It’s the calm before the storm right now with the eagerly-anticipated Fide Candidates Tournament set to get underway later today in Madrid, Spain – and one of eight players will emerge with the right to the biggest prize in chess, with the winner going on to challenge Magnus Carlsen in a World Chess Championship Match to be held in 2023.
The double round-robin (all play all) will be contested by (in rating order): Ding Liren (China), Alireza Firouzja (France), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Fide/Russia), Richard Rapport (Hungary), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) and Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland).
The Fide Candidates Tournament will run through to 5 July 2022 (the opening ceremony on 16 June and the first round on 17 June) and held in the grandiose surroundings of the Palacio de Santoña in the centre of the Spanish capital. There’s a €500,000 prize fund on offer, with €48,000 for first place and an additional €3,500 for each half point scored.
The current Candidates’ contest comes in the 60th anniversary year of one of the greatest tournament’s ever, the fabled 1962 Curaçao Candidates Tournament held in the Dutch Caribbean island, a normally tranquil and picturesque tropical location that became the epicentre for high-drama, controversy, accusations of cheating, not to mention mounting geopolitical tensions.
Eight players battled it out over two months in a gruelling quadruple round-robin for the right to go on to challenge World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. The tournament was heavily tilted towards the Soviets – but .one of the favourites, the 1960 World Champion Mikhail Tal, was taken to hospital after 21 rounds and had to withdraw. Three other players from the Soviet Union, Keres, Petrosian, and Geller, were making suspiciously short draws when playing each other – and then there was accusations that the other, Kortchnoi, was allegedly “throwing games.”
The accuser-in-chief of the ‘game-fixing’ was a lanky 19-year-old boy from Brooklyn, a certain Bobby Fischer, who caused a near international rumpus when his photo and byline appeared in the August 20, 1962 edition of Sports Illustrated, replete with the infamous incendiary headline of “The Russians have fixed world chess”.
What made the headline all the more incendiary was its timing. It came right at the height of the Cold War – indeed, some would argue nearly the very Armageddon climax to it, with the Cuban Missile Crisis only two months away – with Fischer accusing the Soviets of systematic cheating in an effort to stop him from challenging their hegemony of the world crown.
It had a lot more to do with fiction than fact, but Fischer deemed himself destined to be world champion. However, he was relatively inexperienced to mount a serious title challenge this time of asking. Indeed the young American hope was more than likely just sore that he got off to the worst of possible starts by losing his first two games, so the cheating accusations may well have done more to convince himself that it was all part of a growing conspiracy to deny him – for now, anyway! – becoming world champion.
In the end, Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian – who was at his peak height at the time – emerged undefeated and the deserved winner who went on to become the 9th World Chess Champion the following year. But such was the impact of Fischer’s accusations that this was the last time in over 40 years that such a titanic Candidates Tournament was organised. Something had to be done to cut out the allegations of the Soviets colluding, and henceforth the challenger for the crown was determined by in a series of Candidates’ Matches.
Jan Timman tells the full tale of this larger-than-life tournament struggle in his riveting read Curacao 1962: The Battle of Minds That Shook the Chess World (New In Chess, 2005) which includes many wonderful anecdotes and insightful game analysis. This is simply a gem of a nostalgic trip down memory lane from the Dutch legend – and a timeless Timman tome that was rightly short-listed for the British Chess Federation’s Book of the Year Award back in 2005.
GM Robert J. Fischer – GM Tigran Petrosian
1962 Curacao Candidates Tournament, (13)
French Defence, McCutcheon Variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4! The “!” is for perfect planning by Petrosian of his “Gotcha!” for Fischer. Five weeks or so previously, in the Stockholm Interzonal that qualified both players into the Candidates, Petrosian – not needing to win as he was assured of qualifying – played the relatively tame 4…dxe4 and easily drew with Fischer. But, never having played the McCutcheon before, it seems he had prepared it, especially for Fischer, and he uncorks his surprise weapon when he needed it most of all – and with another intriguing Soviet twist to it! 5.e5 h6 6.Bd2 Bxc3 7.Bxc3?! As Fischer would sort of say on reflection, best by test is 7.bxc3 – but there’s a tale to come that led Fischer to play this and his next move with the bishop. 7…Ne4 8.Ba5?! This was an outdated move that with some supporting analysis appeared in the leading Russian magazine Shakhmatny Bulletin, which Fischer avidly consumed on a regular basis to get the latest in Russian chess thinking. The story goes that Petrosian had also seen the same analysis, but he immediately dismissed it as not being good for White. 8…0-0 9.Bd3 Nc6! With immediate equality – and just 10 moves into a French Defence, Petrosian has no worries at all and the better counter-attacking chances against White’s compromised pawn structure. 10.Bc3 Nxc3 11.bxc3 f6! Petrosian relentlessly chips away at Fischer’s pawn chain, which leaves holes and weaknesses in the American’s position. 12.f4 fxe5 13.fxe5 Ne7 Not only heading to f5, but making way for …c5 to relentlessly chip away at White’s pawn structure. 14.Nf3 c5 15.0-0 Qa5 16.Qe1 It’s a worrying sign for Fischer when he realises that his position is so compromised that he needs to urgently seek the trade of queens. 16…Bd7 17.c4 Qxe1 18.Rfxe1 dxc4 19.Be4 The obvious move 19.Bxc4 is marginally better, but after 19…b5 20.Bf1 Bc6! 21.dxc5 Bxf3 22.gxf3 Rac8 Black’s rooks are set to dominate, and Fischer probably didn’t fancy being ‘bear-hug’ squeezed here by Petrosian, who will ruthlessly target all those loose White pawns. 19…cxd4 20.Bxb7 Rab8 21.Ba6 Rb4 22.Rad1 d3 23.cxd3 cxd3 24.Rxd3 Fischer’s saving plan is get the position down to the basics with multiple trade of pieces and an ending he can realistically hold. 24…Bc6 25.Rd4 Rxd4 26.Nxd4 Bd5 27.a4? Ultimately the losing move. Correct was 27.Nb5! Bxa2 28.Nxa7 Ra8 29.Ra1 Rxa7 30.Rxa2 Kf7! (30…Nc6? 31.Bc4 Rxa2 32.Bxe6+ Kf8 33.Bxa2) 31.Bc4 Rxa2 32.Bxa2 Nc6 and although White’s doomed to lose the e5-pawn, the resulting ending is far from won for Black – and I dare say with accurate play from Fischer, he would have held for the draw. 27…Rf4! Suddenly Fischer is in deep trouble – the difference between this position and the note above is that Fischer has gifted Petrosian the opportunity to activate his pieces. 28.Rd1 Forced as the knight is pinned. 28…Ng6 From nowhere, suddenly all of Petrosian’s pieces are working together while Fischer struggles to hold the game. 29.Bc8 Kf7 30.a5 Nxe5 31.a6 Under the circumstances, this is Fischer’s only practical try to stave off defeat – and, if anything, Fischer was the most practical player of all during this period. 31…Rg4 32.Rd2 Nc4! [see diagram] With his harmonious pieces, Petrosian ruthlessly moves in to transition down to a won ending. 33.Rf2+ Ke7 34.Nb5 Nd6! 35.Nxd6 There’s no defence. After 35.Nxa7 Rc4! 36.Bb7 Rc1+ 37.Rf1 Rxf1+ 38.Kxf1 Nxb7 39.axb7 Bxb7 the ending is a simple technical win with Black having the extra passed e-pawn and better bishop v knight. 35…Kxd6 36.Bb7 Bxb7 37.axb7 Kc7 38.h3 Rg5 39.Rb2 Kb8 40.Kf2 Rd5 When the b-pawn falls, Fischer’s resignation will not be far behind it. 41.Ke3 Rd7 42.Ke4 Rxb7 43.Rf2 0-1