Eight of the world’s top chess players are competing in the 2020 Candidates Tournament for the right to challenge World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen for his title later this year.

Candidates Tournament chess
Ian Nepomniachtchi (right) scored an important win over Anish Giri (left) in the first round of the 2020 Candidates Tournament. (Image: Maria Emelianova/FIDE)

Taking place in Yekaterinburg, Russia, the Candidates Tournament started on Tuesday, with Wang Hao and Ian Nepomniachtchi booking wins in the first round of play.

Radjabov Refuses to Play Due to Coronavirus

The tournament has garnered a fair amount of controversy. It is one of the few events proceeding more or less as normal during the coronavirus pandemic, in part because Russia has experienced few COVID-19 cases so far.

Still, one qualified player – Azerbaijan’s Teimour Radjabov – opted not to play, and was replaced by the next qualified player, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Meanwhile, former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik opted out of providing commentary for chess24.com, saying it is his opinion that the tournament should not go on at all.

“With all respect and general positive assessment of the work FIDE [the World Chess Federation] have done recently, I strongly believe the Candidates Tournament should have been postponed considering the nowadays disastrous humanitarian situation in the world,” Kramnik said in a statement. “I personally find the decision to keep going with the tournament wrong in many senses: image wise, legally (there was an official ban today in Russia for all international sport events), and most important, humanly.”

With only eight players competing and no live audiences – though FIDE said that more than a million people watched the first round online worldwide – players probably face little direct risk of contracting COVID-19 by participating in the event. FIDE even released publicity photos featuring small replica dolls to simulate the handshakes and other moments that might not occur in the current situation.

The eight players in the Candidates Tournament, represented in doll form. (Image: Nadia Panteleeva)

FIDE faced criticism for its opening ceremonies, however. While players weren’t in attendance, more than a thousand guests were sitting together, an image captured in a photo that the chess community received poorly.

Caruana Favored After Near Miss vs. Carlsen

Despite those issues, players began competing on Tuesday. The field will play 14 games in a double round-robin format. Players get a point when they win a game and a half-point for each draw. The player who accumulates the most points will win the event and go on to play Carlsen in a best-of-14 match in the second half of the year.

American Fabiano Caruana has emerged as the favorite to win the Candidates Tournament. While US sportsbooks don’t typically offer chess betting, online bookmaker bwin has Caruana as a +150 favorite. Caruana fought Carlsen to a 6-6 draw over 12 games in the 2018 World Chess Championship before Carlsen swept him aside, 3-0, in a best-of-four rapid tiebreaker.

Candidates Tournament Odds

  • Fabiano Caruana: +150
  • Ding Liren: +400
  • Ian Nepomniachtchi: +400
  • Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: +700
  • Alexander Grischuk: +800
  • Wang Hao: +800
  • Anish Giri: +2000
  • Kirill Alekseenko: +10000

Odds via Bwin.com

Ding Liren of China opened as the second favorite. However, Ding lost his opening match with the white pieces to countryman Wang Hao. That lengthened Ding’s odds to +400, while Wang is a +800 pick. Nepomniachtchi also moved to +400 after his win over Anish Giri of the Netherlands. Caruana drew his first match with the black pieces against Vachier-Lagrave.

Players will compete once per day, with several rest days built into the schedule. The final round takes place on April 3, with tiebreakers (if necessary) scheduled for April 4.