The lowest-ranked player in the Candidates has the experience and the tools to pull off some upsets.

Our series on the players in the Candidates continues with the second Russian and the lowest-seed, though an always dangerous opponent. 

If there was ever a tournament where Svidler is a massive underdog, the Candidates is it, which is almost odd given his accomplishments.

He is one of the world’s most decorated and accomplished contemporary players. He has won seven Russian Championships, the 2011 World Cup, and he was the runner-up in the 2015 World Cup. He has also played on 10 Olympiad teams for Russia, which is truly exceptional, given their deep talent pool.

Svidler will have his work cut out for him in Moscow, however, as he is the lowest-ranked player in the field. Nonetheless, I think he has a real chance to shine, particularly if he approaches it as did the 2013 Candidates in London.

Svidler’s talent has never been an issue, but he has always had a reputation, partly promoted by himself, of being a bit lazy. He was never very athletic and always looked a bit overweight. But he evidently took the 2013 Candidates very seriously as he showed up in London in great physical shape. (When I saw pictures of him, I almost wondered if it was an imposter.) He obviously had made getting into shape a priority and it really paid dividends.

His start was not impressive, but he seemed to have more energy at the end than the other competitors, at least judging by the results. He won three very nice games in the second half of the event over Levon Aronian of Armenia, Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, and Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the current World Champion. All three games were highly complex and I believe his physical fitness give him more energy for those tense battles.

Svidler also came prepared with some interesting opening innovations — my favorite was his f4 move against Boris Gelfand of Israel in the variation of the Grunfeld with Bd2, a game that was one of the reasons that the variation is popular today. If he can show up at the 2016 Candidates with the same kind of physical and opening preparation that he had in London, I think he can compete with anybody.

Stylistically, Svidler is a counter attacker, and that could also work to his advantage, given the composition of the tournament, as many of the other competitors, particularly Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, and Aronian, are naturally aggressive. Svidler is extremely good at punishing players who have overextended their positions. It is the reason that he often scores more wins with Black than White. That is what happened in the 2011 World Cup, where he drew almost every game he played with White, but brought the hammer down with Black when his opponents went after him.

His preferred openings complement his style beautifully. He plays the Grunfeld and Archangel – openings in which Black allows White to establish a large center, and then counter attacks it and breaks it down. Normally in the Ruy Lopez, taking on d4 is almost never a good idea because the structure after exd4 cxd4 gives White more central space, but Svidler does it all the time to create active play, and he almost never loses. Recently he smashed one of the other Candidates, Anish Giri of the Netherlands, in this manner at the World Cup. And his win over Gata Kamsky of the United States on his way to winning the 2011 World Cup was one for the ages:

Kamsky, Gata vs. Svidler, Peter
FIDE World Cup | Khanty-Mansiysk | Round 4.2 | 07 Sep 2011 | ECO: C78 | 0-1
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O b5 6. Bb3 Bc5 The Archangel Variation suits Svidler's dynamic counterattacking style perfectly. He recently recorded an excellent video series for Chess24 on it.
7. a4 Rb8 8. axb5 axb5 9. c3 d6 10. d4 Bb6 11. Be3 Kamsky chooses a solid setup. He has a big center and if he can support it, he will have an edge. But Svidler is always happy to counterattack.
11. Na3 This is the main line -- I played it myself last year.  )
11... O-O 12. Nbd2 h6 This and h3 are often played as both sides really need to control g5 and g4.
12... Ng4 This would be ideal but here it fails to Bg5  )
13. h3 Otherwise Ng4 or Bg4 could be annoying.
13... Re8 14. Qc2 White's position is picture-perfect, if he can just hold it together for a move or two. Svidler does not allow this.
14. Re1 In light of how the game proceeded, this would have been better, and has been played more recently. Nonetheless Black should still be fine.  )
14... exd4! Generally Black should not do this without a good reason, but Svidler has a good idea in mind.
15. cxd4 Na5! Black gains a tempo by attacking the bishop on b3 and he is now ready for Bb7.
16. Ba2 Bb7! Gaining more time with more threats. White's center is really coming under siege. But even the computer fails to understand, still thinking White is better.
17. e5 Nd5 18. Bb1 g6 19. Bxh6 White has won a pawn, and a critical kingside pawn at that. But watch what happens next.
19. Ba2 Kg7  )
19... Nc6! Now that Black has provoked the pawn center to move forward, he attacks it. This reminds me a bit of the Grunfeld, something Svidler also plays with a lot of success.
20. exd6
20. Ne4 Nxd4 21. Nxd4 Bxd4 22. Bg5 Qd7 23. exd6 cxd6 24. Qd2 Bb6  )
20... Qxd6 21. Ne4
21. Nb3 Nf4 22. Bxf4 Qxf4 23. Qc1  )
21... Qb4 22. Ba2 Nxd4! The game is becoming more intense, and tactics are beginning to arise everywhere.
23. Nf6+? Technically this is not a bad move, but it was done with the wrong idea in mind. Svidler clearly out-calculated Kamsky in this key game.
23. Nxd4 Bxd4 24. Rae1 White is more or less okay.  )
23... Kh8
23... Nxf6?? 24. Qxg6+  )
24. Nxd4?
24. Nxd5! Technically this was still fine for White, although it clearly was not Kamsky's idea when he checked on f6.
24... Nxf3+ 25. gxf3 Bxd5 26. Bxd5 Qh4 27. Qc3+ Bd4 28. Qxc7 And White just barely lives to fight another day.  )
24... Nxf6 25. Nc6
25. Nf3 Bxf3 26. gxf3 Qh4 27. Be3 Qxh3 28. Bxf7 Re7 29. Qxg6 Rxf7 30. Qxf7 Rg8+  )
25... Qh4! And the game is over. Black's attack proves to be too strong.
26. Nxb8 Loses immediately but there was nothing better.
26. Be3 Rxe3! 27. fxe3 Re8!  )
26... Re2!! The crowning achievement of a beautiful game. White is mated.
26... Qg3 27. Nc6! Black needs to distract the queen from this square  )
27. Qc3
27. Qxe2 Qg3  )
27... Rxf2 28. Nc6 Rxf1+

Since he is the lowest ranked player, Svidler has the luxury of knowing his opponents will come after him, and I think he will be ready to pounce with his counter attacks. His scores against the other players in the tournament are acceptable, with only Fabiano Caruana of the United States and the former World Champion Viswanathan Anand causing him any consistent problems. Svidler is definitely a longshot to win, but I think his chances are much better than they would seem on paper, and I’m actually rooting for him because I really like his active and dynamic playing style.

Should he confound his ranking and win, Svidler would be even a bigger underdog against Carlsen. Stylistically, I think the matchup would be absolutely fine for Svidler and his results against Carlsen in the past have been excellent, but the basic problem is that Carlsen is just a stronger player. Still, I like to believe rating isn’t everything, so I think Svidler could give Carlsen real problems.  


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.