Tata Steel Preview

The first major chess tournament of 2016 begins later today, in the Dutch town of Wijk Aan Zee. Defending champion, and world champion, and holder of far too many other accolades to list here, Magnus Carlsen, headlines the 14 player field in the Masters section. Rounding out the top half of the field are six other players from among the top 13 in the world rankings, and the bottom half of the field is star studded as well, with 16-year-old super-prodigy Wei Yi and the highest rated female player in the world, Hou Yifan, both sure to attract a lot of interest as well.

Perhaps the biggest draw of this event for many fans is the chance to finally see Wei Yi and Magnus Carlsen square off. We have written about the two of them before. Wei Yi has been tracing a career arc that so far looks remarkably similar to that of Carlsen before him, and it makes it very tempting to speculate as to whether Wei Yi has similar hopes of setting rating records and winning world championships like Carlsen went on to do (and continues to do unabated, for now). The two will meet in the third round, and just to make things even more fun, Wei Yi gets the white pieces in his first shot at the champ.

We’ll talk more about this game later, but as it’s only one of 91 games that will be played in the tournament, let’s first take a look at the larger picture. We ran our usual model of the event, using each player’s live ratings to set odds of a win, a draw, or a loss in each game, then simulating the event a very large number of times to predict each player’s odds of winning. Carlsen is of course the favorite:

Player Rating Win% Avg Finish
Carlsen, Magnus 2844.0 38.1% 3.0
Giri, Anish 2798.0 13.7% 5.0
Caruana, Fabiano 2787.0 11.7% 5.3
So, Wesley 2773.0 8.4% 6.0
Ding, Liren 2766.0 6.7% 6.4
Karjakin, Sergey 2769.0 4.9% 6.8
Eljanov, Pavel 2760.0 4.7% 7.1
Mamedyarov, Shakhryar 2747.0 3.7% 7.4
Adams, Michael 2744.0 2.9% 7.9
Navara, David 2733.5 2.4% 8.2
Tomashevsky, Evgeny 2728.0 1.6% 8.8
Wei, Yi 2706.0 0.9% 9.7
Hou, Yifan 2673.0 0.2% 11.0
Van Wely, Loek 2640.0 0.0% 12.5

In the case of ties, we gave each player tied for first place equal chances of winning a hypothetical tie-break. The average finish number is also adjusted for ties, so if three players finish tied for 3rd-5th places, all three are considered to have finished 4th in that case. And in case you’re wondering about the local hero, 14th seed Loek Van Wely, it’s unlikely but not impossible for him to win, his odds with an additional significant figure are 0.04%

A few points strike us as particularly interesting in the above table. First is that Carlsen is of course far more likely to win than any other individual participant, but is still an underdog against the field. More likely than not, we will see a new champion this year. Second, Ding Liren’s projections are better than the higher rated Sergey Karjakin because of the pairings. With an odd number of rounds, half the field must benefit from an extra game with the white pieces (Ding is one of them), while half the field must instead play an extra game as black (Karjakin is one of these). It is interesting to see that the extra game as white is more valuable than three rating points – but not as valuable as 11 points, since Giri with seven games as black is still favored over Caruana with seven games as white.

This brings up an interesting aside. When first setting up the model, we made a typo and accidentally gave Caruana and Hou Yifan 14 games, at the expense of Wesley So and Wei Yi. It quickly became clear that something was wrong, because Caruana was showing a 23% chance to win, and Giri only 12%, which couldn’t possibly be right. The reason this error warrants a mention is that in that scenario, Carlsen still won 34% of the time. In other words Carlsen is a big enough favorite, that he could allow one of his top competitors, the #3 seed, play an entire extra game and count the results towards the final standings, and Magnus would STILL be the favorite. He’s pretty good, is what we’re saying.

Also interesting is that even the big underdogs still have a chance to contend for top spots. Each of them is pretty unlikely individually to get there, but when even the #12 seed is expected to win once every 110 times, we can count on some good underdog stories as the event progresses. We might not see any of the lower rated players win in the end, but one or more of them will probably at least contend until relatively late. This tournament really is wide open.

So what about that big showdown in round three that I promised I’d talk more about? A month ago it might have looked even more exciting, as Carlsen was at a ratings nadir of “only” 2834, and “suffering” through a 2015 that qualified as disappointing (if only because the standards for Magnus are so insanely high). Meanwhile Wei Yi was rated 2730, and looked more likely to rise than to fall. However fortunes shifted in December, as Carlsen rebounded nicely with tournament wins in London (winning the Grand Chess Tour in the progress) and in Qatar, regaining some of his lost rating points, while Wei Yi struggled badly and saw his rating drop all the way to 2706. If those December results are predictive of the form they will show in this event, then perhaps this long awaited showdown will be a one-sided affair in the world champion’s favor. Fortunately, we are skeptics of “form” here, and aren’t particularly pessimistic about Wei Yi’s long term chances. A bad month is something that every chess player will have now and then, but the greater trends of Wei’s career still make us think that he was more likely to be underrated than overrated at 2730 – and now at 2706 he’s almost certainly underrated.

Using their current ratings, our model’s prediction for their game is as follows: 50% chance of a draw, with Wei winning 11% of the time, and Carlsen winning 39%. Of course Carlsen remains the favorite, even with black, as the white pieces are worth far less than the 138 rating points that currently separate the two players. That prediction will shift with the results of the first two rounds, as we always use live ratings in our models, but it’s where we stand for now. Certainly it’s the most intriguing single game on the schedule, but now that we’ve devoted three paragraphs to it, let’s pause and restrain ourselves just a little. It’s important to remember that in the end it’s just one chess game, and it will not actually prove anything.

If Wei Yi wins, there will certainly be articles everywhere about how amazing of a feat it was. We might even write one ourselves. It will not, however, create any guarantee that Wei Yi is a future world champion. That will take years of further progress, not a single win here. And on the flip side, if Carlsen blows the youngster off the board, no matter how crushing or dominant the win may seem, it won’t in any way prove that Wei Yi is fraudulent, or any other term you may see bandied about. Wei Yi could absolutely lose this game (and lose it badly) and still break 2800 within a couple years, and still someday win a world championship. When it comes to statistical analysis, sample size is always critical, and one game is just an atrocious sample size from which to try to draw a meaningful prediction.

So how did Wei Yi qualify to play in this tournament? He won the Challengers section here last year. That’s right, there’s more! In addition to the main event, there’s a whole entire second tournament, with 14 more players!

Because of limited time, we haven’t gotten our model up and running for the second section yet (look for odds sometime this weekend), but nevertheless we would be remiss not to remind you to keep an eye on the “other” games in the lower section. With an invitation to next year’s Masters section up for grabs, there’s reason to expect some strong fighting chess in this field. German veteran Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu is the ratings favorite. American 15-year-old Samuel Sevian carries the “prodigy” torch as the #7 seed (Sevian has a “prodigy rank” of #10, meaning he is the 10th highest rated player of all time, at or before his current age). Other promising youngsters in the field include Dutch 16-year-old Jordan Van Foreest (prodigy rank #55) and Russian 18-year-old Mikhail Antipov (prodigy rank #93).

The games begin in just 5 1/2 hours. Hopefully we’ve given you a few ideas about some of the possible ways things could play out. Soon we’ll begin to see how it goes in actuality. Let the games begin!

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