For more than a decade, the Candidates competitions more-or-less disappeared because of a split in the chess world and the use of a different format for World Championships. But in 2007, they roared back to life.

In the late 1990s and early noughties, the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, abandoned the idea of holding classical World Championship matches in favor of large knock-out tournaments. The World Championship cycle, of which the Candidates tournaments and matches had long been a part, was suddenly obsolete.

But FIDE was not the only entity with a claim to the World Championship.

In 1993, Garry Kasparov, the former undisputed champion, had broken away from FIDE and formed his own organization – the Professional Chess Association, or PCA. The PCA had organized a World Championship cycle culminating in a title match between Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand of India.

After that match, however, the PCA collapsed. Kasparov sought to create a new organization to run a new cycle, but without much success. In 1998, backed by Spanish millionaire Luis Rentero, the organizer of the elite Linares tournaments, he proposed to defend his title against the winner of a match between Anand and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, but the Indian grandmaster declined because he had contractual obligations to FIDE. Instead Kramnik played Alexei Shirov (a naturalized Spaniard born in Latvia) in what could be considered a Candidates final match. After this resulted in a surprise 2-0 victory for Shirov, with seven draws, the promised sponsorship money for a title match collapsed and Shirov never had the shot at the world title that he had earned.

In 2000, Kasparov found a new sponsor (Brain Games Network) to underwrite a match instead against Kramnik. In an upset, Kramnik won. Now he was saddled with the responsibility of figuring out how to find a challenger. He found a solution in 2002. The annual elite tournament in Dortmund, Germany, became the de facto Candidates tournament. The winner would become Kramnik’s challenger.

Dortmund 2002 was the first time since the Candidates tournament in Curaçao in 1962 that an event to select a challenger for the title was played within a short period and at one venue. The format was a hybrid between round-robin and match-play. Seven of the world’s top players participated, plus Christopher Lutz, a nominee of the organizing federation, who was heavily outclassed. Kasparov (still ranked No. 1 in the world) refused to compete, and for various reasons so did Anand, and Ukrainian grandmasters Vassily Ivanchuk and Ruslan Ponomariov, so Dortmund was not as strong as it could have been.

Dortmund began with two four-player double round-robins, with the top two in each group moving on to semifinal matches. Shirov won Group 1 ahead of Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, while Evgeny Bareev of Russia won Group 2 ahead of Peter Léko of Hungary. In the semis, Léko beat Shirov, while Topalov beat Bareev, after a play-off. Léko then won the final to set up a match with Kramnik. That match was not played until the second half of 2004 and ended in a tie, allowing Kramnik to retain the title according to the match conditions.

While Kramnik was finding a challenger, FIDE was holding knock-out World Championship tournaments (rather like the present World Cups), the winners of which held the title for two years but did not have special rights in the next cycle. Then, in 2005, its world championship was decided by an eight-player round-robin, won by Topalov.

After 13 years of division, the World Championship was unified again in 2006 in a match in Russia, in which Kramnik defeated Topalov. In 2007, it was decided to select the World Champion in an eight-player double round-robin tournament in Mexico City (like the one that Topalov had won two years earlier in San Luis, Argentina). Four of the spots in the 2007 tournament were reserved for four players who had previously qualified.

The other four spots would be determined in a two-stage knockout Candidates tournament held in May and June of 2007. The tournament began with eight matches of best of six games, plus rapid tiebreaks if required. It was the first Candidates in which Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the current World Champion, participated. He was eliminated by Levon Aronian of Armenia in a two-game blitz tie-breaker after a fantastic struggle in which the six classical games and four rapid games had failed to separate them.

Another noteworthy participant was Judit Polgar of Hungary. It was the first time that a woman had played in the Candidates (though Polgar had played in the FIDE championship tournament in San Luis). Polgar was defeated by Bareev.

The eight winners were then paired for a final round of matches from which Léko, Aronian, Boris Gelfand of Israel, and Alexander Grischuk of Russia emerged victorious. They then joined Anand, Kramnik, and two other Russians, Alexander Morozevich and Peter Svidler, in the championship tournament. Anand won to become World Champion.

The terms under which the World Championship had been reunified required Anand to defend the title against Kramnik (which he did successfully in 2008) and then against Topalov (in 2010). So there was no need for a Candidates tournament or other selection process until 2011.

The 2011 Candidates was a series of knockout matches, like the 2007 one had been. This time, Gelfand emerged victorious by beating Grischuk in the final. Like Kramnik and Topalov before him, he also failed to depose Anand in the subsequent title match.

In 2013, after more than half a century, FIDE returned to the old format of an all-play-all eight-player Candidates tournament, which was held in London. In a dramatic last round, both co-leaders, Carlsen and Kramnik were defeated. Carlsen edged out Kramnik on tie-breaks because he had won more games in the tournament. He then went on to defeat Anand for the title.

The 2014 Candidates, played in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, decided who would challenge Carlsen. Three of the field of eight (Kramnik, Aronian, and Svidler) were the same as before. They were joined by ex-champion Anand and four other top grandmasters.

Although many commentators had written the Indian ex-champion off before the event, he won the tournament comfortably, without losing a game. In the subsequent match against Carlsen, Anand was unable to retake the crown, but he made a better showing than in the 2013 match.

Now Anand will get another chance as he will play in the 2016 Candidates in Moscow, but there are seven players who stand in his way. For three of them — Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura of the United States and Anish Giri of the Netherlands — Moscow will be their first experience of a Candidates, although they are all seasoned players. The other five — Anand, Topalov, Svidler, Aronian and Sergey Karjakin of Russia — have been there before. With the mix of young stars and experienced older grandmasters, it is next to impossible to predict who will win, but I think the challenger who emerges will be somebody who has not previously played a match for the world title.


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.