The player who wins this year’s Candidates tournament may not have to win any more games, he may just have to control his nerves and avoid losing, write World Chess’s columnist.

Three rounds remain in the 2016 Candidates, and the identity of the winner is still hard to predict. Fabiano Caruana of the United States and Viswanathan Anand of India each have 6½ points after 11 rounds (but Caruana is the de facto leader, as he won his mini-match with Anand and would thus win on tiebreaks), half a point ahead of Sergey Karjakin of Russia, and a point ahead of Peter Svidler of Russia, Levon Aronian of Armenia, and Anish Giri of the Netherlands. With three-fourths of the field still at least theoretically in the running for first place, it might seem that the right strategy for all of the players is to push hard for a win in every game. That is most likely the strategy that the players with 5.5 points should take, but is it the right way for Karjakin and especially Anand and Caruana to approach their final games?

The answer might seem obvious: yes, of course – five other players are hot on their heels, and at least one or two of them may well catch up. That is a possibility, but a look back at some of the earlier Candidates’ tournaments suggests that another strategy is worth considering instead. An example is the 1953 Candidates’ tournament in Zurich and Neuhausen, a 28-round marathon which came down to a race between four players: Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, David Bronstein of the Soviet Union and Samuel Reshevsky of the United States. With seven games left to play (eight rounds, but each of the four leaders still had a bye round coming) Smyslov and Reshevsky were tied for first with 13½ points out of 21, with Bronstein on 12½ and Keres on 12. Smyslov won his next two games – against Keres, who pressed too hard, and Reshevsky, and then drew the rest of his games to win by two points over the other three. Those three all struggled: Reshevsky went -1 in his last seven games, Bronstein broke even and only Keres managed even a +1 score. Smyslov managed to keep his head about him, while the others lost their wits and faltered in crucial games.

In 1956 three players shared first in the Amsterdam Candidates with four rounds to play. Smyslov, Keres, and Efim Geller, another Soviet, all had 8½ points after 14 rounds. As in 1953, Smyslov kept his wits about him and finished strongly, alternating draws with Black and wins with White. As had happened in 1953, his rivals faltered. Between them, they managed five draws, three losses and not so much as a single victory, and Smyslov won the tournament a point and a half ahead of Keres. Especially noteworthy was Keres’s loss in the penultimate round, when he blundered twice against Miroslav Filip, going from a winning position to an inferior one to a lost one in the space of three moves, though he didn’t resign until many moves later.

Finally, there is the 1962 Candidates tournament in Curacao. Like the 1953 tournament, it was a 28-round monster, though when Mikhail Tal dropped out due to illness at the end of the third of four cycles (it was a quadruple round-robin) it was reduced to 27 rounds. At the start of the last cycle, Keres led Tigran Petrosian, yet another Soviet player, and Geller by half a point.

Once again, the winner was the one who did the best job managing his nerves. Geller lost all control, losing a winning advantage against the American Bobby Fischer and nearly losing at least two more games. He did win in the last round, but there, too, he was in big trouble (against Pal Benko, another American) and won on time in an equal position. As for Keres, he also struggled, but managed to remain level with Petrosian up to the penultimate round. Facing Benko, a player he had beaten in all three previous cycles, and beaten seven times in a row overall (and whom he also beat in their next two meetings), Keres played poorly and was fortunate to have a chance to save the game after the time control; unfortunately for him, he sealed a terrible move and lost quickly once play resumed. Even in the last round he had a chance to get back into a tie for first, but he gave away a big, maybe even decisive advantage against Fischer.

Petrosian, meanwhile, had drawn his last five games, most of them in short order. His philosophy, according to biographer Vik Vasiliev, was to play it safe, recognizing the effect of fatigue and nerves: “[Petrosian] did not doubt that his thesis was correct: the winner of the tournament would be, not the one who made a courageous spurt – that variation was definitely excluded – but the player who could make it to the finishing line without suffering a catastrophe” (Tigran Petrosian: His Life and Games, p. 114). Or as grandmaster and former Candidate Yuri Averbakh wrote (cited in the same source, pp. 113-114):

Quite a few observers, never having played in similar tournaments, and situated quite a distance from Curacao, asserted that the eventual winner would be the player who in the last cycle overcame his rivals. But it would have been sufficient to glance at the candidates to refute such a suggestion: every victory at the close of the two-month marathon demanded such iron nerves, such strength, of which in the given real situation perhaps only abstract “supermen” were possessed. It was far more likely to suppose that he would retain best chances who preserved the greatest strength, will, and nerves; who played most solidly and with the highest coefficient of reliability.

The present Candidates tournament in Moscow is not a “two-month marathon,” but now that nine-round tournaments are the norm, a 14-round tournament is still taxing for the players, and the stress levels must still be very great. Job one for Caruana is not to lose in the last three rounds, and even that, without any accompanying victories, might be enough to earn a match with Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship. If an opportunity to play for a win presents itself, he should pursue it, obviously enough, and he must keep a very close eye on what his rivals are doing. But the testimony of history and even the previous rounds of this tournament have shown that self-destruction is the biggest problem. As the famous chess commentator Walt Kelly famously wrote, many years ago, “[w]e have met the enemy and he is us.”

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Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.