It is just about now, with only five rounds to go, that Viswanathan Anand, despite staying in the lead from the beginning, is being considered a favourite to win the Candidates tournament.
Effectively a point and a half ahead of the chasing pack, Anand’s form raises the prospect of a rematch with Magnus Carlsen for the world title, a scenario that seemed pretty unlikely, considering the Indian’s patchy form and the strength of the field, even a couple of weeks ago. But Anand has belied the poor form that has tailed him in the recent past to play enterprising chess at the Candidates tournament. With three wins and six comfortable draws, Anand is the only unbeaten player remaining. This is surely a surprising turn of events, for nobody had really expected Anand to do so well, and equally, nobody had really expected Levon Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik to fall off the pace so easily.
Though Aronian has as many wins as Anand, the World No. 2 has also lost twice — the unexpected first round loss to Anand and a sharp tactical battle that Shakhriyar Mamedyarov edged in round nine bookend his run in the tournament so far. Aronian is a point behind Anand, but a worse head-to-head against the Indian means he will have to finish ahead on points to avoid going out on the tie-break rule.
The other favourite, Kramnik, is third on the table, but is clearly not in good form. He had to defend incredibly well to claw out a draw against Peter Svidler and was hopelessly lost against Mamedyarov until the Azeri collapsed to turn over the win, during the first leg in Russia. Kramnik finally blundered (as early as in the seventh move) against Sergey Karjakin to lose in round nine.
With time running out for the challengers to make a move, Anand is at an advantage on the home stretch. Still, he would not consider himself out of danger.
The biggest hurdle will be the round eleven game against Kramnik to negotiate. Considering that he trails Anand by 1.5 points and a win against the leader will give him a better personal score in case of a tie-break, Kramnik is bound to come out swinging. A loss will leave Kramnik only a little worse off than he currrently is, while a win will blow the tournament open again.
Anand also has to play darkhorses Mamedyarov and Karjakin, who between them have wins over everybody else in the fray except Anand and Topalov. And if anybody needs reminding about how things can change so drastically in the last round of a tournament, Anand will face Svidler, who beat Carlsen in the Candidates’ last game last year, in round 14. Clearly, there are no easy games and Anand will not be thinking he has already made it.
One thing that will count in Anand’s favour, though, is that he will play with white pieces in three of his five remaining games. Against Kramnik, however, he will have to try and defend with black.
There is something else to consider as well. Anand was written off completely at the start and there was little or no pressure on him in the first half in Russia. Now that he goes into the final stretch as the outright leader, will it affect him in any manner? Considering his lead and the form issues that have plagued his rivals, Anand may opt for the safer route of drawing all his matches and leaving it up to the others to take unnatural risks in order to catch up. Even this low-risk strategy does not seem out of place for Anand right now.
Five draws from here on will take Anand to 8.5 points, a score that was sufficient (though barely) last time around for Carlsen. That will leave Aronian and Kramnik needing at least three wins from five games. What complicates things further, is that Aronian and Kramnik will have to play each other once (on Thursday), apart from Kramnik’s Wednesday showdown against Anand.
Anand is an attacking player who revels in sharp openings and middle-game tactics — his wins so far against Aronian, Mamedyarov and Veselin Topalov have been smooth, arriving without him having to blast positions open in search of a result. To consciously ignore his better nature and aim for passive positions, will require Anand to not just be out of character but also to fight it out in slow, near-equal positions that he is not very comfortable with. The crippling losses against Carlsen in rounds five and six of the world championship, when Anand tried keeping things quiet, will come as a warning.
This is only half of the story. Other players in search of a good finish may not always allow Anand to sit back and play for the draw. Like a coach’s predicament in being forced to choose between equally good players, Anand’s dilemma will be a good one to have, sitting as he does on a healthy lead.