Andrei Sokolov was born in 1963 in Vorkuta, Russia (then part of the USSR). A superstar in the 1980s, he is largely unknown by chess fans today because his career as a top player was relatively short.
Sokolov won the World Junior Championship in 1982, and captured the USSR Championship in his first appearance in 1984. At 21 years old, he was one of the youngest-ever Soviet Champions.
Still, he kept rising. A 3rd place finish in the 1985 Biel Interzonal (behind Rafael Vaganian and Yasser Seirawan) was followed by a tie for 1st-3rd place in the 1985 Montpellier Candidates Tournament (with Artur Yusupov and Vaganian).
Finally, there were Candidates matches. After defeating Vaganian (4 wins, 4 draws) and Yusupov (4 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses) in 1986, he faced former World Champion Anatoly Karpov in the 1987 Candidates Final. A victory here would have meant a World Championship match with Garry Kasparov!
Sokolov lost this match (7 draws, 4 losses). This is the same score Ian Nepomniachtchi managed in his 2021 World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen … and it’s also the same score Kasparov had against Karpov after 11 games in their 1984 match!
In 1987, Andrei Sokolov was ranked World #3 (with Yusupov, behind Kasparov and Karpov) at 2645, and he was just 24 years old. It seemed the sky was the limit.
Alas, the 1985-87 cycle would be the peak of Sokolov’s career — after 1988 he fell out of the Top 20, never to return. Since 2000, he has represented France.
Here we look at an early battle between Sokolov and Igor Novikov (born 1962) who would become one of America’s top players in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
With Magnus Carlsen‘s dominant 7½—3½ title defense against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the Dubai 2021 FIDE World Championship Match, the 31-year-old Norwegian has already amassed one of the best records in title matches…perhaps the best.
I remain heavily critical of Carlsen being declared winner of the 2013 London Candidates Tournament by virtue of having more wins than Vladimir Kramnik, and not through an over-the-board tiebreak. Even blitz or rapid would have been better!
But in the cauldron of a World Championship Match, Carlsen has proven invincible. In late 2013 he convincingly wrested the crown from VishyAnand, and defeated him again in 2014 when the Indian legend surprisingly won the next Candidates Tournament.
Carlsen drew his next two matches against Sergey Karjakin (New York, 2016) and Fabiano Caruana (London, 2018), eventually subduing his rivals in rapid tiebreaks.
With this victory, Carlsen has one win as Challenger and four title defenses as Champion; in five World Championship matches he has lost a total of just two games out of 56 played!
In tiebreaks? Carlsen has five wins and two draws in seven games!
Matches are shorter now than in the past, but I don’t think anyone in history can claim better.
I value longevity, so I’ve long said Garry Kasparov is the Greatest of All-Time, for now…Carlsen has an argument that gets stronger every year.
What happened to Ian?
Nepomniachtchi was not widely considered the strongest Challenger this time around, but perhaps he was less afraid of Carlsen than others. How would this dynamic affect the match? While unclear, I predicted a three-point Carlsen victory.
During the first five games, “Nepo” probably played as well as Magnus did.
I really think losing the a3-pawn in Game 6 was his undoing. Even if the engines say the resulting position should be drawn, it was always going to be difficult against a top player, let alone a notorious grinder like Carlsen.
A game behind, Nepomniachtchi had to take on more risk.
A poor Game 8 simply ended the match. There was no coming back down two games against Carlsen with six left. Frankly, I think Magnus would be unlikely to level the match if Ian had a two-game lead.
Nepomniachtchi knew this very well, and I think he simply couldn’t play at his best any longer: doing so would just delay the inevitable. So, I agree with the consensus view that he just collapsed.
Many chess fans expect Alireza Firouzja to be the next Challenger. I think there’s a decent chance of that happening.
The other favorites are Caruana and Ding Liren.
Still, Candidates Tournaments are arguably as grueling as a World Championship Match; but those eight players don’t have to face Carlsen to become Challenger!
The games are broadcast on chess.com and elsewhere.
The Format of the FIDE Online Nations Cup
The games are played with a time control of 25+10 (25 minutes for the entire game plus an additional 10 seconds per move starting from move 1).
There are six teams in the event with six players each; four male and two female players.
Each match is contested on four boards. On Boards 1,2, and 3 a team chooses three of its four male players to play. On Board 4, a team chooses one of its two female players to play.
2½ points out of 4 are needed to win a match, and all boards count equally.
The team that wins each match gets 2 points and the loser 0. In case of a 2-2 tie, each team receives 1 match point.
It’s a double round-robin team tournament, so each team faces the other five teams twice for a total of 10 rounds. After 10 rounds, the two highest-scoring teams play a final match on May 10. The team with the highest score going into the final gets draw odds; in other words, if the final match is tied 2-2, the team with the highest score in the round-robin phase wins the event.
Every team gets $24,000 for participating. After 10 rounds, the two top scoring teams face off in a final match for the FIDE Nations Cup. The team runner-up gets an additional $12,000 ($36,000 total for the team), and the winner of the Cup gets an additional $24,000 ($48,000 for the team).
Four top nations are invited, and then two other “compilations” of teams were added.
The countries invited were China, India, Russia, and the United States.
The two additional teams were Team Europe and Team Rest of World.
Every team brought most of their top male and female players! The captains were notable too.
The Players and Captains of the FIDE Online Nations Cup
The male players included 2020 CandidatesDing Liren and Wang Hao, plus Wei Yi and Yu Yangyi. Even scarier for the rest of the field were their female players: the return of 3-time Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan, and current Women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun.
Having won two of the last three Olympiads and the last two Women’s Olympiads, China was undoubtedly the favorite. Longtime captain Ye Jiangchuan lead the team here, too.
All the top players from this chess powerhouse came to play as well, including legendary former World Champion Vishy Anand, up-and-coming star Vidit Gujrathi, elite fixture Pentala Harikrishna, plus Adhiban Baskaran.
Their top female players are present as well, including Cairns Cup winner Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavali. Anand is playing and serving as captain, while former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik is an adviser to the team.
This team is formidable as well, led by Candidates’ co-leader Ian Nepomniachtchi, the rising Vladislav Artemiev, former Challenger Sergey Karjakin, and former Candidate Dmitry Andreikin.
Their female players include recent Women’s World Championship Challenger Aleksandra Goryachkina and current Russian Women’s Champion Olga Girya. Their captain is the experienced Alexander Motylev.
Their “Top 3” are here: 5-time US Champion and former World #2 Hikaru Nakamura, current World #2 and recent Challenger Fabiano Caruana, and perennial Top 10 Wesley So. Also playing for the team is recent arrival Leinier Dominguez.
Two stalwarts of US Women’s Chess, 7-time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush and 4-time US Women’s Champion Anna Zatonskih make their appearance as well. The team is lead by John Donaldson, who has captained US Olympiad teams since the 1980s.
A mix of players from different nations is led by Candidates co-leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, former World #2 Levon Aronian of Armenia, and former World #3 Anish Giri of the Netherlands, who is playing as a reserve. Board 3 is Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
Their female team members are Ukraine’s Anna Muzychuk and Georgia’s Nana Dzagnidze. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: their captain is the greatest player ever, Garry Kasparov!
Team Rest of World
Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) has returned to the top with a bang, and he is joined by young star Alireza Firouzja who has not chosen a country to represent after leaving Iran. Bassem Amin (Egypt) and Jorge Cori (Peru) represent Africa and South America, respectively.
Former Women’s World Champion Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine) and Dinara Saduakassova (Kazakhstan) round out their lineup. They are captained by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a tournament in 2019.
Round Robin Phase
China dominated the first part of the FIDE Online Nations Cup with 17 match points (+8=1-1). They drew Russia in Round 3, and only lost to USA in Round 10 when they had already clinched the top spot in the final.
The race for the other final spot came down to USA(+6=1-3) and Europe (+5=3-2). Each squad finished with 13 match points, but USA got the spot in the final by scoring 22 game points to Europe’s 21.5!
The other teams — Russia, India, and Team World — fell out of contention early on.
China earned draw odds in the Mother’s Day final match, which I have to agree with. There should be a reward for winning the first, 10-round phase of an event like this. In one match, anything can happen.
Still, it was too much for the USA to overcome. On paper, China had an advantage anyway, especially on Board 4, with the strongest active female on the planet Hou Yifan facing my friend Irina Krush. I had no doubt America’s only female Grandmaster would bring her best, and she held a draw rather comfortably despite being massively out-rated.
To win the match, USA needed two points out of the three remaining games, and it was just not to be. Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren drew a very double-edged game on Board 1, while Fabiano Caruana pressed Wei Yi on Board 2 and Yu Yangyi pressed Wesley So on Board 3.
Caruana and Yu both won, which was fitting because they were the two best performers in the entire event. The match was drawn 2-2, and China won the first FIDE Online Nations Cup.
Will this event become a fixture in the future after we (hopefully) defeat COVID-19? I hope so!
The big news in the chess world is the decision to pause the FIDE Candidates Tournament held in Yekaterinburg, Russia after the first half. The winner of the Candidates Tournament will challenge World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the next title match.
Starting the event was questionable in the first place. While I would have postponed the tournament, I can see the reasoning for going through with it. In my view, it wasn’t just about throwing off the timing of the World Championship Match.
FIDE didn’t want to disrupt the zonals and continental championships for the 2022 cycle. Understandable, but short-sighted.
Around the beginning of March, FIDE apparently issued Teimour Radjabov an ultimatum about playing in the Candidates Tournament or not. When he declined, they inserted first alternate Maxime Vachier-Lagrave into the tournament.
Once Radjabov was out and MVL was in, FIDE was already stuck. They had to start the tournament even though things looked increasingly grim as the March 15 start date approached.
What were they going to do by, say, March 13? Postpone the event, try to send everyone home, and replace MVL with Radjabov again? I’m sure, privately, FIDE already knew before the tournament started that they had messed up. Hindsight really is 20/20.
FIDE took a decision that they would only allow outside forces to stop the event. It was a very risky course and I didn’t agree with it, but now the question is: what to do with half the tournament completed and Radjabov looking for answers?
What should be done about the Candidates Tournament now?
Radjabov can’t be added to the event now. He should be an automatic entry for the 2022 Candidates Tournament, along with the loser of the 2020/2021 World Championship Match, removing one of rating qualification slots. This isn’t fair to Radjabov, but I’m not sure what else to suggest besides additional financial compensation, which would also be appropriate.
The rest of the field should stay as is. Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave can be happy with developments, but just about everyone else will feel that their tournament would have started much better in a more normal environment.
A small rant…
There was so much criticism of Kirill Alekseenko being chosen for the wildcard ahead of Vachier-Lagrave. Well, one of the reasons organizers bid for such events is the ability to name a wildcard. FIDE did the right thing by restricting the criteria so only a small number of players could be named the wildcard, but the organizers chose from that pool of players!
Of course the Russian organizers wanted a Russian player in the tournament! This is not outrageous, corrupt, or anything else. Organizers from any other country with the chance to pick one of their countrymen would also have done the same. MVL had many chances to qualify directly and failed.
It seems there is not enough interest ($$$) from patrons or governments in Western countries to host top-level chess events. The big exception of course is Rex Sinquefield in Saint Louis.
We should be happy there are entities with resources to hold these events and support the players. One wildcard out of eight players seems like a necessary trade to me, in this day and age, for a 500,000 euro prize fund. A lot of fans just don’t like it when higher-rated players aren’t chosen.