Chess: open-looking Candidates race could lead to world championship split
Hikaru Nakamura’s entry to the world title candidates at Madrid in June will boost the growing interest in who will qualify there as Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger. The five-time US champion took advantage of a wildcard last week to win the Fide Grand Prix in Berlin and with it his Candidates place. His main career now is as a Twitch streamer, with more than a million followers to watch his progress in Spain.
At 34, Nakamura will be a veteran in the eight-player field. The main contenders are China’s world No2 Ding Liren, who still needs to complete qualification games before the end of April, Fabiano Caruana, who won in 2018, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, competing under a neutral flag, and the new star Alireza Firouzja, 18.
Many chess fans will favour the prodigy, but teenagers have a poor record as candidates, with Bobby Fischer (twice), Boris Spassky and Carlsen all failing.
The most famous of all Candidates series was in 1971, when Fischer crushed Mark Taimanov in the quarter-final and Bent Larsen in the semi-final, both by 6-0, then beat Tigran Petrosian 6.5-2.5 in the final before his historic match with Spassky in Reykjavik. More recently, Carlsen edged out Vlad Kramnik at London 2013 despite both leaders losing in the final round.
The elephant in the room at Madrid is Carlsen’s hint that he will probably only agree to play a championship match with one of the new generation, especially Firouzja, although the No1 has a high regard for Ding so that might be an exception. But if Caruana and Nepomniachtchi finish first and second in Madrid, there would be an immediate crisis. New rules state that if the champion will not meet the official challenger, the top two in the Candidates then meet for the world title.
If it happens, that could mean a return to the years 1993-2006, when Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short chose to play outside Fide and set up a rival organisation. There were two world champions, but the official one became clearly inferior when the format changed to a knock-out, and nowadays only the classical champions Kasparov and Kramnik are generally recognised.
A Carlsen breakaway would have wider significance, as the Norwegian thinks the pace of title matches is too slow and wants speedier schedules and faster time limits. It could lead to the very successful Play Magnus Group aiming to take over the championship and organise it in a more streamlined way. Whether this would work to change a respected and traditional format which has lasted since the first title match in 1886 remains for the moment an open question.
White mates in three moves (by Emil Palkoska). Just a single line of play with all moves forced, but White’s hidden first move can be hard to spot.
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