On Sunday, round one of the Sinquefield Cup will begin. This tremendous tournament features the seven highest rated players in the world (if you prefer to use published ratings), or 10 of the top 16 players in the world (if you prefer to measure by live ratings). Furthermore, the tournament is the second of three legs of the Grand Chess Tour, so results here will have a broader importance in the overall race to win the GCT, along with potential victory in this event itself. It’s a spectacular field, with high stakes, and should offer no shortage of twists and turns as these elite chess players battle for supremacy in St. Louis.
So how likely is each player to win? One challenge in projecting the results is that we don’t yet know the exact pairings. Since the event is a 10-player round robin, there are an odd number of rounds (9) and so half the field must take the disadvantage of playing black five times, while half the field earns the perk of five games with the white pieces. This difference is worth a few percentage points in a player’s overall odds of winning, so until the pairings are announced our projection model is hamstrung a little. Originally, when the Grand Chess Tour was first announced, it was stated that a blitz tournament in the first leg, Norway Chess, would determine pairings for that event, and then those pairings would be “reversed” for the Sinquefield Cup. However early on in that first GCT event it was announced that those plans had changed. How pairings will be chosen for this tournament will be announced at the opening ceremonies, but until then we must speculate.
How much of a difference does it actually make? Here are each player’s odds of winning the Sinquefield Cup, and also of winning the Grand Chess Tour, under three different pairing scenarios. Scenario one is a blitz tournament determining the pairings at both the Sinquefield Cup and the final leg, the London Chess Classic. Scenario two is purely random pairings at both events (and the players are sorted from most to least likely to win the Sinquefield Cup under this scenario). Scenario three is if pairings in St. Louis were in fact the reverse of Norway’s pairings, as originally announced, and London was random. Here’s how it shakes out:
As we can see, Magnus Carlsen (reigning World Champion, and highest rated player in the world) is of course the favorite regardless of pairings, but allowing him the opportunity to improve his chances by earning extra games as white through a blitz tournament makes him a bigger favorite. Nakamura also benefits from the inclusion of blitz games, as we would expect, and of course Topalov and Caruana (both notoriously weak blitz players relative to their standard ratings) see their odds suffer. That said, the odds don’t vary too much. As of now, there is no sign of a blitz tournament on the schedule in St. Louis, and I really have no idea how the pairings will be chosen, so I feel the middle column (random all the way) is the best reflection of the actual odds.
Setting aside the pairings, there are a few notable things about these projected odds of winning. First of all, our model places a high premium on rating. We have Carlsen as more than twice as likely than the second highest rated participant to ultimately win the tournament. Nevertheless, that still leaves his chances at under 30%, which means that the most likely result is for someone other than the World Champ to win. Within “the field”, odds for any given player drop precipitously as ratings fall further. The top three behind Magnus are those rated 2816 (Topalov and Anand) and 2814 (Nakamura), all at around 13% to win. On the other hand, players like Wesley So and Alexander Grischuk, who are both among the top ten players in the world, but are “only” rated in the low 2770s, show less than a 5% chance of taking the crown.
And what about their chances in the broader Grand Chess Tour? The listed odds, of course, are heavily influenced by results from Norway, as that completed tournament provides a full third of the final standings. Topalov is the favorite to win the Tour, because he won the first leg in Norway and earned 13 crucial points (first place is worth 12 if won on tiebreaks, or 13 if won outright; second place is worth 10; third through tenth places earn 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 points, respectively). Since the top three finishers in Norway were Topalov, Anand, and Nakamura, who are also the second through fourth highest rated players in the field (and thus the top projected finishers in St. Louis and London other than Carlsen), it currently looks unlikely that one of the lower rated players in the field will emerge as a serious GCT contender. These three (currently atop the standings) plus Carlsen (most likely to win either of the remaining events, but with a serious hill to climb after his shocking 7th place finish in Norway) have a combined chance of approximately 90% to produce the eventual Grand Chess Tour Champion. Caruana and Giri are still alive as longshots with about a 5% chance each to bounce back and win. The remaining three players (ignoring So, who is a wild card and only playing this one event, and thus can’t win the Grand Chess Tour) are within a rounding error of being eliminated, as if we round to the nearest whole percent they show as having 0% chances of winning, although they’re not actually mathematically eliminated yet.
How did we get here? Here is a graph of each player’s odds of winning the Grand Chess Tour over time, where the first data point is their odds before Norway Chess began (after the blitz tournament to determine pairings though), the second through tenth data points are their updated odds after each round of Norway Chess (at which time we were assuming that the Sinquefield pairings would be determined by a blitz tournament), and the 11th data point is their current odds (assuming random pairings at the Sinquefield Cup and reflecting rating changes for those players who have competed in events since Norway Chess concluded):
Topalov doesn’t necessarily need to win the Sinquefield Cup to remain the Grand Chess Tour favorite, but it’s worth pointing out that while he is a commanding favorite right now his odds are below 50%. There is better than a coin flip’s chances that someone else will emerge ahead of him – we just don’t know who yet. If he slips and struggles, finishing in the bottom half of this event, then he could easily not be the favorite anymore by the time London rolls around.
Carlsen had a shockingly disastrous result on his home turf in Norway. Our model originally thought that while he’s not necessarily the automatic favorite to actually win a given tournament, against this strong of a field, it was EXTREMELY unlikely for him to ever finish outside of the top three, and that cumulatively over the course of three events he would probably win the Tour easily. However at that time he held a much stronger rating edge than he does now, and his individual event odds aren’t quite as favorable in the model’s current projections as they were then. Plus, of course, he now trails by more in the Tour standings than expected. Consider that our model gives him a 27% chance of winning the Sinquefield Cup, but only a 12% chance of winning the Grand Chess Tour, so even taking clear first place here will leave him with further work to do in London. Will he bounce back to form, take out his frustration, and crush the field here? Or will he struggle once again?
Caruana made headlines last year when he won the Sinquefield Cup on the strength of his absolutely stunning perfect 7/7 start. Winning seven consecutive games against one of the strongest fields ever assembled for a chess tournament just blew us all away, and rightfully so. All five of the opponents he faced during that run (last year’s field had only six players) are here again. It seems extremely unlikely that he could come close to replicating the performance – obviously if it were likely then it wouldn’t have been so impressive when it happened – but we can’t help but wonder if we might see the same magic emerge again.
And then there are all the less obvious storylines. Any of the ten players in this field are capable of doing something extraordinary if they show up in good form, with good preparation, and get a little lucky along the way. We didn’t know Caruana would do anything special before last year’s tournament started. Not too many people predicted Topalov would dominate in Norway before that event started. Maybe this time it will be Anand or Nakamura who make a move; or maybe Aronian (who recently fell out of the top ten) will suddenly reassert himself and return to the form that made him #2 in the world not so long ago. The great thing about having no player with better than a 30% chance of winning the tournament is that everyone is (individually) an underdog to “the field”, so no matter who ends up winning it will appear to have been an “unlikely” result in retrospect. This means we’re guaranteed to see something surprising, and surprises tend to be a lot of fun to see as a fan.
So amongst all of the other odds in this article, there’s the one percentage that matters most: we predict a 100% chance that this will be an exciting tournament that is worth watching!
DISCLAIMER: All odds listed in this article are for entertainment only, and NOT to be used for betting purposes. I’ve seen some discussion of the betting odds in a few places online, and want to emphasize that I am *NOT* responsible if you lose money betting on, say, Topalov at 20/1 odds at Unibet, Marathon Bet, or Parimatch, which my model does say would be an excellent value bet, but again, ONLY FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES. I am also NOT RESPONSIBLE if you lose money betting against Carlsen at even money (or better) odds, based on my assessment that he’s no better than 30% to win the tournament, and he then goes on to win, which could happen – but probably less than half the time.