Zurich Chess Challenge 2016: Opening Thoughts, Predictions

It’s been about two weeks since my last rated game, so to make up for the void, I’ve been watching a lot more Grandmaster games live to mix up my preparation. Last Tuesday, I posted Hou Yifan’s dominating win over Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, where she used a massive space advantage to crush a hedgehog gone wrong.

With the Zurich Chess Challenge starting today, I thought I’d break down some of the major headlines going into the tournament for players unsure of what to look for.

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This year’s edition of the Zurich Chess Challenge offers top level entertainment from Vladimir Kramnik, Hikaru Nakamura, Vishy Anand, Alexei Shirov, Levon Aronian, and Anish Giri.

Who Strikes First?

With the Candidates tournament in March, expect Nakamura, Anand, Aronian, and Giri to keep their new ideas close to their chests. What does this mean? Kramnik and Shirov will likely be the providers of any new opening plot twists, and perhaps take more liberties with their choices from the start. Kramnik isn’t known to rely on aggressive opening innovations (rather more positional, solid play), but Shirov, author of Fire on Board, may entertain us with a splurge of aggressive opening selections. If Shirov pulls off an upset, don’t be surprised.

What does age mean?

This is the big question, especially for former World Champion Vishy Anand. Last year, he played in a tie-breaker match for this very tournament. This year? It might be a miracle he makes it that far with his recent form. While most of the chess world has been busy criticizing Magnus, Anand’s been slipping since last summer’s Sinquefield Cup, with a disastrous performance in both London and Gibraltar. The tumble has seen India’s number one fall out of the top ten, and nearly eclipsed by Pentala Harikrishna.

For Anand, doing well in Zurich means changing the trend before going into the Candidates tournament. If Vishy can’t leave the Chess Challenge with at least a 50% score, don’t expect him to last long in the Candidates either – it’s a long road back to getting to the top.

Solid is strong, but can it win?

This one’s for Giri. The fourth best player in the world is going to have to win games in order to come out on top in Zurich. Anish left Tata Steel with a 7/13 score (2 wins, 1 loss, 10 draws), but with lucky breaks against Hou Yifan and Fabiano Caruana, it could have been worse. This tournament features two opponents Giri has never beaten – Kramnik and Aronian.

Anish is one of the most consistent players in this field right now, so even if he fails to emerge victorious, he will still be in good shape for the Candidates.

Does Aronian’s style trump that of Nakamura?

Realistically, the Aronian v. Nakamura match could decide the winner of the tournament. Levon’s 2015 got off to a rocky start, but he’s been playing at his best form since his Sinquefield Cup win. Nakamura, the “2015 player of the year”, will seek to improve from his 1st place finish at Gibraltar. Aronian has nine wins over Nakamura in classical play, compared to Hikaru’s two.

I expect this game to also be a critical moment in the Candidates tournament in Moscow as well, so depending on how this game plays out, it could be a great indicator as to who will do better in March.

How strong is the world #2, really?

His rise to second best has been a quiet one, as he hasn’t had too many recent games at the top level events. That being said, Vladimir Kramnik has always been among the world’s elite, and his latest appearances in Qatar and the European Club Cup should show that. At 4o, a lot of chess fans write off the Russian, but I think this is a promising opportunity for Kramnik to show he isn’t done.

How does it finish?

This is a fairly balanced field, and any exceptional performances will definitely form big impressions for the rest of 2016. That being said, here’s how I see Zurich finishing out:

1. Levon Aronian

2. Hikaru Nakamura

T3. Vladimir Kramnik

T3. Anish Giri

5. Alexei Shirov

6. Viswanathan Anand

Have different thoughts? Feel free to share!

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