In Conclusion

Over the past two rounds it has felt like a relatively clear and simple narrative has begun to form: Ian Nepomniachtchi beats Alekseenko to pull a full point ahead of the field, then draws his biggest threat to solidify that lead, and then coasts to a comfortable tournament victory. And this narrative is entirely possible. Nepo has about a 75% chance of ultimately winning the event, and probably half of those scenarios, at least, would feel like the lead was never seriously threatened over the final three rounds.

But there are at least two other highly plausible narratives that could still emerge instead. We could see one or more players make a serious attempt at a comeback, Nepo’s odds drop precipitously, but then he holds on in dramatic fashion and wins the tournament anyway. Or we could see a miraculous comeback victory from someone who looked to be on the verge of elimination. Round 12 could play a significant role in clarifying which of these three narrative paths this tournament is actually going to follow.

Whatever happens tomorrow, after round 12 is complete we will then have one more rest day to gather our bearings and re-evaluate one last time what we might expect to see in the final two rounds of the tournament, before the final eight games are played on on the 26th and 27th of April and we finally learn for sure who Carlsen’s next rival will be. We’re excited for a great Saturday of chess, and to see what the next twist or turn this event might have in store for us. We hope you are as well!

2021 Candidates Tournament – Round 11 Preview

Round 10 Recap

Ian Nepomniachtchi broke through for his first win since this tournament resumed, striking with the white pieces against Kirill Alekseenko. This moved him to #3 in the live rankings, but more importantly the result grew his previously slim lead to a healthy full point ahead of his nearest competitors, now with just four rounds left to play. The other three games were all drawn so we do still have three players tied for second place just as we did before the round, but all three of them have more ground to make up and less time to do it if they want to catch Nepo now. All of this means that while things could still turn around quickly and the event is far from settled, we now have a clear odds-on favorite for the first time.

NameRatingScoreNew Win%Prior Win%Avg Finish
Nepomniachtchi, Ian2792.36.567.4%47.9%1.5
Caruana, Fabiano2822.05.518.0%29.9%2.7
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2754.75.510.0%12.1%3.4
Giri, Anish2780.75.54.0%8.4%3.4
Wang, Hao2758.84.50.3%0.7%5.6
Grischuk, Alexander2770.94.50.2%0.6%5.9
Ding, Liren2790.540.1%0.3%6.4
Alekseenko, Kirill2700.140.0%0.2%7.1

We can see that there is pretty close to a 2 in 3 chance of Nepo maintaining his lead and earning the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world championship, while Fabi, MVL, and Giri have roughly a combined 1 in 3 chance. The other four players are even closer than before to truly being eliminated, although technically there are still some extremely slim hopes one of them could climb back into contention with a run. As we discussed in our last article, Giri’s chances are dramatically lower than MVL’s (despite a higher rating) because it’s nearly impossible for him to win any potential tiebreak scenario, so he essentially needs an extra half point to win the event. Although another factor is that MVL still has a game against the leader so has more control of his own destiny, while Giri needs help from others which also reduces his potential paths to the top.

Here is the full breakdown of how the four contenders’ winning chances split between winning outright or on tiebreaks, as well as their chances of coming ever so close, tying for first, but falling on the wrong side of the formulas:

NameRatingScoreNew Win%Win Outright?T-1 Win on TBT-1 Lose on TB
Nepomniachtchi, Ian2792.36.567.4%58.2%9.1%11.3%
Caruana, Fabiano2822.05.518.0%9.4%8.5%4.9%
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2754.75.510.0%4.7%5.3%3.8%
Giri, Anish2780.75.54.0%3.8%0.2%9.1%

Round 11 Preview

Don’t forget that the players now get to enjoy a rest day, so the games we are about to look at won’t be played until April 23rd, but when play does resume we have an absolute doozy that could nearly settle the event for a relatively drama free final three rounds – or could blow the door wide open for any number of potential comeback runs. As always we will look at the upcoming games in order from least critical to most.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (14%)Draw (66%)Black wins (20%)
WhiteAlekseenko, Kirill0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackWang, Hao0.3%0.0%0.2%0.7%

For the record Alekseenko is not mathematically eliminated. Scenarios exist where he could win the tournament if he wins his final four games, but the odds of all that happening are almost 200,000 to 1 at this point, and it happened zero times in the 25,000 rounds we simulated when we ran our model. Wang Hao isn’t quite so bad off as that, but let’s be honest, this game isn’t likely to impact who ultimately wins the tournament.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (22%)Draw (64%)Black wins (14%)
WhiteGiri, Anish4.0%10.8%2.3%0.6%
BlackDing, Liren0.1%0.0%0.0%0.4%

Giri’s chances were never great, and dwindled significantly when Nepo expanded his lead last round. Given his dire tiebreak situation, this is a borderline must-win game with the white pieces if he wants to stay in contention. A win would put him back at better than 10 to 1, so he is still someone we need to watch, but only if he starts scoring full points.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (29%)Draw (59%)Black wins (13%)
WhiteGrischuk, Alexander0.2%0.5%0.0%0.0%
BlackVachier-Lagrave, Maxime10.0%3.0%11.0%26.1%

MVL gets a game against Nepo in round 13, so he can get away with a draw here and still have some hopes, but that game is also with black so if he really wants to be in serious contention he probably needs a win before that game. Is this the best spot to push for it, despite the black pieces? Maybe not, it’s never easy to win with black, but on the other hand there are only four rounds left so if not now then when? As we can see, a win would be difficult but would be extremely valuable and put him right back in the thick of things.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (18%)Draw (68%)Black wins (15%)
WhiteNepomniachtchi, Ian67.4%91.2%71.2%21.6%
BlackCaruana, Fabiano18.0%0.1%12.9%62.6%

After three appetizers, we come to the main course. Nepo has white and could nearly clinch the tournament victory with a win here. However a draw is enough to keep him as a solid favorite over the field, while a loss would be a disaster, so he has reason to be cautious with his one point lead over the second best player in the world. A draw keeps his biggest threat a full point behind him with just three rounds left.

On the other hand this is Fabi’s shot. He’s shown the strength of his preparation in this event, and the big question is what does he have in store to fight for a win with black? Because if he can win here he becomes the odds-on favorite to win first place, so if there was ever a time for a player to go all-out with black this is it. This is the game everything hinges on.

In Conclusion

We go into the rest day with a clear favorite but also still three other players with realistic paths to victory should he falter. And that leader still has to play both of the players with the best chances of catching him, so there’s definitely room for the presumptive favorite to stumble. We come back on the 23rd with the biggest game of the event coming up when the leader, Nepomniachtchi, squares off against his top remaining rival, Caruana, in a game that will do more to determine the eventual winner than any other game we’ve seen so far. We can’t necessarily speak for you, the reader, but our suspicion is that’s a game you won’t be keen to miss. We’ll certainly be watching!

2021 Candidates Tournament – Round 10 Preview

Round 9 Recap

On day two of the 2021 half of the Candidates Tournament Anish Giri added himself to the list of potential contenders with a win over Wang Hao, while the other three games were drawn. The win moves Giri into a now three-way tie for second place, but overall the standings saw relatively little change. Let’s take a look at the updated odds of winning the event for each player (compared to their odds before this round began):

NameRatingScoreNew Win%Prior Win%Avg Finish
Nepomniachtchi, Ian2788.65.547.9%44.5%2.0
Caruana, Fabiano2822.4529.9%35.1%2.5
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2754.4512.1%11.0%3.4
Giri, Anish2781.058.4%3.7%3.4
Wang, Hao2758.640.7%3.1%5.6
Grischuk, Alexander2771.140.6%1.6%6.0
Ding, Liren2790.13.50.3%0.7%6.5
Alekseenko, Kirill2703.840.2%0.3%6.6

We can see that there were relatively small changes. Caruana drew a game he was favored to win so his odds dropped a little, and Giri’s win made him a more realistic fourth place contender, but it wasn’t the most dramatic round overall. Despite now having a third player hot on his tail, Nepo is actually slightly more likely to ultimately win just by virtue of having to maintain his lead for one less round than before.

As far as other contenders go the three players tied for second place each have their own chances to contend, while there is only a 1.7% possibility of someone from the bottom half rising to first place over the final five rounds. Caruana, with his gaudy rating, is as one would expect the most likely winner among the second group. Oddly though MVL has better chances than Giri despite ratings playing such a dominant role in the calculations. Half of the reason is a much tougher schedule; Giri has three games remaining with the black pieces and his remaining opponents include both of the two highest rated players in the field, while MVL has already played both of the top two and has three games remaining with white. The other half of the reason MVL is favored over Giri though is tie-breaks. Here is a breakdown of each player’s chances of finishing in *at least a tie for first* and the corresponding range of possibilities within that subset of outcomes:

NameOdds of 1st Place (including ties)Win%Win OutrightTB WinTB Loss
Nepomniachtchi, Ian59.3%47.9%37.2%10.5%11.6%
Caruana, Fabiano36.0%29.9%18.3%11.3%6.4%
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime18.9%12.1%7.1%5.0%6.8%
Giri, Anish19.0%8.4%7.3%1.0%10.7%
Wang, Hao1.6%0.7%0.4%0.3%0.9%
Grischuk, Alexander1.1%0.6%0.2%0.4%0.6%
Ding, Liren0.5%0.3%0.1%0.2%0.2%
Alekseenko, Kirill0.5%0.2%0.1%0.1%0.3%

Here we see where things go wrong for Giri. The harder schedule means his odds of finishing alone in first are roughly the same as MVL’s, despite the higher rating, and his odds of tying for first are similarly about the same. But when he does tie for first, he loses that tiebreak in almost all the scenarios we see. So it is almost impossible for him to win the tournament without winning outright, while MVL has a fair number of paths to a victory by tiebreak winning almost half such scenarios. This is why we have MVL third and Giri fourth in the odds. Also interesting is how favorable Fabi’s tiebreaks are, as he wins the tournament in almost two-thirds of the scenarios where he fails to win outright but still ties for the lead.

We aren’t going to detail the exact reasons tiebreaks are so kind to Caruana and so harsh for Giri as there are way too many possible scenarios. It’s not so simple as to look at current scores in any of the criteria because what matters is how those scores look after the final round, and also who is tied with whom. And within that uncertainty everyone has scenarios where they win tiebreaks and scenarios where they lose them. Suffice it to say though that Giri has far more of the latter than the former, to an extent that it makes him an underdog to a lower rated player. This is a detail we will keep an eye on going forward.

Round 10 Preview

So what games are coming up next, with a rest day to follow? The two favorites play bottom-half opponents, but the third and fourth most likely contenders face each other in the game of the day, which could potentially whittle the realistic field from four to three.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (22%)Draw (65%)Black wins (14%)
WhiteWang, Hao0.7%2.4%0.2%0.1%
BlackGrischuk, Alexander0.6%0.1%0.4%2.1%

In the least important game of the day we have two players nearly eliminated from contention. Our model sees a draw as the most likely result, which would only drive both player’s longshot hopes even lower. A decisive game would give some very minor cause for celebration to the winner, but they would still be nearly a 50-1 underdog to actually win the event even with that boost. We will be prepared to forgive anyone who doesn’t pay close attention to this game.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (32%)Draw (56%)Black wins (12%)
WhiteCaruana, Fabiano29.9%44.5%25.6%10.6%
BlackDing, Liren0.3%0.0%0.2%1.6%

By the standings this feels like a game Caruana should really press to win, against the player in last place, and it’s true that a win is almost 20 percentage points better than a draw for his odds of earning a rematch with Magnus. However results so far aside, we cannot ignore that Ding is the #3 player in the world, and not actually a pushover of any kind, and do also notice how much a loss would hurt Fabi here. So we will have to wait and see what kind of approach he has prepared.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (45%)Draw (45%)Black wins (10%)
WhiteNepomniachtchi, Ian47.9%62.4%39.7%20.2%
BlackAlekseenko, Kirill0.2%0.0%0.0%1.6%

This is a relatively critical game for our leader. Because he has white against the weakest player, our model sees almost a 50% chance of winning – and that is currently priced into Nepo’s listed odds of winning. Should he merely draw it would be a relatively significant disappointment relative to expectations, and actually hurt his chances of winning the event quite a bit. He might still be the favorite, depending on other results, but it would be a significant missed opportunity at a full point when he probably still needs another win eventually if he’s going to lock up first place. If he does score that win he guarantees that he will remain alone in first place for at least another round, and possibly even expands that lead to a full point. All told a win here probably makes Nepo the odds on favorite with the highest odds of victory he’ll have enjoyed yet.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (18%)Draw (67%)Black wins (14%)
WhiteVachier-Lagrave, Maxime12.1%29.4%12.5%1.6%
BlackGiri, Anish8.4%0.8%6.3%22.3%

And that brings us to the game of the day. Neither of these players is quite on par with the top two; MVL is notably lower rated while Giri has the awful tiebreaks we discussed earlier, but they definitely both still have reason to believe they could win this event. If they draw, we’ll still have four plausible winners when the round is over, but it won’t likely put either of them in any better of a spot than they’re in now, and right now they’re both relative underdogs. However if this game sees a decisive winner – well that would essentially turn it into an elimination game. We would go into the rest day and the final four rounds with only three players with good enough winning chances to warrant mention – but all three of them would be fully in the mix (including the winner of this game, who can’t quite say that yet). So this one is a huge game for both the players and the fans (because when both players have such incentive to fight for a win, we are more likely to have an exciting game to watch!)

In Conclusion

There’s a lot of potential for meaningful shuffling of the odds depending on the results of these games coming up in round 10. We could see four become three in terms of players with realistic winning chances. We could see the current leader pull away and start to really put the squeeze on the rest of the field – or falter and open the door wide open for late round dramatics. Nobody can clinch anything yet, and after this round ends we will have a rest day, then pick back up on April 23rd with four rounds left to play. Those four rounds are guaranteed to have important action (not to look ahead but Nepo and Fabi face off in round 11) and the stakes will only increase as we get closer to the finale and everyone jockeying for position starts to run out of time. For now, we’ve got a lot of jockeying to follow tomorrow!

2021 Candidates Tournament – Round 9 Preview

Round 8 Recap

The 2021 half of the Candidates Tournament began with two decisive games as the highest and lowest rated players in the field each scored wins. Top rated Fabiano Caruana knocked off former co-leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and climbed within half a point of the lead, improving his tournament position greatly. Meanwhile Kirill Alekseenko made it known he isn’t prepared to serve as a punching bag, scoring an upset win over Alexander Grischuk and getting himself out of the basement of the standings. The other two games were both drawn.

Updating our model to account for these results, and the players’ new live ratings, we recalculated each player’s odds of winning the event and we can see how those odds changed from prior to the round:

NameRatingScoreNew Win%Prior Win %Avg Finish
Nepomniachtchi, Ian2788.8544.5%43.9%2.1
Caruana, Fabiano2824.14.535.1%17.8%2.3
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2753.94.511.0%24.6%3.6
Giri, Anish2776.243.7%4.3%4.5
Wang, Hao2763.443.1%3.6%4.6
Grischuk, Alexander2770.93.51.6%5.0%5.9
Ding, Liren2790.630.7%0.8%6.2
Alekseenko, Kirill2702.13.50.3%0.1%6.8

At the top is Nepo, still the favorite after his draw. The good news for him is that he is now the sole leader, but that is offset by having the #2 player in the world now just half a point back. Those two factors combined leave his winning chances nearly unchanged, but he remains the most likely victor (yet still under 50% and thus not the odds-on favorite).

In spots two and three, Fabi and MVL roughly swapped places. Now sitting just half a point behind a single leader, rather than a full point behind two co-leaders, Fabi is far better positioned now, approximately doubling his winning chances, as our model gives him credit for being the highest rated player in the field and sees very good chances for him to close the remaining gap and go on to win over the course of the last six rounds. On the other hand MVL, whose rating was already holding him back in our simulations, now fares much more poorly without the benefit of at least being in the lead for now. However he does still remain the third most likely winner of the event.

Outside of the top three the news is all bad. Grischuk’s loss hurt his chances in particular, but Fabi’s improvement made the task harder for any of the others who might have hoped to climb back into contention. These five players combined saw their collective chances of winning the tournament fall from almost 14% to just over 9%.

Round 9 Preview

So having seen where everyone stands, what games are coming up in the next round and how might they impact the tournament situation?

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (28%)Draw (59%)Black wins (13%)
WhiteGiri, Anish3.7%7.3%2.2%0.6%
BlackWang, Hao3.1%0.7%2.5%10.1%

Giri and Wang are two of the “other” group with quite slim hopes, but they are not yet eliminated from contention. However both of them face the same basic situation: any scenario where they eventually catch up with – and then surpass – the current leaders will require a big run of wins. And such a run must start soon or else they’ll run out of time for it to happen. As a result we can see that if this game is drawn, it hurts both player’s chances. On the other hand, a decisive result here will give the winner some realistic hopes (while essentially eliminating the loser). Wang is less likely to win, with the black pieces, but for precisely that reason he would benefit slightly more if he did so, as it would exceed his current expected results by a larger margin. While neither player is in great shape at this time, we the fans can certainly hope that the incentive both players have for this to be a decisive result may increase the chances of an interesting and competitive game for us to enjoy.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (34%)Draw (55%)Black wins (12%)
WhiteDing, Liren0.7%1.5%0.4%0.0%
BlackVachier-Lagrave, Maxime11.0%4.6%11.6%25.2%

MVL had to play the black pieces against the second best player in the world last round. He lost, and saw his winning chances more than halved as a result. Now things don’t really get any easier, as he has black once again – this time against the third best player in the world. If he loses again, his hopes of winning the event will have dropped from roughly one in four to closer to one in twenty. On the other hand with a win he can gain back all of the ground he lost and put himself back into the thick of the race – but asking for a win with black is a harsh demand. In the middle a draw is a relatively fine result too, as it would keep his winning chances in the double digits, stop the bleeding, and give him a chance to move back into the lead in the remaining rounds when he starts to get opportunities with white.

On the other side of the board is Ding, whose draw last round left him alone in last place, and who really has very little realistic chance of getting back into contention in this event. There just isn’t enough time left unless he wins almost all of his remaining games. He does have white against a player who proved vulnerable last round, so if he’s going to rattle off a historic winning streak and try to claw his way back, it would probably have to start here.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (12%)Draw (54%)Black wins (35%)
WhiteAlekseenko, Kirill0.3%1.7%0.2%0.0%
BlackCaruana, Fabiano35.1%17.1%29.3%48.7%

Fabi got the job done last round, but still sits half a point off the lead. Winning the event will require winning more games. Whether this is the ideal opportunity to push for another win is less clear. On the one hand, it’s the right opponent. Taking full points off the lowest rated player is generally what you have to do to win events like this. On the other hand he would have to do it with black, and he’s coming off a very long game in the previous round, and we just saw Alekseenko win a game when his opponent tried too hard to win with black. Because the model sees Caruana as a significant favorite here on the basis of rating, even after adjusting for piece color, a draw wouldn’t be a great result in the sense that his winning odds do drop a little but practically speaking it would still leave him around 30% to win the event. If he does win it would be worth a fair amount, driving him up almost to the coinflip range to win. The risk of course is that a loss would undo all his gains from the last round, putting his odds right back where they were at the halfway point.

As for Alekseenko, his upset win improved his chances from the 1800 to 1 range to closer to 350 to 1; which is simultaneously a relatively huge increase and also nearly meaningless as either way it requires a miracle for the lowest rated player – tied for last place after seven rounds – to get back into contention. Beating the world’s #2 would at least be a mini-miracle, getting him back to an even score and at least creating plausible paths to victory in the tournament, even if actually getting there would remain very unlikely. But it’s worth noting that nothing other than a win here helps, there’s no real expectations of success hanging over his head, and so he doesn’t really have anything to lose. It will be interesting to see how both players approach this game.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (20%)Draw (66%)Black wins (14%)
WhiteGrischuk, Alexander1.6%5.4%0.7%0.0%
BlackNepomniachtchi, Ian44.5%27.4%44.9%65.8%

Nepo drew last time, remaining the favorite in the event with nearly unchanged odds of winning. Here he has black, and another draw would do the same, leave him as the favorite with nearly unchanged odds. That’s a result he would surely be happy with, as we can see how damaging a loss would be to his chances, but it also can’t be ignored how much his chances could swing upward if he did manage to win this one. An interesting point about his favored status is that his odds are still under 50%. Yes he’s the most likely winner of the tournament at this time, and yes he is currently the sole leader, but to actually win the event in the end he needs his odds to eventually increase to 100% by the end. Meaning he will eventually need results along the way that increase his odds. A draw does not do that. It’s a fine result that keeps him well positioned to pick up those needed odds increases later, but every time he scores a result that maintains his odds where they currently stand he’s kicking the can down the road in terms of that result he’ll eventually need to win the tournament.

As for Grischuk, he has the white pieces and like some of the other players we’ve looked at has nothing to lose. His hopes were slim at the beginning, and after his round 8 loss those hopes are quickly headed towards becoming nonexistent unless he turns things around in a hurry. A win here would put his chances back into the “unlikely but not entirely implausible” range they started in, while a draw isn’t really much better than a loss in terms of his hopes slipping rapidly towards the zero mark.

In Conclusion

This set of games doesn’t map out as the most interesting round of the event; we don’t have any direct duels between leaders or top contenders and all three of the most likely tournament victors have black and some incentive to be cautious. That said, there are several spots where a player with nothing to lose has white and reason to take a shot, which could in turn open the door for players with black and incentive for caution to instead find themselves justified in taking some risks of their own in pursuit of big rewards in the standings. So there is reason to think we might see some exciting chess played, which creates the possibility of unexpected results that could shake up the standings more than the model expects. Definitely tune in to see!

2021 Candidates Tournament – Event Preview

On April 19th play will begin in Yekaterinburg Russia, and seven rounds of chess will determine a Candidate to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship title later this year. Of course this event is rather irregular, as the first half of the tournament was played over a year ago before being postponed due to Covid. So the 2021 portion is actually just the second half, and therefore begins with a pecking order already established.

In preparation for the event, this preview we will discuss who the Candidates are, how they got here, and how likely they are to win, as well as what our coverage of the event will offer. Hopefully we can provide some insights that will help your excitement and anticipation grow. If you’re relatively new to the world of professional chess, we will offer background and context that you might hopefully find helpful. And if you’re a veteran chess fan we believe we have plenty of tidbits to keep you interested as well.

Who will win?

Of course this is the most pressing question, so let’s start here. With first place earning a shot at the World Championship, the sense that nothing else matters besides winning the tournament is perhaps stronger here than in any other event. We have a computer model that considers the players’ ratings, the results so far, color differential in future games, and accounts for tournament tie-break rules, all to estimate each player’s chances of winning the event. Our results are:

Clearly to maximize your chances of leading at the end it helps a great deal to be in the lead now, as Nepo and MVL are. It also helps to be highly rated, as is Fabi. At the margins, it also helps to have the white pieces an extra time and/or in particularly important games; Nepo’s edge isn’t just his 4.5/7 score, it’s that he has white in four of the final seven games, including his matchups against both of his top rivals.

What’s also notable though is that the lead is not everything. While the two players tied for the lead are certainly the most likely winners, that’s far from guaranteed. Over 30% of our simulations of the tournament had someone coming from behind to take the crown. And while higher ratings makes such a comeback more likely, almost half of the times we saw someone come from behind it was someone other than Fabi. So while the top three players on this chart are the most likely winners, no one can fully be ruled out yet. Even Alekseenko wins once in every 1800 simulations. So when the clocks are started, everything will be on the line and nothing is set in stone yet.

Who are the competitors?

We will now take a detailed look at all eight players, starting with the least likely to win the event and working upwards. We will include notes such as background biographical info, how they qualified, the narrative arc of their path through the first half of the event, or other meaningful results they’ve had in prior world championship cycles. Then we’ll look ahead at their remaining seven games in more detail; drilling down on exactly why their odds of winning are what we gave above, as well as investigating several “what if” scenarios of how some of the players might do if some of our model’s core assumptions are wrong.

Kirill Alekseenko

World Rank: #41

Nationality: Russian

Age: 23

Qualifying: Wild Card

Alekseenko is by far the youngest and least experienced player in the field. He is a former youth champion who earned the GM title as a teenager, and qualifies for the unofficial title of “Super GM” used to describe players rated 2700 or higher as his peak rating is 2715. That said, he has relatively little by way of major tournament success so far in his career compared to the rest of this field. His most impressive tournament result is almost certainly the 2019 FIDE Grand Swiss where he finished third on tiebreaks, half a point behind Fabiano Caruana and the winner on tiebreaks Wang Hao. That event did certainly showcase his potential to compete against elite opposition with several draws and one win against players rated 2750 or higher.

That Grand Swiss result also paved the way to his appearance here as he was the highest finisher not already qualified for the Candidates, and therefore eligible to be the player nominated by the Organizer. Historically the organizers of Candidates tournaments have almost always shown preference for players from the host country, and this was no exception – tournament organizers snapped up the Russian as the eighth player in the field, despite his notably lower rating than the rest of the competitors.

In the first half of the event Alekseenko played roughly to his rating, failing to win a game but not being blown entirely off the board either; he lost twice with five draws. Unfortunately, when you are the lowest rated player in the field by such a large margin, playing to expectations isn’t really enough to contend, and at 2.5/7 he finds himself tied for last place and essentially eliminated from realistic contention as roughly an 1800 to 1 underdog to win the event.

But what it he has gotten stronger?

As we said, Alekseenko is the youngest player in the field, and younger players tend to have more opportunity for improvement. What if an extra year of preparation and study has made him a dramatically better player, on par with his opponents in this elite event? We re-did our simulation of the tournament but gave Alekseenko a strength of 2782 – the average of the other seven players’ ratings – and his odds did improve by almost an order of magnitude. If he shows up playing like a borderline top-five player in the world he would “only” be roughly a 130 to 1 underdog instead of 1800 to 1. Unfortunately he dug too much of a hole for himself in the first half to have realistic hopes of actually winning at this point, even if he dramatically exceeds expectations the rest of the way. Though of course a 2780 performance through the second half would still be worth a lot, in terms of potential invitations to other prestigious events in the future.

Ding Liren

World Rank: #3

Nationality: Chinese

Age: 28

Qualifying: 2019 World Cup Finalist

Ding is a spectacular player who perhaps doesn’t get nearly enough coverage. He famously set a record (since surpassed by Magnus Carlsen) in 2017 and 2018 with a streak of 100 consecutive games without a loss. After that streak was finally broken he bounced back and continued to play dominant. He reached the finals of the 2019 World Cup , his second consecutive finals appearance in that biennial event, having previously done the same in 2017. That earned him a spot in this Candidates Tournament, although his rating would have been high enough to qualify him anyway. Oh and just to round 2019 out he also won both the Sinquefield Cup and the Grand Chess Tour.

Ding is perhaps the most solid player in the field, as the undefeated streak showed. He also competed in the 2018 Candidates Tournament and was the only player in that event to not lose a single game. However he only managed one win and finished in fourth place. Long story short: he’s an incredibly difficult player to beat.

However the first half of this event went, quite frankly, disastrously. Ding shockingly came out of the gate with two consecutive losses in the first two rounds. He stabilized somewhat after that, scoring a win in round three, but then lost again in round six and now finds himself tied for last place and with less than a one percent chance to win the event. It is worth noting that before the Covid pandemic halted the event in March, it first wreaked havoc in China. This led to numerous well-documented interruptions to Ding’s preparation for the tournament, and made his travel options to the event deeply challenging and onerous (and ditto for his compatriot Wang Hao). It is easy to imagine that the impact of this chaos had something to do with how such a notoriously solid player lost three out of seven games.

But what if he bounces back?

By all rights, Ding should have been expected to be one of the favorites in this tournament, but now finds himself in last place. We modified our simulation to see what might happen if Ding wins his first two games out of the gate. The good news is of course it would increase his chances dramatically. The bad news is he would still only have roughly a 5.5% chance of winning. The problem is that even wins in rounds 8 and 9 would only bring him back to an even score, meaning he would most likely trail the leader by a full point or perhaps even more, with only five rounds left. It would put him back in striking distance, but it would only be the beginning of a possible comeback; not the conclusion. To actually win this event Ding essentially needs two 5% miracles to happen in sequence. There’s roughly a 5% chance of him winning both of his first games – and then if he does so there’s roughly a 5% chance he proceeds to come all the way back and win. So not a great position to be in – but there is technically a path to victory there…

Wang Hao

World Rank: #12

Nationality: Chinese

Age: 31

Qualifying: 2019 Grand Swiss Winner

Wang Hao’s current world ranking of #12 is his career peak, which leaves him in a slightly lower tier of chess excellence than the rest of the non-wildcard field; the other six players in this event have all been ranked within the world top four at some point. However despite quibbles about tiers, there’s no question that he is excellent. He earned his place in this field by winning first place in the 2019 Grand Swiss as an underdog, and as we said, he is at a career peak now so the next step in his progression would be to overperform expectations once again.

Certainly Wang’s current rating holds up against the rest of the field, and he held his own with a 50% score in the first half of the event, so there’s no doubt that he has as realistic of a path as the rest of the middle score group to make a run here. He has the advantage in the second half of four games with the white pieces, so we will be keeping a close eye on how he does early on. If he picks up a quick win or two he’ll be right in the thick of contention for the top spot real fast.

Anish Giri

World Rank: #7

Nationality: Dutch

Age: 26

Qualifying: Rating

Giri is the youngest player currently in the top ten, having first reached that ranking in 2014 as an 18-year-old. He has been a fixture in the top 15 of the world rankings ever since, and climbed as high as #3, so in other words he has been a fixture among the chess elite for longer than his age might suggest. He qualified for his first Candidates Tournament in 2016 on the basis of rating but drew all 14 games – a result that contributed to a reputation for drawish play that he has never really managed to shake in the chess discourse (even though it’s not so entirely deserved.) While he does have an even score in this event, that came with two decisive games – one in his favor and one against.

One measure of chess success outside of direct World Championship pursuits, is how one performs in “supertournaments”. There is no precise universally accepted definition of such events, but the idea is that the term refers to tournaments with particularly high average ratings that feature many top players, which makes a win in such an event particularly prestigious – perhaps comparable to winning a “major” in other individual sports like golf or tennis. The strongest tournament Giri has ever won was the 2019 Shenzen Masters, and there is debate as to whether it qualifies as a supertournament. It had a high average rating, but a small field with only three players rated 2750+ individually. If it doesn’t count, then Giri can fall back on the fact that he has repeatedly come as close as possible to winning Tata Steel (universally agreed to be one of the most prestigious annual events on the calendar), finishing second in three of the past four.

In the first half he got off to a shaky start losing his first game, but bounced back with a win in round six to bring him to his current even score. The second half starts out tough with black against a leader, and Giri has the added difficulty of four black games remaining including his games against all three of the favorites. This challenging schedule only makes a comeback even less likely, but that doesn’t mean it would be impossible.

But what if he never draws?

In light of his reputation, we thought it would be fun to use this opportunity to explore the impact draws have on a tournament. We modeled what would happen if, contrary to all expectation, every one of Giri’s remaining games had to be decisive (while keeping normal draw odds for other games). It turns out his chances to win the tournament would be dramatically higher! 11.8% instead of 4.3% to be precise. Interestingly though his average finish would be almost exactly the same (4.5 vs. 4.6). This takeaway is logical if you consider for a moment that the impact of never drawing would be a higher chance of a winning streak but also a higher chance of a losing streak. So for a player starting in the middle of the pack, no draws would make him far more likely to climb to the top and win, but also far more likely to fall to the bottom of the standings. What would be less likely would be finishing in the middle of the pack – in fact it would be impossible to finish on an even score given that there are an odd number of games left. And to be perfectly clear for the record, we are not claiming this scenario is particularly likely to occur.

Alexander Grischuk

World Rank: #6

Nationality: Russian

Age: 37

Qualifying: 2019 FIDE Grand Prix

Grischuk is the tournament’s veteran, as no other player is older than 31 nor has any player competed in as many Candidates Tournament as Grischuk’s four previous such appearances. Grischuk first entered the top ten in the world rankings in 2003 at the age of 19, and has periodically bounced into and out of the top ten ever since, climbing as high as three, and dropping as low as 23, but while there have been periods of inconsistency there have also been countless flashes of greatness and there is no question he is one of the elite players of his generation. While a select few great players have remained competitive into their 40s, it is rare enough that it must be acknowledged he may not have too many more shots at a world championship match after this tournament.

Of course he has numerous significant wins in the course of his career, but perhaps most notable is that Grischuk has won the blitz world championship three times. This is something to keep in mind if his games approach mutual time scrambles; he is extremely comfortable with time pressure. That said, some might argue that he is too comfortable with it, as some of his inconsistency throughout his career can be attributed to cases where he allowed himself to fall behind on the clock. Mutual time pressure is one thing, but even one of the world’s best blitz players can struggle in a classical game where their opponent has time to think but they do not.

In the first half Grischuk was rock solid, drawing all seven of his games. This wasn’t enough to keep up with the two leaders, but was enough to avoid falling entirely out of striking distance. He does have the misfortune of four games with the black pieces, but it will be interesting to see whether experience pays dividends. If he can maintain the “don’t lose” strategy of the first half, but this time pepper in some wins as well, he certainly still has some hopes.

But what if he never gets into time trouble?

Okay, sorry, we’re having some fun here. This joke was a Twitter suggestion from @Knotty_99 and while we don’t have any way to model it, we couldn’t resist the urge to include it in our write-up. Honestly, it’s hard to say whether avoiding time trouble would actually help or harm Grischuk’s chess. It’s a somewhat ineffable question that we don’t have a way to statistically analyze, but intuitively we’re skeptical that drastically changing one’s playing style would actually help, even if that style sometimes has led to problems in the past.

Fabiano Caruana

World Rank: #2

Nationality: American

Age: 28

Qualifying: 2018 World Championship

Caruana is ranked #2 in the world, and has held that spot on every rating list for almost three years now. He won the 2018 Candidates Tournament, and took Magnus Carlsen to tiebreaks in the 2018 World Championship match. There’s not really any room for debate about the fact that Fabi is the top challenger for Carlsen’s spot atop the chess world. Before winning the 2018 Candidates he placed second in the 2016 Candidates, and we can expect to continue seeing him in the thick of every world championship cycle for the foreseeable future.

His achievements are far too many to list comprehensively. Beyond having earned the right to compete for a world championship he has won just about every major supertournament that is regularly held, from Norway Chess to Tata Steel, and many more. He has also won national championships in both the USA and Italy, as he holds dual citizenship and competed under the Italian flag from 2005 to 2015, before returning to play under the flag of his birth country. His most legendary result though was his win at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. That was the strongest tournament ever held, with an average rating over 2800, as it brought together a six player field where all competitors were ranked among the top nine in the world. And Caruana dominated. He won his first seven games in a row! By most reasonable numerical measures, it was the single greatest tournament performance in the history of chess.

Knowing that Caruana entered the event as the favorite, and that he has proven his ability to pile up wins in a hurry, he must have made the other players nervous when he picked up a win in the second round, but to the relief of the field he gave back the momentum with a loss in round three and never broke through again in the first half of the tournament. And so we find him in his current position, sitting on an even score, within striking distance of the two leaders and certainly in contention, but very much needing to do some work if he wants another shot at Carlsen. He does get a chance to strike from the very beginning, opening up with the white pieces against one of the co-leaders in round eight. This is the most important game of the round, which we’ll look closer at after these bios, and it presents an opportunity to charge into at least second place with six more rounds to play should he manage a win in that first game.

But what if he shows up in “best player of all time” form?

As the highest rated player in the field, we already have Fabi as the most likely non-leader to win the event. Our Elo-based model sees his hopes of coming from behind as far better than any other player in the middle of the pack. Nevertheless he is still a point off the lead and so is well behind the leaders in our odds of winning. But would that still be true if he was *even better*? We re-did our simulation with Fabi’s rating at 2882 – the all-time record for highest rating, held by Magnus Carlsen – and yes it made a huge difference. He would actually be the favorite! In that scenario Caruana’s odds of winning rise from 17.8% to 37.6%, ahead of Nepo at 34.9% and MVL at 18.1% so at least in our model’s forecasts, 62 extra Elo points are worth a lot over the course of seven rounds of play. It’s worth keeping in mind that 2882 is far below Fabi’s record-setting performance rating at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, so he’s not incapable of playing like this. Even without the added bonus of this hypothetical, if you are a leader Fabi is the last player you want to have trying to catch up with you.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

World Rank: #15

Nationality: French

Age: 30

Qualifying: Average Rating (as replacement)

Vachier-Lagrave currently shares first place, but he almost wasn’t in this tournament. In the various qualifiers he finished third in the World Cup (where the top two qualify), third in the Grand Prix (where the top two qualify), and was the second highest rated nonqualifier (when one player qualifies by ratings). After missing entry by a single spot in three different ways, he was one of four players eligible for the organizer wild card, but they chose the eligible Russian player over the highest rated eligible player, and so Maxime landed temporarily in the role of first alternate. But then the pandemic struck. We talked earlier about the challenges that posed to the Chinese players, but while they ultimately chose to compete another player who had qualified for the event did not. Teimour Radjabov, winner of the 2019 World Cup, requested that the tournament be postponed in light of the pandemic, and when that did not occur, he withdrew opening a spot for MVL.

While some may be disappointed Radjabov did not play – particularly given how valid his concerns proved with the tournament’s suspension midway through – MVL’s inclusion was certainly a boon for chess fans. Don’t be fooled by his current rank, coming off of one very bad tournament earlier this year. Before that he was ranked in the top ten on every rating list since January of 2016, with a peak ranking of #2. MVL is a top player whose career includes wins at the Sinquefield Cup, Biel, Dortmund, and the Shenzen masters, and who has three separate times reached the semifinals of the World Cup.

In this event he put on a clinic in the first half. He was one of only two players who avoided losing a single game, and he combined that with two wins to put him in his current first place spot. His rating suffered badly at his last tournament, and he does face the challenges of an extra game with the black pieces, but despite our model punishing him for both of those things he still comes out as the second most likely tournament winner. He comes out of the gate with the toughest possible start: two games in a row with black against the two highest rated players in the field. Magnus Carlsen is on record that “If MVL survives these two games, he’s my favorite”. Perhaps that depends on whether “survives” means two draws or stealing a win, and on how Nepo’s first two games go as well, but certainly if MVL can remain in contention after those two games he has a fantastic chance to go the distance.

But what if he is in better form than his current rating indicates?

This is hardly an outlandish scenario. Our model takes MVL’s current rating at face value, but as we’ve said he only fell to that number after a nightmare tournament at Tata Steel. Perhaps it accurately reflects the level of his current play, but perhaps not, and we’re talking about a player who has been rated as high as 2819 and ranked as high as #2 in the world. Plus the winners of the last two Candidates Tournaments both had disastrous results at Tata Steel prior to those events, that clearly weren’t indicative of deeper problems. So we tried running our simulation with MVL rated 2789 – identical to his co-leader Nepo. Of course this makes MVL’s odds much better, his chances of winning rise to 35.4%, while Nepo’s odds drop to 37.2%. It is interesting to note that equalizing Elo does not quite equalize the odds though. Nepo has four whites to MVL’s three, including their head to head game, which makes his tournament position slightly better even if we equalize our expectations for their future play. That said there is one counter-advantage that MVL has – he won their first head to head matchup so if they draw their game in round 13 and finish tied for first, MVL would have the edge in tiebreaks which look at head to head results first. But we see here that Nepo’s color advantage is worth slightly more than MVL’s tiebreak advantage, all other things being equal.

Of course if MVL overperforms his rating by even more, he would quickly become the favorite. If we run our simulation giving MVL a rating of 2819 (his career peak) he becomes a dramatic favorite with a 48.7% chance to win (Nepo at 30.4%). However even if you believe his current rating underestimates his true strength, that would most likely be an overcorrection.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

World Rank: #4

Nationality: Russian

Age: 30

Qualifying: 2019 FIDE Grand Prix

Nepomniachtchi is a relatively new name to the highest echelon of chess. He showed tremendous promise in 2010 when he burst onto the scene as a 19 year old by winning the European Individual Championship, and then later that year won the Russian Superfinal – by far the hardest national title to win in the chess world. Those performances made him a super grandmaster, but then his rating plateaued in the low 2700s for over half a decade. When he finally took the next step and broke into the world top 20 in 2016, he then hit another ratings plateau in the 2750 range. It wasn’t until 2019 that he finally pushed himself into the world top ten for the first time… but since getting there he has only gotten better. He won the Russian Superfinal again in 2020, this time as a favorite not an underdog, has risen to a career best rating and rank, and is now the favorite to win this tournament and earn a shot at the world title.

Nepo was on the verge of completely running away with the tournament as he won three of his first six games and had the sole lead after round six. However in the final game before the unfortunate year-long halftime break, he was brought back to earth by MVL, creating the tie we now see at the top of the standings. As we discussed in MVL’s “what-if” scenario, however, Nepo remains the favorite as he has good positioning with four opportunities to play white in the second half. He also has the most wins which is the second tiebreak criteria after direct encounter between the tied players. While his loss to MVL creates risk in a specific tiebreak scenario between the two of them, his wins may put him in better position in other possible ties. Our model does account for tiebreaks accurately and we’ll take a much closer look at how those scenarios will break out if they begin to look likely to come into play as we get closer to the end of the event.

But what if he falls apart?

We’ve generally tried to keep our hypotheticals positive, some form of “what if the player overperforms”, but Ian is the favorite already. If he overperforms it just makes him a bigger favorite. We don’t need a hypothetical to tell us that. So here we wanted to look at who would benefit most if he collapsed under the pressure. We ran a simulation where we dropped Nepo’s rating to 2650. Unexpectedly that almost completely destroys his winning chances, dropping them to under 6%, and MVL and Fabi are the biggest gainers jumping to 35% and 30% respectively, but also interesting is how essentially removing one of the leaders really opens the door for the rest of the field too. Giri and Grischuk see their chances jump to over 9%, Wang comes in just under 9%, and even Ding sees his (still slim) odds more than double with nearly a 2% chance to win it all.

Of course a similar result would happen if it’s MVL who struggles, and the broader point is that although the leaders look quite difficult to catch right now, that could change in a hurry. The reason the challenge for the players in the middle group looks so daunting is that they have to try to track down two players – either of whom could get hot at any moment – rather than just one. But if a leader falters, especially early, absolutely anything is possible. Remember, while we have Nepo as a rather significant favorite, his odds right now are below 50%, so everything can change dramatically as the standings sort themselves out and the final rounds approach.

So what should we look for in round 8 specifically?

In addition to this event preview, as the tournament proceeds our coverage will include a preview of each round where we take a look at how the odds have shifted based on the results so far, and look at each of the upcoming games. While there are no results to discuss yet, we can certainly look at the games that will be played in round 8 (the first round of the second half, to kick off the 2021 portion of the festivities. For each game we will look at our model’s estimation of the chances for a white win, a black win, or a draw, as well as how each of those results would impact each player in terms of their hopes of winning the whole event. We’ll list the games from least to most impactful on the final standings.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (13%)Draw (62%)Black wins (25%)
WhiteAlekseenko, Kirill0.1%0.2%0.1%0.0%
BlackGrischuk, Alexander5.0%1.7%4.4%9.2%

If Grischuk wants to get back into contention he probably can’t afford to waste an opportunity against the weakest player in the field. We count the white piece as worth 40 rating points, which isn’t enough to cover the gap here so even with white Grischuk is the favorite to win, and as we can see doing so would nearly double his odds of winning the tournament from 5% to over 9%. A draw isn’t super costly in the sense that it only marginally lowers his victory odds, but with how low those odds are to begin with that’s not really enough.

As for Alekseenko, it will be very interesting to see whether he shows up improved and competitive, and fighting to score wins when he has white, or whether his spot at the bottom of the standings has left him uninterested in more than safe draws. How he approaches this game – as much as the actual result – will tell us a lot about what to expect from him the rest of the way.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (18%)Draw (68%)Black wins (14%)
WhiteWang, Hao3.6%8.4%3.2%1.3%
BlackDing, Liren0.8%0.2%0.3%2.5%

The two Chinese players face each other in the other game between a player tied for last and a player in the middle of the pack. Certainly a decisive result by either player could offer some hope – more so for Wang than Ding given the current standings – but neither player can get entirely back into contention with just a win here. If either of them ultimately comes back to win the event this game will likely have been a stepping stone along the way, but also just the beginning of a long path, because even with a win here they will have a lot more work to do.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (28%)Draw (59%)Black wins (13%)
WhiteNepomniachtchi, Ian43.9%62.2%42.1%23.9%
BlackGiri, Anish4.3%0.5%3.3%14.9%

But here it gets interesting fast. Nepo gets to start off with a game as white and has a chance to really clamp down on the “favorite” role. He’s already the most likely player to win the tournament, but a win in this game would improve those odds by almost 20 percentage points and put him on the verge of being a 2 to 1 favorite over the entire rest of the field. There would still be work to do, but a win would be a really powerful statement that he really is the top contender here. The flipside is that a draw is relatively fine, not hurting his best-in-the-field hopes, and a loss would actually be quite damaging. So exactly how many risks he’s willing to take in search of a knockout blow is hard to say.

As for Giri, playing for a win with black is always dangerous, especially against such a strong opponent, but these numbers show that it might well be worth the risk. Losing does essentially eliminate him from any form of contention, sure, but he’s not really in contention as it is and a draw also makes his situation worse, whereas with a win he’s suddenly more than tripled his chances in one fell swoop. If Nepo looks at the first column and decides to play for winning chances with white, Giri would have strong incentive to counterpunch and pursue complications that might give him chances as well. So there is good reason to expect fireworks in this game as both players have reason to play aggressively. This game by itself would be sufficient cause to make this round a must-watch affair.

PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (39%)Draw (50%)Black wins (11%)
WhiteCaruana, Fabiano17.8%30.3%10.7%2.0%
BlackVachier-Lagrave, Maxime24.6%10.6%29.3%52.7%

But then we also have the game of the day! Caruana gets white on day one with a chance to assert his presence against one of the leaders, and a win would nearly double his winning chances in the event. However given that he’s already a point behind the lead, losing would nearly completely end his hopes before things even got started. It’s high risk and high reward, but the fact that just drawing also hurts his chances rather significantly can’t be ignored either. The model doesn’t see a game against a co-leader here. It just sees that Fabi has white, his opponent is the second lowest rated player in the field, and it identifies this as a borderline must-win game if Caruana wants to fight for first place.

And then there’s MVL, who might have something of his own to say about all that. This is the first of those two games Carlsen said he must “survive”, and sure enough a loss here would dramatically undercut his position while the model sees a draw as a good result that improves his position incrementally. But that column on the right must be tempting. Win with black against the second best player in the world (oh… is that all?) and you find yourself the odds on favorite to finish in first! MVL could more than double his chances of winning the event right here.

There are multiple ways to approach this game strategically: both players would benefit greatly from a win but it’s not so clear either player is fully incentivized to take too much risk given how costly a loss would be. If I had to pick one game in the round most likely to get crazy, I would pick Nepo/Giri, but this one is also a contender and if this one gets crazy then it becomes absolute must-see chess because the stakes are so high!

In Conclusion

Thank you for reading, and we hope this preview has gotten you even more excited than you surely already were for this tournament. As I live on the west coast of the USA, games begin at 4 am Monday for me; if you live in a more convenient time zone for this sort of thing please adjust as needed, but I for one am setting an alarm because I wouldn’t miss this for the world.

As the tournament continues we will put out a preview of each round within a few hours of the conclusion of the previous one. So keep checking back in to see how our model responds to whatever occurs on the board.

March 2020 Prodigy Update – Part 1

First of all, the date in the headline is not a typo. This update is based on year-old data, because for our official re-launch of Prodigy Watch (after being on hiatus since 2016) we want to use data that means something. Since March a year ago, there simply hasn’t been enough over the board chess (due to that whole global pandemic thing) for the youth we’re discussing here to see meaningful rating changes. Many haven’t played at all in the past year. So we’re looking at the last time the data was uninterrupted, and doing a deep dive into the state of chess prodigies at that point.

This update will come in two parts. In this article we will be revisiting all 21 players who we previously mentioned (in anything more than passing fashion) in an article when our blog was active in 2015 and 2016. It will be a “then and now” comparison, to see how much progress each player did, or didn’t, make in the subsequent four to five years. All of the older articles referenced here are tagged under the category “Prodigy Watch” so if you want to review them – before, during, or after your readthrough of this article – you can click that category in the sidebar to bring them all up. In a couple weeks we will publish part two of this article which will take a look at some of the notable new faces that weren’t on our radar before but are now.

We will work through this list in order of birthdays, from oldest to youngest, so more and less successful results will be next to each other. As you read through the list, remember that this is essentially everyone we took time to highlight back then. Use the list of who fell short of the (sometimes absurd) hopes we had for them, and who matched or exceeded those hopes, as a way to calibrate your understanding of how often prodigious potential does or doesn’t translate into success as a player ages. This calibration should be helpful for setting reasonable expectations for other players in the future as we resume our Prodigy Watch feature and identify and track more great young stars going forward.

Richard Rapport, born March 25th 1996, Hungary

Then: Rapport was already older than the prodigies we usually cover when we mentioned him in July 2016, but he was rated 2752, ranked 17th in the world, and not yet 21 years old, so we took the time to point that out and speculate about his chances of breaking into the world top ten or even contending for a berth in an upcoming Candidates Tournament.

Now: He hasn’t cracked the top ten yet, but he remains on the cusp. In March 2020 Rapport was rated a career best 2760 and ranked #13. A very slight step up from four years earlier, but a bit less prodigious as he ages. Still there has been no drop-off either, there is not a single player in the world both higher rated and also younger than he is, and he remains one good tournament away from taking the next major step forward in his career and launching into the top ten.

Vladislav Artemiev, born March 5th 1998, Russia

Then: Although Artemiev was older than most of the prodigies we watched, In September 2015 we highlighted an excellent tournament result which had earned him a top ten Prodigy Rank (#7 to be exact) at age 17.5. We called him a “forgotten prodigy” because another player was younger and higher rated at the time, but being top ten for your age is always an achievement – and often a sign of great things to come – especially when one managed to do it at an older age like this.

Now: Artemiev proceeded to achieve a top ten world ranking a few months after his 21st birthday, when he hit 2761 on the June 2019 ratings list. We would count that as a remarkable and spectacular achievement. Unfortunately it was also a brief peak and he has since dropped off. By March 2020 his rating had fallen to 2709, at age 21.2, which still is the equivalent of a #36 Prodigy Rank – although we don’t track those for players in their twenties. Where will he go from there? Will we see him back in the top ten at some point? Time will tell.

Wei Yi, born June 2nd 1999, China

Then: Wei Yi was the unquestioned star of our prodigy watch in 2015-16. Even when articles weren’t about him, he was our standard of comparison in other prodigy profiles. For any readers who are following chess now but didn’t a few years ago, let us explain that Wei Yi was the player then whose hype most resembled Alireza Firouzja’s hype today. He was the youngest player to ever break 2700 (doing it almost a year faster than the previous record holder – Magnus Carlsen). In May 2015 we attempted to speculate whether or not he was nearing a ratings plateau and predicted “probably not”. Then in June 2015 we devoted an entire article to a detailed comparison with Magnus Carlsen (we’ll be publishing a similar comparison between Magnus and Alireza soon; stay tuned!)

In September 2015 we highlighted him again – Prodigy Rank still #1 – as having the second highest U18 record of all time… while still only being 16.26 years old. It was also the third highest U19, by the way. In August 2016 we checked in one last time and noted that he had in fact hit a bit of a plateau after all, passing his 17th birthday while his rating sat slightly under 2700, meaning his Prodigy Rank had dropped to #3.

Now: Perhaps the most astounding factoid we uncovered in our September 2015 article was that Wei Yi could have gone five full years without gaining a single rating point and he would still be a top ten player of all time. Well… that’s pretty close to what has happened. His March 2020 rating was 2732 at the age of 20.8, three rating points lower than four and a half years earlier. This left him with a Prodigy Rank of #13.

The question left to us is how to interpret this. Certainly in 2015 we saw enough similarities with Carlsen that we reasonably considered the possibility that Wei Yi might be “the next Magnus”, and by the age of 20 might be rated 2800+, and might be a world championship contender. And if you made the mistake of viewing that possibility as a certainty, you might find his status today something of a disappointment. However let’s not get too caught up in a great player failing to reach a nearly impossible pinnacle. As of this March 2020 check in he’s still ranked 20th in the world, and is younger than any player ahead of him on the rating list. If we must compare him to an older player, we might see a relatively long ratings plateau as an indication that instead of being the “next Magnus” maybe he’s the “next Vachier-Lagrave” which would hardly be a criticism – MVL is currently tied for the lead in a half-completed Candidates tournament and has a realistic path to winning a world championship this year. So this is a great case study to remind ourselves – as we look through younger prodigies – not to overstate prodigious potential as a certainty. And also to remember not to be too hard on fantastic players if they fail to perfectly live up to a standard we never should have placed on them. All indications – still – are that Wei Yi will be one of the best players of his generation; it would be a fool’s errand to turn that into criticism if he doesn’t end up as one of the greatest players of all time… not that that’s even entirely off the table yet! He’s only 20!

Aravindh Chithambaram, born September 11th 1999, India

Then: Chithambaram earned our notice in August 2015 as the top seed in the Under 16 section of the Asian Youth Championships, although his Prodigy Rank of #54 was lower than we would normally profile. He struggled in that event.

Now: GM Chithambaram is an extremely promising young player, rated 2644 at 20.5 years of age. From a prodigy watch perspective he’s a couple years behind some of the most impressive players we have. We don’t calculate Prodigy Ranks for players older than 19, but 75 players have been rated higher, younger, than he is. That said, he sits on the cusp of cracking the top 100 of the world rankings, and has every opportunity to improve his rating to 2700+ and earn the unofficial “Super GM” title in the coming years. Do keep in mind that you can be a great chess player and have an excellent career even if you aren’t among the youngest ever to do it. Prodigy watching is a fun exercise (we assume you agree if you’re still reading) but it’s not everything in chess.

Parham Maghsoodloo, born August 12th 2000, Iran

Then: While not entirely elite at the time, we briefly noted Maghsoodloo (Prodigy Rank #107) in August 2015 as being “absent with cause” from the Asian Youth Championships, because he played the Continental Championships instead. And in that event he earned his first GM norm! We looked at him again in more depth in July 2016, noting that his Prodigy Rank had risen to #66, he had earned the IM title, and that he was the top rated teenager in Iran (ahead of the younger Alireza Firouzja). More importantly he had just had a spectacular tournament result that was going to bring his Prodigy Rank up to around #25 and earn him the GM title once it was added to the next rating list.

Now: By March 2020 Maghsoodloo had risen to a 2676 rating, still as a teenager (just over 19.5 years old). We don’t generally calculate Prodigy Ranks past the age of 19, but if we did this would have put him at #26, so he has maintained the standard he established in that spectacular tournament in August 2016. All indications are that he’s well on the way to Super GM status and then we will see where his career goes from there!

Jeffery Xiong, born October 30th 2000, USA

Then: In August 2016 we highlighted that Xiong’s Prodigy Rank was #4 as he reached a 2641 rating at the age of 15. We generally find high Prodigy Ranks more credible in older youth, so this was an exciting and highly promising position.

Now: By March 2020 Xiong was almost 19.5 years old meaning he aged out of our Prodigy Rank formula, but he was also a Super GM rated 2709 making him one of only 18 players to ever break the 2700 ratings barrier before their 20th birthday. There is only one player in the world (Firouzja) who is currently rated higher than Xiong while also being younger. Looking through the others on that list, 12 have been ranked among the top four players in the world at some point, and every single one has been ranked at least in the top 14. So Jeffery is well positioned to become a fixture near the top of the world rankings for the next two decades.

Samuel Sevian, born December 26th 2000, USA

Then: We profiled Sevian in February 2015 when he was just over 14 years old, and had recently become the youngest United States GM ever. He also boasted a Prodigy Rank of #11 and that was down from an even higher earlier peak. In September 2015 we revisited him and noted that his Prodigy Rank had risen back into the top ten range, with a rating of 2556 at under 14.7 years old.

Now: By March 2020, Sevian had brought his rating up to 2660 at just over 19 years old. In the race of American youngsters this does leave him a shade behind Xiong at the moment, two months younger and 49 Elo lower, but if we did calculate prodigy ranks past players’ 19th birthdays his would still be a very promising #31. It would be very surprising if he doesn’t join Xiong in the over-2700 club soon enough, and we wouldn’t feel comfortable offering any guarantees as to which of them will be the highest rated US player a decade from now, but the chances do seem good that it will be one of them.

M. Amin Tabatabei, born February 5th 2001, Iran

Then: In our August 2015 article on the Asian Youth Championships we noted that Tabatabei and his #46 Prodigy Rank skipped the event to play the Asian Continental Championships instead. A month later in our September update we revisited that fact to highlight that he did well in that event as well as a subsequent tournament, and drove his Prodigy Rank up to #28 with a 2488 rating at just over 14.5 years of age.

Now: At just past 19 years old in March 2020, Tabatabei is a GM rated 2629, and while he had just aged out of our Prodigy Rank calculations (which only look at players under 19) we can manually assess that he would have been #58. Not quite a top tier “best teenager of all time” level, but certainly very impressive and not out of the running to push to 2700 or above in the future.

John M Burke, born July 1st 2001, USA

Then: Burke was a fascinating case study of a controversial rule change (specifically an increase in the “k-factor” used in calculating rating changes, but we won’t get too deep into the technical details here) when we wrote about him in September 2015. FIDE had adjusted their ratings formula so that younger players could gain rating points faster under certain circumstances, and Burke’s results over the course of two months aligned with those rule changes to produce a dramatic 343 point increase in his rating! This gave him a record setting rating for his age, 2603 at age 14.2, Prodigy Rank #1, but also drew a lot of skepticism. Without re-writing our full analysis, we generally concluded that the skepticism was valid, and the rating formula had likely overshot the mark in his case, overrating his true strength by a relatively large margin.

Now: Results since 2015 have validated the skepticism. That 2603 rating Burke recorded then remains a record, but also remains Burke’s personal highest rating. He dropped gradually with additional play down as low as 2479 before his rating stabilized and began to climb again. Burke did earn the GM title and still carried a 2538 in March of 2020, still good for a Prodigy Rank of #191. So in the long run the formula that left him overrated at 14 didn’t really cause any meaningful harm and we now have a clear picture of his clear strength, which as with any teenage GM is very high, even if it’s not quite in the stratosphere we normally look at in our prodigy watch.

Aryan Gholami, born July 26th 2001, Iran

Then: In August 2015 we noted Gholami’s win (as top seed) in the U14 section of the Asian Youth Championships. His Prodigy Rank was only #68 and he’s another player we mentioned just once, who wasn’t quite as close to setting records as some of the other players we tend to look at.

Now: Gholami picked up the GM title in 2020 and was rated 2507 at just over 18.5 years old in March 2020. From a Prodigy Rank perspective, this only puts him at #243, so he’s no record setter, but we still would never scoff at the achievements of any teenage GM.

Alireza Firouzja, born June 18th 2003, Iran (Now playing for FIDE; transitioning from Iran to France)

Then: We were a bit ahead of the curve, first profiling Firouzja in February 2015 at age 11 when his Prodigy Rank was also #11, and well before he was on most people’s radar. We checked in on him again in August 2015 when he won the U12 section of the Asian Youth Championships although his Prodigy Rank had dropped to #22 at that point. In October 2015 we noted his Prodigy Rank had risen back to #13. By July 2016, our final check-in, his true potential was beginning to show itself as his Prodigy Rank was up to #6, and at 13 he had already won a national championship, earned the IM title, won his first GM norm, and won a team title at the U-16 Olympiad. At this point we were comfortable saying that his star was bright. We didn’t know the half of it.

Now: If you read this far in an article about chess prodigies, but don’t already know who Alireza Firouzja is, then we’re just confused. In March 2020 he was rated 2728 and not yet 17 years old, for a Prodigy Rank of #2. Only Wei Yi was ever rated higher by that age. And we’ll cheat here on our promise to ignore the pandemic year, because strong performances at the 2020 Norway Chess tournament (2nd place) and the 2021 Tata Steel Masters (tied for 3rd place) have brought him to a #13 world ranking, and a 2759 rating (second only to Magnus Carlsen for highest U18 rating of all time – stay tuned for that full article comparing Alireza and Magnus) with still three months until he turns 18. We’ll count this one as a success story for our prodigy watch, and look forward to watching his continued progress. Will he crack the top ten before turning 18? Is he a future world champion? Only time will tell!

Alex Krstulovic, born September 10th 2003, Hungary

Then: We briefly highlighted Krstulovic in October 2015 as the month’s biggest ratings gain among players we were already tracking, as he improved his Prodigy Rank to #49 with a 2250 rating just past his 12th birthday. Not quite as promising as most of the players we wrote about, but enough to deserve the mention.

Now: Krstulovic was awarded the IM title in 2020, has a peak published rating of 2388, and in March 2020 was rated 2344 with a Prodigy Rank of 383. Keep in mind that our curated database is only designed to be complete (or close to it) for the top 50 of most age ranges, so there may be many other players we aren’t tracking who were also rated higher by the time they were 16.5 years old. The IM title is impressive no matter what, but this is another case of a player we only mentioned once who did not maintain an elite Prodigy Rank in the intervening years.

Jonas Bjerre, born June 26th 2004, Denmark

Then: Bjerre made our July 2016 update after he gained 349 rating points in one month, and his Prodigy Rank shot from #146 to #6. He was certainly a beneficiary of the same change to the k-factor that Burke benefited from (discussed above), but we also noted that in his case there was evidence to suggest the extreme rating jump may have been a legitimate reflection of his strength and did not predict a significant drop off to occur later.

Now: After surging from 2075 to 2424 in a month, Bjerre’s rating did regress a little, bottoming back out at 2330 a year after we wrote about him. And then it started going back up. In March 2020 he was rated 2544, at age 15.7, and still maintained a very respectable Prodigy Rank of #47. And also he was a newly minted GM! We would definitely advise continuing to keep an eye on this youngster.

Nihal Sarin, born July 13th 2004, India

Then: We first picked up on Sarin in August 2015 when he was seeded second in the U12 section of the Asian Youth Championships, where we tabbed him as the “top prodigy” in the section – ahead of Alireza Firouzja. Firo was seeded first, Sarin second, but Sarin was a year younger and boasted the higher Prodigy Rank at #10, though he struggled in that event. In July 2016 we checked back in and Sarin boasted a Prodigy Rank of #13 with a rating over 2350 before his 12th birthday.

Now: He’s kept it up. Sarin is a strong GM now, rated 2620 in March 2020, at age 15.7, giving him a #10 Prodigy Rank. Only 18 players have been rated 2600+ before the age of 16, and it’s a veritable who’s who of success stories, and some of the brightest young stars we’re currently tracking (including Sarin). So it’s more likely than not that the only question is when – not if – we will see him breaking the 2700 barrier, and then how much further he’ll progress in the coming years.

Nodirbek Abdusattorov, born September 18th 2004, Uzbekistan

Then: We first highlighted Abdusattorov in September 2015 when he held a Prodigy Rank of #1 having already achieved a record setting peak rating of 2465 before turning 11 – a rating no one else had ever exceeded until after they turned 12. We highlighted this absurdly dominant record again in July 2016 but noted at that time that his rating had dropped down to 2375 and “only” warranted a Prodigy Rank of #7. Still exceptional of course, but we were cautious as he wasn’t yet 12 years old at that point.

Now: In 2017 Abdusattorov became a GM, the fifth youngest in history to date, and by March 2020 his rating was up to 2627 at the age of 15.5, for a Prodigy Rank of #5. So he remains elite at an older age, where prodigy status becomes a much more reliable predictor of long-term success. Just like we just said about Sarin above, a rating over 2600 before ones 16th birthday is rare and impressive, and very likely to predict future Super GM status – if not even more.

Vincent Keymer, born November 15th 2004, Germany

Then: We never gave Keymer enough credit because we weren’t sure of his birthday (and when birthdays are unknown we calculate worst-case Prodigy Ranks using January 1st, which in this case meant Keymer was almost 11 months younger than we thought). Even so, we wrote about him in September 2015 as having a Prodigy Rank of #4 at the age of 11.7 years (or less). In actuality we now know he was 10.8 years old and his Prodigy Rank was actually #2.

Now: At 15.3 years old in March 2020 Keymer is rated 2558, is the youngest German GM ever, and has a Prodigy Rank of #28. He hasn’t quite maintained the same heights (relative to the top players of all time at his age) that he held between the ages of 10 to 12, but he remains a player with tremendous upside. If he’s the 28th best player of all time for his age a decade from now, that would make him a Super GM rated 2740+.

R Praggnanandhaa, born August 10th, 2005, India

Then: We first checked in on Praggnanandhaa in August 2015 when he competed in the U10 section of the Asian Youth Championships. Prior to that he had achieved the third highest U10 rating of all time, but he struggled a little after that high, and his Prodigy Rank at that exact time was #17 and dropping, but we were optimistic and said there was “a fine chance” that he would bounce back. And did he ever! We next checked in 11 months later in our July 2016 update when he had just become the youngest IM ever, beating the prior record by more than a year, and was boasting a #2 Prodigy Rank. We closed with speculation as to whether he might also go on to set the record for youngest GM ever.

Now: He missed the youngest GM mark by three months, having to settle for now “only” being the fourth youngest GM of all time. As of March 2020 his rating sits at 2608 at just over 14.5 years old. That’s good for the top possible mark: a Prodigy Rank of #1. He’s the third youngest player to ever break 2600. By every possible measure, he is as elite of a prodigy as one can be. Of course that is not a definitive guarantee of future success, no such promise is possible, but his chances to be a true superstar in the world of chess seem as high as they could be. We’d be shocked if he isn’t 2700 relatively soon. From there we’ll see if he plateaus at some point, or continues a meteoric rise straight to the top of the rankings. It’ll be fun to watch and we don’t advise betting against him.

Javokhir Sindarov, born December 8th 2005, Uzbekistan

Then: Sindarov was featured prominently, as we wrote about him four separate times. We first highlighted him in August 2015 when he won the U10 section at the Asian Youth Championships. His Prodigy Rank was #3 and the tournament brought his rating above 2200, and we used him as an excuse to explore exactly what it does – or doesn’t – mean to achieve high U10 ratings. In September 2015 we simply noted that he still had a Prodigy Rank of #3. Then in October 2015 we highlighted another strong result that pushed him all the way to #1, with the highest U10 rating we’d ever seen (2299). While trying to remain cautious about a player so young, we became rather effusive in our praise of Sindarov at this point. In our August 2016 update Sindarov continued to draw a lot of our attention, and we wrote a long paragraph about him – Prodigy Rank #2 at the time – and graphed his rating against two other elite youngsters who he was actively competing with to set rating records for his (and their) age.

Now: Sindarov validated our relative obsession when he became the second youngest player ever (at the time, he’s now third, with those other players we graphed him against being fourth and fifth) to earn the GM title. His March 2020 rating is 2557 at age 14.3, which is actually slightly off pace as his Prodigy Rank has dipped to #11, but don’t kid yourself, that’s still remarkable and this is a very special youngster we’ll certainly continue to keep a very close watch on.

Aleksandar Tashev, born 2006, Bulgaria

Then: We highlighted Tashev as a “big gainer” in September 2015 when his rating hit 2048 well before his tenth birthday; enough to earn a “prodigy rank” of 22. Prodigy Rank is simply our term for a player’s rating relative to their age. A rank of 22 means that their rating was 22nd highest within our records among all players at or below their age at the time.

Now: Tashev turne 14 in 2020 (we don’t know his birthday) and remains untitled. His March 2020 rating of 2236 earned a Prodigy Rank of 338, so safe to say he dropped off a bit from when he was 9. We include him in this article as a reminder to our readers that for the younger players that we profile – those under 12, and even more so those under 10 – while we are happy to highlight successes when they occur those successes should not be taken as a guarantee that the player is automatically on their way to a GM title by their mid-teens.

Ilya Makoveev, born May 4th 2006, Russia

Then: In August 2016 we highlighted Makoveev for a Prodigy Rank of #4, with a 2249 rating months before his tenth birthday. We also emphasized that with players so young it’s very hard to predict whether such successes will hold up to the future.

Now: In March 2020 Makoveev was rated 2338, and almost 14. No longer a record setting pace, his Prodigy Rank had dropped to 184. That’s nothing to dismiss, tons of grandmasters were rated lower at that age, but it is no longer the kind of eye popping rating that draws our attention.

Volodar Murzin, born July 18th 2006, Russia

Then: We gave Murzin a brief blurb in September 2015 when his Prodigy Rank rose to (at least) #23 with a rating of 2039 at just over 9 years of age. At the time we didn’t know his birthday and so didn’t give him enough credit, looking back his real Prodigy Rank at the time was actually #9!

Now: Murzin has continued to do well. By March 2020 he is now an IM rated 2465, at 13.7 years old, and maintains a promising Prodigy Rank of #25. He’s also the third highest rated player born in 2006 (look for one of the others to show up in part 2 of this article when we discuss players we didn’t mention before).

2021 Tata Steel Masters – Event Recap

The final day in Wijk aan Zee brought drama, chaos, and controversy. Three decisive results led to a tie atop the standings, created two new Super GMs, and showcased a possible preview of this year’s world championship match. And we still didn’t have a champion! After all the games… uh… almost all… were completed (we’ll double back to that later) there was a blitz playoff between the two players from the host nation, and only after the time scramble to end all time scrambles did Jorden van Foreest emerge as the shocking upset winner of the 2021 Tata Steel Masters.

Jorden started the day half a point behind the leader, Anish Giri, but won his game (bringing his rating above 2700 in the process) while Giri just drew. Two other players who started out tied with Jorden also only drew, failing to catch the leaders, leaving the playoff matchups set, but notable wins were scored by Andrey Esipenko (who also finishes rated over 2700 as a result) and by world champion Magnus Carlsen over a possible challenger for his title, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

All that set the stage for the playoffs where Jorden and Anish drew their first two games, resulting in a winner-take-all Armageddon matchup. Giri, needing a win with the white pieces, found himself ahead on the board but behind on the clock, and needed to reach move 60 to hit what passes for time control in this format – with three seconds added to the clock per move from that point on. The ensuing scramble was so chaotic, with pieces literally flying, that the official broadcast reported Giri had run out of time and lost on move 58. Only later did it become clear that in fact what gave out on the 58th move was not Giri’s time, but rather the electronic board’s ability to properly record the moves that were being made so quickly, and the actual finish came with Giri successfully reaching the key 60th move, but blundering a winning position into a losing one with that very move, and resigning two moves later.

Even a day and a half later that warrants a deep breath. So let us slow down, rewind, and review how we got here. If you followed our coverage throughout the event, you’ll know we were using a computer model to track each player’s chances of winning after each round. Our initial projections only gave four players better than a 5% chance of winning and gave the eventual champion only a 0.2% chance. He was later quoted by chess24.com as believing he had been a “1000:1 dog”; our model said 639:1 but we’ll accept rounding.

Ultimately nine different players saw their odds rise above 5% at some point in the event as fortunes ebbed and flowed, while amazingly no player ever saw their chances go higher than 65% at any point – not even after the final round! Our model didn’t use rating comparisons to predict what might happen in the chaos of blitz or Armageddon you see, so the two co-leaders in the final standings each saw their odds listed at 50% before the playoff began. Here is what the changing odds for those nine contenders looked like in graphical form:

We will take a look at all 14 players, compare their initial expectations per our model against their final results, highlight their best and worst moments, and offer a letter grade to each player’s performance. But first something else needs to be addressed.

The controversy:

Alireza Firouzja entered the final day tied with eventual champion Jorden van Foreest, and without accounting for tiebreaks our model offered him a 12.5% chance of winning the tournament – and much higher if he could win his last game. Later analysis revealed however that his Sonnenborn-Berger score, a mathematical tiebreak used to determine the playoff participants should more than two players tie for first, was lower than other contenders and his realistic odds were closer to 7% as he would not qualify for the playoff in almost any multi-way tie scenario. This became critical after Jorden won and Anish drew, because those results eliminated Firouzja’s hopes of reaching the playoff even as he held an over the board edge in his game. He and his opponent were the only players still competing, and a win could have added Firouzja to the tie for first place, but he would have ranked third in tiebreaks.

At this point the arbiters interrupted his game while it was still in progress. They were going to begin the tiebreak games while Firouzja was still playing his classical game – and they wanted to do so at the same table he was playing at. So Firouzja and his opponent were forced to move to a different table to continue their game – where Alireza quickly blundered away his advantage and settled for a draw.

This has been discussed in great detail already in many other places, and is largely outside the scope of the analytical nature of our coverage, but we want to emphasize our opinion here at Chess by the Numbers that interrupting a player’s game while it is in progress was an egregious and inappropriate violation of the players’ dignity.  We are disappointed that this occurred and that it is what will be remembered about a tournament that by all accounts was run impeccably up until that point.

The results:

Working our way from the bottom of the standings upward, we will now take a look at every player’s individual performance, to wrap up our narrative of how this tournament proceeded.

Alexander Donchenko

Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 9.8

Results: 3.5 / 13 points; 14th place finish; 19 rating points lost; TPR 2554

Highlight: Competing. To say this tournament went badly for Donchenko is an understatement, but there is one major mitigating factor. He never expected to be here and had no chance to prepare. He was added to the field as a Covid-related replacement the day before the opening ceremonies. And he had already competed in another tournament earlier in the month (performing quite well) so he wasn’t even fresh. This is one of the greatest tournaments on the chess calendar, and this was Donchenko’s first opportunity to compete in it. The performance is one he’ll probably want to forget, but plenty of other players who have never competed here would take it in a heartbeat for the experience. We wish the 22-year-old Donchenko the opportunity to compete here again in the future under better circumstances with a chance to prepare properly.

Lowlight: Losing to Grandelius in round one. The first of six eventual losses (with no wins) came against one of the lower seeded players in the field, and set the tone for the event. Perhaps if he could have opened with even a draw, he could have gotten his footing and fared better, but losing right out of the gate was the beginning of the end.

Grade: D-

We can’t bring ourselves to flunk someone put in such a difficult position so we’re arbitrarily identifying a failing grade as something we will only award to players who lost 20 or more rating points. Still this one was tough for Alexander and there’s no real way to spin that. As we said, we hope he gets another opportunity. He’s an excellent young player, and still ranked in the top 100 in the world (#84). We suspect he’ll be back.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Predictions: 8.3% chance to win; average finish 4.8

Results: 5 / 13 points; tied 11th-13th place finish; 26 rating points lost; TPR 2633

Highlight: Beating Donchenko in round 10. As hapless as Donchenko was in this event, it was Maxime’s only win and it helped keep him from truly finishing in last place. So nothing else can be identified as a significant positive.

Lowlight: Losing to Carlsen in round 13. By rating this was the most forgivable loss, and perhaps the round five loss to Grandelius – Maxime’s first in the event – was a lower point as it presaged the disaster to come. However Carlsen also was having a difficult tournament and there’s perhaps a 30% or higher chance that Maxime will face Magnus for the World Championship later this year. This game in the final round was a chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise dreadful event, and a chance to establish himself as a potential threat to the world’s best player. Instead he was blown off the board, and what was cemented was his fall from #5 in the world rankings to #15.

Grade: F

There’s no spinning this one. Adjusting for expectations, and without a mitigating factor, MVL had the worst performance in the field. Everything went wrong and he finished 7.2 places lower than projected. There is one point of possible comfort to be found though. In 2018 Fabiano Caruana scored an identical 5/13 here at Tata Steel, and then went on to win that year’s Candidate’s Tournament, so a bad performance here doesn’t have to mean bad results moving forward. MVL is currently tied for the lead in the half-completed Candidates Tournament, which will hopefully be played to completion this spring. Nothing can make his results in this event any better, but if he can follow Caruana’s path and bounce back to win that far more important event he’ll have to feel good about 2021 no matter what happened here.

Radoslaw Wojtaszek

Predictions: 0.9% chance to win; average finish 8.3

Results: 5 / 13 points; tied 11th-13th place finish; 11 rating points lost; TPR 2639

Highlight: Drawing Carlsen in round 12. When you don’t win a game, your best result must be a draw. Carlsen, despite his relative struggles here, is the best player in the world. It’s always satisfying to avoid being beaten in a game with Magnus.

Lowlight: Losing to Esipenko in round 7. After drawing his first six games, Wojtaszek still had some tentative paths to potentially coming back to win the tournament (in the 200:1 underdog range – better than Jorden’s chances when the event began) and was expected by our model to finish an average of 9th. This loss eliminated all hopes of first place and drove his expected finish down to 11th in one fell swoop, and at the time it was against a teenager who hadn’t won a game yet in the event (although he would notably win more afterward). Wojtaszek went on to lose two more games, but this first loss must have stung the most.

Grade: D

Far from the highest rated player in the tournament Wojtaszek was never a realistic contender to win the event, but he had to hope to at least win a game along the way given he had 13 tries. While this tournament added two new members to the 2700 club, it also lost one as Radoslaw’s rating fell below that mark with his struggles here, and he also dropped from #36 in the world rankings to #43.

David Anton Guijarro

Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 9.8

Results: 5 / 13 points; tied 11th-13th place finish; 6 rating points lost; TPR 2641

Highlight: Drawing Carlsen in round two. With the same logic as before, when you don’t win a game, drawing the best player in the world is as close to a highlight as it comes. Also this occurred after also drawing his first game, so this brought his projected finish to its peak of 9th, before falling off with his first loss and never recovering.

Lowlight: Losing to Van Foreest in round six. This was long before we knew how successful Jorden would ultimately be, and this – the second of Anton’s three losses – drove his projected finish down by 1.4 spots, the worst hit he took from any one result.

Grade: D+

If we’re grading on a curve, the same result as the last player when measured against lower expectations must be a relatively better (or less bad) result. He only finished 2.2 places lower than projected. So we’ll offer Anton the ‘plus’ here, but in a 13 round event where you face five players lower rated than yourself, it’s undeniably disappointing to score zero wins.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Predictions: 2.7% chance to win; average finish 6.6

Results: 5.5 / 13 points; 10th place finish; 14 rating points lost; TPR 2666

Highlight: Drawing Carlsen in round six. Until we reach players who scored wins, this is going to be a theme. At the point of this game Duda had lost once but still had decent hopes of bouncing back. Seeded 6th, his projected finish after holding this draw had only fallen to just worse than 8th and things still had a chance to remain under control.

Lowlight: Losing to Grandelius in round two. This was the worst of Duda’s two losses, as it crippled him early on in the event. Entering the tournament ranked #18 in the world Duda was a valid longshot bet to win the whole thing, but that essentially ended with this loss. He never recovered, failing to win a single game, losing a second along the way, finishing 3.4 places worst than originally projected to, and falling to #22 in the world rankings.

Grade: D

Again grading on a curve against expectations, Duda underperformed just as much as the lower rated Wojtaszek despite losing one fewer games. Falling out of the world top 20 is a disappointment. Duda is only 22 years old though, so he will have plenty of chances to do better in the future. That won’t be reassuring in the immediate aftermath of this result though.

Nils Grandelius

Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 10.3

Results: 6 / 13 points; tied 8th-9th place finish; 7 rating points gained; TPR 2700

Highlight: Beating Vachier-Lagrave in round five. Nils started the tournament with a bang winning two straight games, taking the sole lead, and briefly enjoying a position as the biggest story of the event early on. However our model looked at his rating (second lowest in the field) and the 11 rounds remaining, and did not give him quite so much credit at that point. Sure enough, he lost in round three, but that wasn’t the end of his story. When he bounced back and beat MVL in round five our model suddenly did believe, giving him better than a 4% chance of winning it all and projecting as good as a 6th place average finish. Those numbers improved slightly more with a draw against a top seed the following round, and those marks after rounds five and six were his high water points for the event.

Lowlight: Losing in round seven to Giri. This is where the dream ended for good. Unfortunately Grandelius managed to combine his three wins with four losses and finish below a 50% score. This was the second of those losses and the point from which he never bounced back. In rounds 7 through 13 he looked like the player our model initially projected, never capitalizing on his early success.

Grade: B-

With seven decisive games, early hopes of a Cinderella run, and a starring role on the wrong end of Jorden’s critical last-round win, Nils was certainly the most exciting player over the course of the event. He did manage to outperform his expected finish by 1.8 places, and gain rating points, so ultimately it counts as a success. His incredibly hot start left hopes of so much more, though, and falling off as the tournament wore on, while perhaps not surprising, is unfortunate and takes the luster off of what at one point looked like a truly sensational breakout performance.

Aryan Tari

Predictions: 0.0% chance to win; average finish 12.0

Results: 6 / 13 points; tied 8th-9th; 14 rating points gained; TPR 2703

Highlight: Beating Esipenko in round 11. If you had predicted Esipenko would score 50% against his two Norwegian opponents nobody would have batted an eye initially. Once he upset Carlsen though, it seemed a lot less likely. Amazingly though, Tari (the lowest rated player in the field) accomplished what nobody else could in the tournament – he scored a win over the 18-year-old. It was Tari’s only win, but it was the moment our model realized that Tari really truly wasn’t going to finish at the bottom of the standings. His projected finish improved from 11.0 to 9.4 with that win, and he did in fact manage to end the event 3.5 places higher than originally projected.

Lowlight: Losing to Van Foreest in round seven. Of course Tari wasn’t the only player to suffer against Jorden, but given Tari overperformed rather dramatically with just two losses (to the two players who tied for first place), one of them has to be the lowlight. This one hurt his projected results the most, although as we saw he recovered from it nicely!

Grade: B+

Expectations are key here. While we can’t give an A to a player who finished in the bottom half of the standings, we would be remiss not to recognize how well Tari played. He wasn’t just the lowest rated player in the field, he was lowest by a large margin. Expected to serve as the punching bag, he punched back. He ultimately made it impossible to finish in first place without beating him. This was an excellent performance against such a strong field.

Pentala Harikrishna

Predictions: 2.1% chance to win; average finish 6.9

Results: 6.5 / 13 points; 7th place finish; 2 rating points lost; TPR 2724

Highlight: Beating Grandelius in round three. Just when Nils was flying high with sole possession of first place, it was Harikrishna who brought him back to earth. This was definitely the best of Harikrishna’s two wins, and it put him in position to rise as high as 8% to win the event with an average finish of 5th place after he followed it with two draws against high rated opponents. Unfortunately those were his high water marks, he surrendered his +1 score, and never found himself in serious contention again.

Lowlight: Losing to Firouzja in round 8. The first of his two losses, this game brought him back to an even score and effectively ended his hopes of winning the event. He had scored a win and six draws before this, including draws against the four highest seeded opponents, and had hopes of beating up on the lower half of the bracket and making a run… until those hopes were dashed by the 17-year-old wunderkind’s third straight win.

Grade: C

Expected to finish 7th he finished… 7th. His tournament performance rating was within six points of his actual rating, which remained practically unchanged. His world ranking of #21 was in fact unchanged. He won twice and lost twice. It would hardly be possible to have a more average performance, exactly meeting expectations.

Magnus Carlsen

Predictions: 50.6% chance to win; average finish 2.1

Results: 7.5 / 13 points; 6th place finish; 15 rating points lost; TPR 2771

Highlight: Beating Firouzja in round one. The tournament opened right off the bat with perhaps the most anticipated game of the entire event, as Carlsen faced off against the youngster who bears expectations of being “the next Magnus” on his shoulders. And Carlsen got the better of him. Coming off a disappointing result in a major online tournament before this, opening with a big win looked promising for the champ. After this opening win our model pegged him at a 64% likelihood to win the event. If the world #1 shows up in form and jumps out to an early lead, how could he not simply run away with things?

Lowlight: Losing to Esipenko in round eight. Spoiler alert, Magnus did not simply run away with things. After beating Firouzja he began drawing game after game, despite growing expectations that he must win one eventually. By the end of round seven – his sixth straight draw – his odds of winning the tournament had fallen to 21.5% and he was no longer the favorite as he had been passed in the standings by four players. So he entered his game against Esipenko desperately needing a win. Instead things went horribly wrong. This loss ended realistic discussion of winning the tournament, and instead turned the whispers of “what’s wrong with Magnus” into a cacophony. Is one loss really such a disaster? Well that’s the danger of the expectations game; when you’re as good as Magnus the answer is yes. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Grade: C-

Let us remember that Carlsen won three games, finished in sixth place, and had a performance rating that would fall 8th in the world rankings if it were a player’s true rating. Wins in rounds nine and 13 really did help salvage this, and while certainly disappointing it was not entirely the disaster it was billed as. Carlsen called his performance “shameful” but we would contend he’s perhaps being overdramatic to do so. It wasn’t good, he finished 3.9 places lower than expected, he’s still ranked #1 in the world, it will be okay.

Alireza Firouzja

Predictions: 3.3% chance to win; average finish 6.3

Results: 8 / 13 points; tied 3rd-5th; 10 rating points gained; TPR 2810

Highlight: Winning three straight games from rounds six through eight. This run, over Donchenko, Duda, and Harikrishna, catapulted Firouzja to sole possession of first place and a 38% chance to win the tournament. As we’ve mentioned he bears the weight of tremendous expectations, and at this point it looked like he very well might meet them. Carlsen famously won this tournament for the first time at age 17, and Firouzja looked at this point like he might do the same. It was a remarkable achievement at the time to bounce back from a painful loss in round one and climb to these heights so quickly.

Lowlight: Losing to Carlsen in round one. Perhaps this is a surprising pick considering the massive frustration surrounding his controversial final-round draw. But the reason his tiebreaks were weaker in the first place, which allowed the controversy to occur, is that he lost to Magnus way back in the first round. The tiebreaks used give the most weight to results against players who finish highest in the standings, so losing to Magnus who finished sixth was costly. Imagine briefly an alternate universe where Firouzja drew in round one, and then everything else proceeded identically (ignoring the inevitable butterfly effects). The arbiters certainly wouldn’t have interrupted his game to begin a playoff that might have proven unnecessary as winning against Wojtaszek in that scenario would have won the tournament outright for himself.

Now we want to be clear we’re not blaming Firouzja for the egregious behavior of the arbiters. You don’t play round one with tiebreak implications in mind and a game should never be interrupted the way it was. We’re simply noting that with all said and done, the single result that ended up hurting Firouzja the most was his first. He recovered from it very well, but it still managed to come back to bite him in the end.

Grade: B+

Despite the bitter ending, this was a fantastic event for Firouzja. His performance rating was over 2800, and he climbed from #17 to #13 in the world rankings. At just 17 years old, we expect him to crack the top ten sooner than later and to stay there for a long time. Is he a future world champion? Can he live up to such extraordinary expectations? There are questions that it’s okay not to answer today. Sure to get there he’ll have to beat Magnus someday, but there’s plenty of time for that. He finished 2.3 places higher than projected here, won four games, showed grit competing right to the end. Hopefully he can swallow the bitter pill of an unfair finish, and ultimately remember the tournament in that manner, eventually looking back on it as a positive experience and a stepping stone to even greater heights.

Fabiano Caruana

Predictions: 25.2% chance to win; average finish 3.1

Results: 8 / 13 points; tied 3rd-5th; 3 rating points lost; TPR 2804

Highlight: Beating Wojtaszek in round nine. This was the third of Fabi’s three wins, and put him at his highest point in our projections. With this win he was the tournament favorite with a 43.6% chance to win it all, and an average finish of 2.2 – he just needed to find a way to win one more game to maintain those heights and ultimately join the tie for first place.

Lowlight: Drawing Tari in round 13. Unfortunately he couldn’t quite put the bow on things. Despite a wonderfully consistent tournament, with no lost games, he found himself going into the final round almost certainly needing a win to join any possible tie atop the leaderboard. And the opportunity looked promising against the lowest rated player in the field. Our model rated him the second most likely winner after round 12, just like he had been after every other round of the tournament (except seven and nine which each temporarily had him as the favorite). Unfortunately he couldn’t break through, drew his fourth straight game, and finished half a point behind the leaders.

Grade: B-

We can’t possibly give any lower grade to a fourth place finish, but there’s an argument we should as the expectations game comes into play again. He finished lower than projected and lost rating points. After winning this event in dominating fashion last year, he never really managed to pull away from the field this time around and was eventually surpassed. By the grading standards we set for others, that’s arguably C+ material, but he was only half a point off the lead, never lost a game, and was in serious contention from the beginning to the end. No matter how high expectations are for the #2 ranked player in the world, those results have to count as better than average, even if they do fall slightly short of our projections.

Andrey Esipenko

Predictions: 0.3% chance to win; average finish 9.6

Results: 8 / 13 points;tied 3rd-5th place; 24 rating points gained; TPR 2815

Highlight: Beating Magnus Carlsen in round eight. This was an extraordinary tournament all around for Andrey but of course this is the highlight. His win over the world champion was simply shocking, and the interviews afterward showed the absolute purest joy. It was truly a wonderful moment (except of course for Magnus).

Lowlight: Losing to Tari in round 11. Unfortunately for Esipenko he wasn’t able to beat his second Norwegian opponent, even though on paper this was the far easier opportunity. This loss proved costly, as before it occurred Esipenko was emerging not only as the player to beat Magnus, but as a legitimate contender to win the event. If he had won, or even drawn this game, he would have been in a great position to do something so extraordinary that beating Magnus wouldn’t have even ended up as his top highlight. Unfortunately, instead, he lost his only game of the tournament instead and those hopes all came crashing down and ultimately he finished half a point out of first place.

Grade: A

Not only was beating Carlsen a magnificent moment, but it was also one of four wins in a tournament that saw Esipenko climb from a #60 world ranking all the way to #37. The tremendous rating gain saw him cross the 2700 threshold, earning the unofficial “Super GM” title, making him the second teenager in the world rated over 2700 along with Firouzja. The third best teenager is just 2627, so it’s quite a gap. This was so much better of a result than Esipenko could ever have hoped for, exceeding his projected finish by 5.6 places. The only thing keeping it from being a perfect A+ is the unfortunate loss to Tari keeping him from reaching first place when it was realistically within reach.

Anish Giri

Predictions: 5.9% chance to win; average finish 5.3

Results: 8.5 / 13 points; tied 1st-2nd; 12 rating points gained; TPR 2832

Highlight: Beating Wojtaszek in round 10. Giri hung in the wings for the first half of the tournament, but then surged to the forefront by winning three games in four rounds from round seven through 10. This was the culmination of that surge and pushed Anish into sole possession of first place. His odds of winning the event actually rose much further with draws over the next two rounds, but that was because of other players failing to catch him; winning here to take the lead all to himself was the lynchpin that put him in such great position.

Lowlight: Drawing Firouzja in round 12. This draw left Giri half a point ahead of the field and vulnerable to being caught – which is exactly what happened. A win in this game could have nearly clinched sole first place in the tournament, and it looked nearly guaranteed. We carefully avoid analyzing games on this site, playing instead to our strengths, but suffice it to say that everyone who does analyze games agrees that Giri was winning in this one, and that Firouzja managed a rather shocking escape to salvage the draw. That escape ultimately cost Giri the championship in the event. Yes, blundering on move 60 of Armageddon may have cost him the championship even more directly, but that was a chaotic time scramble that never had to happen if Giri had converted this earlier game with the benefit of classical time controls.

Grade: A-

Giri tied for first with four wins and no losses, and had great chances to win the tournament, either by converting one more classical game somewhere along the line or by finding a better 60th move in Armageddon during the playoffs. His rating gain moved him back into the top ten of the world rankings. It all went quite well overall, but when the win is so close and then slips through your fingertips, it’s hard to focus on the positive. Giri was almost the first Dutch winner of Wijk aan Zee since 1985, but instead that ended up being someone else.

Jorden van Foreest

Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 10.2

Results: 8.5 / 13 points; tied 1st-2nd; 30 rating points gained; TPR 2839

Highlight: Winning the tournament. Jorden van Foreest is the first Dutch winner of Wijk aan Zee since the legendary Jan Timman took first place in 1985. We could pick a specific game, perhaps the round 13 win over Grandelius that earned him a spot in the playoffs, or of course the Armageddon win that clinched the title, but really trying to identify one single highlight is too narrow, the big picture is that the third lowest rated player in the field won the whole thing.

Lowlight: Truly there is none. Although our model never really thought Jorden had significant chances of actually pulling off the victory until the very end, there’s no moment we can point to where anything went wrong. To win a tournament as a 1000:1 (or 639:1) underdog, you can’t afford to have anything go wrong. And nothing did for Jorden.

Grade: A+

Of course. In addition to winning the tournament, Jorden also gained an astounding 30 rating points and cracked the 2700 club, climbing from 67th place in the world rankings all the way to 36th. And Jorden is only 21 years old. In our event preview we said he was not “a realistic contender for first place” but quite frankly he made it a joy to be proven wrong. Watching him pull this off was deeply enjoyable. We sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of a career worth of major successes at the highest level. Congratulations Jorden!

In Conclusion:

And that wraps up our tournament coverage of the 2021 Tata Steel Masters. We hope you enjoyed this event as much as we did. It’s wonderful to have classical chess being played once again, and we look forward to the next major tournament we’ll have the opportunity to cover. Right now that looks most likely to be the conclusion of the Candidates Tournament, perhaps in April. This event certainly lived up to its billing with drama that built slowly over the first few rounds and then just kept coming. Over the course of the event four different players were the favorite at some point before the end – and none of them ended up winning! We couldn’t have asked for more from an event to showcase exactly how our model can be more than just numbers, and capture the narrative ups and downs of a long tournament, highlighting and hopefully deepening the most dramatic moments. Thank you for joining us for this ride. We’ll see you for the next one!

2021 Tata Steel Masters – Final Round Preview

It looked like Anish Giri was prepared to place a stranglehold on the first place spot in this tournament, with what appeared to be a won position against Alireza Firouzja. That win would have left him a full point ahead of his closest competitors, and able to clinch sole first place with as little as a final round draw. Our model had him as a 95% favorite to win the tournament in that scenario. But then Firouzja put on his best Harry Houdini impression, escaped, and salvaged the draw. The result is no change at the top of the standings, and we will enter the final round with plenty of chances for chaos. Here are the standings before the last game:

Giri, Anish2777.68
Caruana, Fabiano2822.27.5
Firouzja, Alireza2759.87.5
Van Foreest, Jorden2696.37.5
Esipenko, Andrey2696.27
Carlsen, Magnus2842.86.5
Grandelius, Nils2674.66
Harikrishna, Pentala2730.26
Tari, Aryan2636.15.5
Duda, Jan-Krzysztof2729.75
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2761.65
Guijarro, David Anton2671.44.5
Wojtaszek, Radoslaw2693.04.5
Donchenko, Alexander2663.63.5

Giri does of course still hold sole possession of the lead. He can still clinch the tournament with a win, or clinch at worst a tie for first place with a draw. If he does draw those tiebreak scenarios become interesting though. A two-way tie is simple enough, the tied players would face each other in a blitz playoff. Our model treats that blitz as a tossup and counts that simulation as half a win for each player. Not perfectly accurate as some players are better than others at blitz, but we’re comfortable enough basing our analysis on it. However a three way tie uses tiebreaks to determine the top two players who would then play blitz. Our model is admittedly insufficient in that scenario; we give all tied players equal chances of a win without calculating who’s S-B score actually earns them a playoff berth. And our model is estimating roughly a 22% chance of such a three-way (or more) tie. We apologize for not living up to our promise to better account for tiebreak scenarios in such a tie; but it was a choice between explaining the tiebreaks after the event was already over or admitting what we aren’t certain of and still being able to provide a preview.

So our odds do come with a grain of salt that they may be offering false hope to someone with bad tiebreak chances, but for the sake of narrative drama we will move forward with the odds our model offers.

Projected Results
Before Rd. 12After Rd. 12
NameRatingWin%Win%(Outright)Avg Place
Giri, Anish2777.652.5%62.7%44.1%1.6
Caruana, Fabiano2822.227.3%14.9%2.6%2.7
Firouzja, Alireza2759.812.2%12.5%2.0%2.9
Van Foreest, Jorden2696.37.1%9.8%1.4%3.1
Esipenko, Andrey2696.20.8%0.1%0.0%5.0
Carlsen, Magnus2842.80.0%0.0%0.0%5.8
Grandelius, Nils2674.60.0%0.0%0.0%7.6
Harikrishna, Pentala2730.20.0%0.0%0.0%7.6
Tari, Aryan2636.10.0%0.0%0.0%9.3
Duda, Jan-Krzysztof2729.70.0%0.0%0.0%10.0
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2761.60.0%0.0%0.0%10.9
Guijarro, David Anton2671.40.0%0.0%0.0%12.1
Wojtaszek, Radoslaw2693.00.0%0.0%0.0%12.3
Donchenko, Alexander2663.60.0%0.0%0.0%13.9

We can see that despite the pain of missing an opportunity to practically clinch the tournament, Giri’s draw was nevertheless sufficient to actually improve his winning chances for the event from where he stood before the round. Despite all the potential chaos he does still have roughly a four in nine shot at simply winning the event cleanly. Caruana had white against a beatable opponent, so his draw hurt his chances significantly. Round 12 was his best opportunity to catch Giri and while he still has one more chance to do so, it’s harder now. Firouzja and Van Foreest remain in contention with slightly better odds than before thanks to their draws, but essentially must win. And note that at a full point back, Esipenko is not technically eliminated from tying for first himself, although it would take not only a final round win but also a lot of help.

So what are the games we will see in the last round? Amazingly almost all of them can still impact first place as none of the contenders face each other – Giri, Caruana, Firouzja, Van Foreest, and Esipenko all drew every game they played against each other so the top of the standings will be settled by how each of them ends up having performed against the other nine players.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (28%)Draw (56%)Black wins (16%)Importance
WhiteDuda, Jan-Krzysztof0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackHarikrishna, Pentala0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

Harikrishna scored the one win of round 12, although it didn’t affect the top of the standings in any way. It did improve Pentala’s hopes of finishing in the top half of the field though, and remind us that decisive results and interesting games can certainly still be played even when neither player has chances to finish in first place. Tata Steel is a special tournament, and in their last game of the year both players would love a chance to end things on a positive note.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (43%)Draw (48%)Black wins (9%)Importance
WhiteCarlsen, Magnus0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackVachier-Lagrave, Maxime0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

Amazingly this game between the #1 and #3 seeds also has no impact on who will win the tournament. After another draw in round 12, Magnus is finally truly eliminated, as even the best player in the world can’t close a 1.5 point gap in a single round. Again though, that doesn’t mean the game is inconsequential to the players.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (21%)Draw (59%)Black wins (19%)Importance
WhiteDonchenko, Alexander0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.6%
BlackEsipenko, Andrey0.0%0.0%0.0%0.6%

By ratings, Donchenko is the favorite here, but he currently sits alone in last place and hasn’t won a game yet in the event. Surely he’d love to take advantage of this one last chance to find a positive result in what has been a very difficult tournament. And he could have chances to do so if Esipenko treats the game as a must-win and presses with black. Esipenko is not mathematically eliminated from contention, but in addition to winning this game his hopes would require Giri to lose, and none of the three second-place players to win. It’s a longshot even if he does his part, but it might be enough to encourage him to seek sharp lines with black.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (32%)Draw (54%)Black wins (14%)Importance
WhiteVan Foreest, Jorden9.7%27.6%1.1%0.0%27.6%
BlackGrandelius, Nils0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

Jorden could tie for first with a draw, but only if Giri loses and neither Caruana nor Firouzja win. If he wants to give himself realistic chances to reach a playoff he must win this game. And he has white against an opponent with a penchant for decisive results (both positive and negative) throughout the event, so certainly he has chances to seek it! Giri is the best possibility for a Dutch player to win this tournament in his home country, but Jorden certainly also has chances to do so.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (40%)Draw (49%)Black wins (10%)Importance
WhiteFirouzja, Alireza12.5%29.6%1.3%0.0%29.6%
BlackWojtaszek, Radoslaw0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

Firouzja miraculously survived today against Giri and his reward is a chance to put himself into the mix if he can win with the white pieces against Wojtaszek, which is certainly doable (he’s already lost three games in the event). The analysis is the same as for Jorden, a draw technically leaves chances if other games break in very specific ways but for a realistic shot to tie for first a win is required here.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (7%)Draw (45%)Black wins (47%)Importance
WhiteTari, Aryan0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%30.3%
BlackCaruana, Fabiano15.0%0.0%1.9%30.3%

Caruana is the third of the players tied for second place, and his scenario is exactly the same as the last two. A draw isn’t elimination strictly speaking, but can be assumed to be for practical purposes so this is a must win game. Unfortunately for Fabi he has to do it with the black pieces, but it is against the lowest rated player in the field. That said, Tari’s performance rating is almost 2700, much higher than the 2636 live rating we used to calculate these chances, so the point is he’s been sharp so far here at Wijk aan Zee; including a win over Esipenko when Andrey tried to press with black. It’s hard to imagine him doing the same to Caruana, but if Fabi goes all-in for a win anything is possible, and we’ve seen other hard-to-imagine results throughout this tournament.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (14%)Draw (53%)Black wins (33%)Importance
WhiteGuijarro, David Anton0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%93.7%
BlackGiri, Anish62.7%6.3%54.6%100.0%

And that brings us to our leader, who has black against Anton. This is a winnable game even with the black pieces, and a win would clinch first place, but even a draw isn’t so bad. It still guarantees at least a tie for first, and even carries a 21% chance of still winning outright if all three second-place players draw. And tiebreaks wouldn’t be a concern unless at least two of the three players chasing him were to win their games. So a draw is acceptable, but a win is better. What about a loss? Dangerous to be sure; after failing to convert a winning position today a loss tomorrow would be a heartbreaking way to cripple his hopes of winning after seemingly having the tournament in the bag, but amidst the chaos of this final round there are scenarios even there where he could still tie for first (if none of the three second-place players win their own games).

In Conclusion:

This tournament has been high drama and it all comes to a crescendo in the final round tomorrow. If you’re watching the games live please remember that this final round starts two hours earlier than the other rounds did. If, like the author of this article, you live on the west coast of the United States that means the games start at 3 a.m. – yes we are complaining – and perhaps you’ll have to miss the opening phases and just set your alarm for the time scrambles. If you are somewhere that the games start at a more reasonable hour though, please don’t miss the openings simply because you forgot about the change in start times. Everything is on the line, five players are still in contention, and almost every game matters. You don’t want to miss that if you don’t have to, so enjoy the show!

2021 Tata Steel Masters – Round 12 Preview

Round 11 did very little to change the standings at Tata Steel. Anish Giri drew his dangerous game against Magnus Carlsen and remained the sole leader by half a point. Alireza Firouzja and Fabiano Caruana drew a game where both players missed some winning chances, and each remained half a point behind Anish. Andrey Esipenko did lose to fall further back but he was ultimately simply replaced by Jordan van Foreest who won his game to join Fabi and Firo in the tie for second place. The standings now look like this:

Giri, Anish2777.87.5
Caruana, Fabiano2824.17
Firouzja, Alireza2759.67
Van Foreest, Jorden2696.27
Esipenko, Andrey2696.36.5
Carlsen, Magnus2844.96
Grandelius, Nils2675.15.5
Harikrishna, Pentala2726.15
Tari, Aryan2635.65
Duda, Jan-Krzysztof2729.14.5
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2762.24.5
Wojtaszek, Radoslaw2690.94
Guijarro, David Anton2669.54
Donchenko, Alexander2667.73.5

One thing did change dramatically though. There were three rounds left to play, but now there are only two. That makes it far more valuable to hold the lead, and far trickier to play from behind. As a result, here are our model’s estimated odds of winning the event at this point:

Projected Results
Before Rd. 11After Rd. 11
NameRatingWin%Win%(Outright)Avg Place
Giri, Anish2776.535.9%52.5%38.6%1.9
Caruana, Fabiano2825.134.1%27.3%13.9%2.3
Firouzja, Alireza2758.614.5%12.2%5.6%3.3
Van Foreest, Jorden2690.41.8%7.1%2.3%3.6
Esipenko, Andrey2702.012.2%0.8%0.1%4.8
Carlsen, Magnus2846.21.5%0.0%0.0%5.4
Grandelius, Nils2674.90.0%0.0%0.0%7.3
Harikrishna, Pentala2731.90.0%0.0%0.0%8.4
Tari, Aryan2629.90.0%0.0%0.0%9.4
Duda, Jan-Krzysztof2730.10.0%0.0%0.0%10.1
Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime2763.30.0%0.0%0.0%10.2
Wojtaszek, Radoslaw2689.80.0%0.0%0.0%12.4
Guijarro, David Anton2669.70.0%0.0%0.0%12.5
Donchenko, Alexander2666.70.0%0.0%0.0%13.2

Note that we included a column showing the odds of winning the tournament outright. There is roughly a 60% chance of the event having a clear winner, and a 40% chance of it being settled by blitz playoffs (with tiebreaks to determine who qualifies for those playoffs if three or more players tie for first). Our model does not actually follow exact tiebreaking procedures, we simply assume all tied players have equal chances of potentially coming out on top of the playoff, so we may be overrating someone with bad tiebreaks (more likely to be left out of the playoff in a multiway tie) or bad blitz skills. With so many players close to the lead there are significant chances of a tie of some form, but since our ultimate goal is to use our model’s calculated odds to identify narratives and make the event more exciting to watch, we feel comfortable that our numbers are close enough for the purpose.

Setting tiebreak concerns aside for the moment, we can see that Giri improved his odds significantly by drawing a game our model noted could have easily been lost, and is now the odds on favorite (meaning his chances are better than 50%). Carlsen saw his odds drop from slim to none with that same draw (which had been a must win on his end) and Caruana’s hopes also dwindled as a round where he could have caught Giri came and went without his doing so. Failing to catch the leader was less damaging to Firouzja’s hopes as he drew his own challenging game (with black against Fabi), but he remains more of a longshot due to a tougher schedule. That said there is an upside to the tougher schedule that we’ll take a look at when we consider his round 12 game.

So with all that said, this article claims to be a preview so let’s look at those upcoming games now! As always we will start with the least important, and work up the ladder until we close with a review of the biggest game of the day.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (34%)Draw (53%)Black wins (13%)Importance
WhiteVachier-Lagrave, Maxime0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackDuda, Jan-Krzysztof0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (39%)Draw (50%)Black wins (11%)Importance
WhiteHarikrishna, Pentala0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackDonchenko, Alexander0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (35%)Draw (52%)Black wins (13%)Importance
WhiteGrandelius, Nils0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%
BlackTari, Aryan0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

With all due respect to the six players in these games, there is too much going on at the top of the standings to focus here. Everyone in the field is strong, and all of these have great potential to be wonderful and instructive chess games worth watching and enjoying. And if any of these six are your favorite player, certainly root for them to pick up some Elo, as always. But if your interest lies in who will win the tournament, these aren’t the games to watch to find out.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (10%)Draw (49%)Black wins (42%)Importance
WhiteWojtaszek, Radoslaw0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.1%
BlackCarlsen, Magnus0.0%0.0%0.0%0.1%

This one probably isn’t either, but we took the time to split it out for two reasons. One, always watch Magnus Carlsen’s game. He’s the best player in the world (really, that is still true! Don’t overreact to one bad event!) and it doesn’t really matter if his game will affect the top of the tournament standings or not – you should always want to see it. Also technically he is not eliminated from at least tying for first place. If he wins his last two games and a lot of other things happen, he still has something like a 1000 to 1 shot to win.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (28%)Draw (56%)Black wins (16%)Importance
WhiteEsipenko, Andrey0.8%2.9%0.0%0.0%29.9%
BlackVan Foreest, Jorden7.1%0.1%5.1%27.1%

Now we get to two of the five real contenders, albeit the two our model sees as the least likely tournament winners. Esipenko is nearly eliminated after his loss today, and sits a full point behind the leader with just two rounds left, but does still have slim chances. Of course they would absolutely require a win here. 21 year old underdog Jorden van Foreest is the main focus in this one though, as he has climbed to just half a point back and even a draw in this game is enough to maintain a reasonable 20 to 1 shot at winning the event. More important though is if he finds a way to pile misery on his opponent, hands Esipenko a second straight loss, and quite likely ends up tied for first with one round to play. A win in this game with black gives him better than a one in four chance to win it all!

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (55%)Draw (41%)Black wins (4%)Importance
WhiteCaruana, Fabiano27.3%42.0%10.7%0.4%41.5%
BlackGuijarro, David Anton0.0%0.0%0.0%0.0%

This game is only important to the tournament victory chances of one participant, but it’s a huge deal for that one. Despite being half a point back with only two chances left to catch up, Caruana is considered a very strong contender to win the event still by our model, and his excellent winning chances here with white against one of the weaker players in the field are precisely why. We can see that if he converts that win it puts him in excellent shape, verging on almost a coin flip to win the tournament entering the last round. However if he’s held to a draw his odds would drop to the lowest they’ve ever been at under 11%. So this one is something of a must win for Fabi.

Adjusted Odds if…
PlayerInitial OddsWhite wins (31%)Draw (54%)Black wins (15%)Importance
WhiteGiri, Anish52.5%83.3%46.9%5.7%130.6%
BlackFirouzja, Alireza12.2%0.0%8.0%53.1%

But no game can compare to this one. 131% (remember up to 200% is possible as this is an additive metric) is the highest importance score we’ve seen for any game yet. Of course we shouldn’t need a metric to realize that. The leader has white and a chance to nearly lock up the tournament with a win (guaranteeing he leads entering the final round), and knock one of his chief competitors out at the same time. Giri has been vicious with white in this event, scoring four wins and two draws. He’d love to add a fifth win here, teach the whippersnapper a lesson, and cement his front runner status. It would also be revenge for last year: Firouzja’s win over Giri in the 2020 Tata Steel Masters remains Alireza’s best win (by rating) of his career so far.

But Firouzja is no pushover and trying to beat him because you have white is a dangerous game. He’s already countered such efforts to score his own win with black on two occasions in this event, and he also has everything to play for. He enters this game as a longshot largely because this game makes it hard to score the points he needs for a comeback, but if he does manage to score a win he could become the odds on favorite to win the event going into the final round! Note that both players see their odds drop if this game is drawn, so there’s definitely incentive to play fighting chess on both sides, even though a decisive result would be devastating to whomever loses. If they do draw, it’s of course Caruana and Van Foreest who benefit as that opens a door should either of those players win.

In Conclusion:

Five players still have a shot and in two critical games two of those players face each other, with all eyes on the particularly vital showdown between Giri and Firouzja. Meanwhile the fifth contender has a great shot to score a full point, and whether or not Caruana can convert that opportunity should be watched closely as well. From a “who will win the tournament” perspective, the drama is now locked into those three games, but that drama is peaking in intensity and the contenders walk a razor’s edge. Plus there will be plenty of chance for great chess in the other games as well. This is the penultimate round and it really is all coming down to this, so as always let’s sit back and enjoy the show!