The “unlikely” Hikaru Nakamura
The unlikely winner of the Grand Prix series is also an unlikely winner of the Candidate Tournament. Hikaru Nakamura (34) has shown incredible resilience, similar to what he usually shows in the blitz and fast-paced events he constantly plays online, and this has been the main reason for his success in chess.
The second reason was psychological. Nakamura no longer feels the pressure to perform, achieve, and make money. He found his vocation in the online world of chess streaming and chess blitz, where he thrives. Already a millionaire and financially secure for life, Nakamura can play just by playing well. His natural ability coupled with his lack of nervousness made Nakamura unbeatable in Berlin.
This psychological stability will be his main strength in Madrid. Complete it with a good opening preparation. His basic defenses of QGD and Berlin with blacks will be renewed with new ideas, possibly adding a new gap against 1.d4, like the QGA he played in the second leg in Berlin. With the whites his approach to serve and volley (to hit hard on his opponent [semi-] forced variations with new ideas) can be dangerous and will likely remain your favorite path in your white games.
All of the above makes Nakamura a formidable opponent, but it seems to me that he really has neither the ambition nor the will to win. The aforementioned psychological stability also means that he is not forced to ‘bite’, which makes him inferior to the most hungry and driven opponents.
What will a victory in Madrid mean for Nakamura? An upcoming match with Carlsen, a player against whom he suffers in classic chess (14 losses and only one win) that will require months of hard preparation and elimination of his usual online streaming and blitz activities that he enjoys so much. It may be possible to look at it from another perspective, to convey the whole process of preparation and the game to its spectators, but I still find it hard to believe.
I really liked Nakamura’s game at the Grand Prix and I’m looking forward to seeing him play serious chess again in Madrid, but I doubt he has a good chance of winning.
The ‘scarred’ Teimour Radjabov
The player with the least chance of winning is Teimour Radjabov (35).
He shouldn’t even play in Madrid: he got there because of his decision not to play in Yekaterinburg, rightly fearing the pandemic. For that decision he was rewarded by FIDE with a wildcard. A debatable decision, but here we are.
What happened to Radjabov was a very disappointing transformation. The prodigy boy who played wild and exciting chess full of King Indians and Sveshnikovs, the 15-year-old who beat Kasparov with Black in Linares 2004, seemed like the only way was going. And so it was, until 2013.
That fateful year Radjabov played his first Candidate Tournament. Entering as one of the favorites, with a valuation of almost 2800, it crashed and burned badly. With a last-place finish with a disastrous -6 and 32 rating points lost, this event left Radjabov for life. The adventurous player began to transform into a drawing machine. KID and Sveshnikov gave way to QGD and Berlin. Radjabov sinned.
He also slowly disappeared from the radar. It became insignificant when it came to elite chess.
And then, in 2019, he re-entered the scene winning the World Cup and qualifying for the Candidates in 2020. In that tournament, somehow his innate dynamism blended perfectly with his newly found solidity. That combination made Radjabov impossible to beat. However …
In that World Cup, the second game he won in the final against Ding Liren, played on October 2, 2019, is his last (!!) victory in classic chess to date. His last event (in all time controls) was the European Team Championship in November 2021 where he tied all his matches.
The propensity to play the two-color tie has become a trademark of his game. In an extremely tough tournament like the Candidates, it is even expected to fight for solidity, thus justifying in a way its approach. It is easier for Radjabov to repeat the record of 14 Giri draws of Moscow candidates in 2016 than to win.
The best scenario for Radjabov is a repeat of the perfect mix of solidity and dynamism that happened to him in 2019. Like Rapport, he is scheduled to play on the eve of Candidates in Norway. After months of lack of serious practice, this outing before the Candidates should do you good. But it remains to be seen whether he will be able to gauge the right balance that helped him in Khanty-Mansiysk three years ago.
The clock is ticking. Madrid will soon be a happy place for a player.
The previous series appears in the June 2022 issue of The British Chess Magazine, the world’s oldest chess publication. It is reproduced with kind permission.
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