Should there be a wildcard nominee for the Candidates Tournament? The obscure tug of war for the eight places in the most important chess tournament sparked the debate again.
The vast majority of those discussing on social media argue that a wildcard is not appropriate. “Just see what it lead to,” they say: While three Russians will be playing, including the wildcard and world’s number 36 Kirill Alekseenko, the obvious World Championship Candidate Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is out after barely failing to qualify for a second time in a row.
Backed by public opinion, MVL’s management tried to pave the way for its protégé to Yekaterinenburg nevertheless. Alekseenko should play a match against MVL, and the winner would be a candidate, was the proposal from France. A nonstarter. The host Russian Federation had made it clear months ago that the wildcard would go to a Russian if someone met the criteria. And Alekseenko did. Probably not even the French seriously expected to change the minds of the Russians.
The wildcard concept works – if Russia doesn’t host
With three of eight players in the 2020 Candidates being Russian, it can easily be overlooked that the wildcard concept isn’t flawed by design. The idea is to set an incentive to host the tournament and trigger a chess boom in the host country. Unfortunately, this concept does not work if the host country (like Russia) is one of the big chess nations anyway and is already organizing one tournament after the other.
Let’s say Poland could wildcard Jan-Krzysztof Duda into the Candidates Tournament 2022. The months before the tournament would be a public chess festival: a Polish player on the way to the title! Is there a home field advantage in chess? Can he do what has been denied to Rubinstein? In the weeks leading to the event national chess would get attention like never before, and it would even rise during the tournament.
All that’s required is a second row host nation with a single world class player. To find one for 2020 was difficult. After the FIDE election and the partial separation from the organizer WorldChess parts of the World Championship cycle had to be rebooted, and FIDE ran out of time to do it properly. This did not only effect the Candidates Tournament. For example, it is still not known where the 2020 World Championship match will be played. However, if Arkadi Dvorkovich has to pull a tournament host out of his hat, it will be a Russian one. Like Ekaterinenburg.
Kirill Alekseenko, nominally the clear outsider among the eight candidates, is unimpressed by the wildcard debate and his participation. The amateur footballer and fervent fan of Liverpool FC does not want to go to Ekaterinenburg as a tourist. The 22-year-old made it clear to Izvestia that he wanted to win the tournament. Excerpts from his conversation with the Russian daily newspaper:
Kirill Alekseenko on …
… the wildcard debate:
Everyone knew the rules, everyone knew which results would count at what point. I finished third in the Grand Swiss, that counts – not the rating of a player. I am a regular World Championship Candidate.
… his chance of success:
I will fight for first place. I’ve never had a chance like this, I can compete with the best in the world. From this I draw motivation and set myself the maximum goal. I really want to play my best chess in Ekaterinburg.
… trainers and seconds:
Unlike other players, I lack experience at this level, I understand that. I have no concerns, but I will get help from a sports psychologist. I don’t want to reveal who my seconds will be.
… Nepomniachtchi and Grischuk:
Ian Nepomniachtchi is on the rise. His win at the Jerusalem Grand Prix showed how ambitious he is and that he is still growing as a chess player. Alexander Grischuk is the most experienced player in the tournament and yet young forever given his huge talent.
… Giri and Ding:
I expect more ambitious chess from Anish than lately. Ding Liren is one of the two main favorites alongside Fabiano Caruana. He is very stable, very difficult to beat as I experienced myself at the World Cup (Ding eliminated Alekseenko in the fourth round tie-break, editor’s note).
… Fabiano Caruana:
Fabiano did not lose a classic game against Magnus in the 2018 match. Since then he has held second place in the world rankings. This shows how stable it is at a high level.
… Radjabov and Wang Hao:
Both should not be written off prematurely. Radjabov played an excellent World Cup, Wang Hao was extremely strong at the Grand Swiss. Both are in good shape and can surprise everyone in Yekaterinburg. This is especially true for Radjabov. The whole of Azerbaijan will stand behind him.
… Jürgen Klopp’s significance for Liverpool FC:
Very large, crucial for success. Jürgen has formed this team, raised many players to a whole new level. For Liverpool, he’s no longer just a coach, he’s a family member.