Magnus Carlsen,Levon Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik were expected to lead the charge during the Candidates tournament in London,and nine rounds in,it is this trio who are in with a realistic chance of finishing first to earn the right to challenge Viswanathan Anand for the World Championship this year.
With just five rounds to go,World No. 1 Carlsen is in sole lead with 6 points,with Aronian (5.5) and Kramnik (5) in pursuit. None of the other contenders have managed to mount a steady assault and while their campaigns have briefly flickered to life with the occasional win,they have been wrecked by frequent losses too. Last years challenger Boris Gelfand (4.5),with his unexpected win over Aronian,is in fourth place,along with Alexander Grischuk. Peter Svidler,Vassily Ivanchuk and Teimour Radjabov bring up the rear,in that order.
While Carlsen was the favourite at the start of the event,his ride to the top has not been along expected lines. Aronians storming start (he racked up three wins in his first six games) combined with his own frustrations meant that Carlsen could not join the Armenian until the tournament was well underway. In fact,the Norwegian looked distinctly shaky and looked like he might even fall to a rare defeat,both against Radjabov in round seven and Kramnik in round nine.
Against Radjabov,his position was dire but Carlsen maintained a level of complexity and the Azeri erred under time pressure to let go of the winning chances. Kramniks advantage with white over Carlsen two rounds later was not decisive,but when the Russian blinked,Carlsen moved in with a pawn sacrifice to mobilise his pieces and muster the draw. In between,he could not use his white pieces to any advantage against Aronian,letting him get away with an easy draw in what was a discouraging stretch for Carlsen.
Despite having to pull the rabbit out of the hat on more than one occasion,Carlsen is in the lead,and though in third place and half a point behind Aronian in second,it is Kramnik who appears to be his most serious challenger. The Russian is undefeated so far,and broke a string of seven draws with a clinical win over Svidler and could even have landed a decisive blow had he converted his positional advantage into a win against Carlsen. Kramnik has been thwarted earlier too by his inability to squeeze the result from favourable positions,in the games against Ivanchuk and Aronian. Kramnik needs to make up a point and as time runs out will have to amp up his aggression to lend an edge to his steady form,in the five rounds that remain.
Aronian,World No. 3 and the leader for eight rounds,is on the other hand finding the going tough right at the clutch. Winless in three games,the Armenian was also ambushed by Gelfand in the last round,and though only half a point behind,will leave too much for too late if he doesnt set the deficit right in a round or two.
standings after round nine: 1. M Carlsen (Nor) 6 points; 2. L Aronian (Arm) 5.5; 3. V Kramnik (Rus) 5; 4-5. B Gelfand (Isr),A Grischuk (Rus) 4.5; 6. P Svidler (Rus) 4; 7. V Ivanchuk (Ukr) 3.5; 8. T Radjabov (Aze) 3.