In the last couple of weeks we saw the world-top playing -first in the World Cup, in which 2 places for the candidates were at stake (and ratingpoints for those not able to reach the final), next in the very strong Island of Man, which offered a second chance.
The WK-cycle offers today several ways to get to the candidates. For the world-top this is maybe a track which offers more opportunities to qualify for that tournament: via the criterium-tournaments of the Grand Prix, via the World Cup knock-out tournament, as the losing finalist of the previous world-championship, or via the rating. Only one strong (+2700) player will get a wild-card of the organizers - that is a matter of attracting sponsors of course.
A.f.a.i.k. this is a better and shorter system than in the past. Before Fide the world-champion chose the opponent, which wasn't fair (Lasker avoided Rubinstein and never granted Schlechter a real match; Aljechin avoided Capablance and did not permit Keres to play a match). The Fide defined a system but it became a terribly long path for the new challengers: zonal and inter-zonal tournaments first and then you had to survive the candidates-tournaments or matches. Only after having provided the world-champion lots of material to study, you could start as challenger the final match. And besides that Tal and Smyslov (and Kasparov) were also unlucky that a world-champion has the right to get a second match...
The actual cycle is much shorter - you already need to be world-top to get a chance. There are no surprises anymore like Van der Sterren, qualifying from a zonal tournament at advanced age to the candidate-matches.
But despite that as a world-top-player (say top-20) you are in a comfortable position at the start, you are not alone. In each tournament the road to the candidates is hard. If you look at the standings of the Grand Prix (see FIDE Grand Prix 2017) then well-known players like Nakamura, Aronian, Nepomniachtchi, Adams, Svidler, Giri, … did not succeed to qualify via this path.
And the World-cup as an enormous lottery, even Carlsen couldn't avoid elimination. We are lucky that two top-players have qualified for the candidates making it a lot more attractive. Aronian has a lot of fans and Ding Liren is still rather unknown - at this level anyway.
So for the aspiring world-champions there was only one real alternative: to get selected based upon the average rating. At twitter Martin Bennedik (@bennedik) offered live the average ratings so the players didn't need to calculate themselves. This service adds of course pressure - also in the world-cup at the players. If you checked the live ratings (2700chess) before and after the world-cup (and before Isle of Man) then you saw that almost all the top-players lost points. The reason was simple. The ratingdifferences were often too big that even winning a match with 1,5-0,5 would mean losing points. Besides also many top-players preferred the rapid-games and recorded 1-1 which also harmed their ratings. In the end even the 2 finalists didn't win any extra points after a couple of weeks playing.
But the Kramniks, Nakamura's and Anands of this world had to force something as their average rating was only second priority, next to getting through to the next round. This explained the sometimes forced play (see the elimination of Anand, after playing too aggressive against sensation Kovalyov).
It is why in the Isle of Man, there was a lot of attention to the rating-duel between So, Caruana en Kramnik, all very close in terms of ratings. The stakes were high, as elimination in this rating-race would mean no ticket for Berlin. Every player was a potential winner.
As the tournament started in the first round with Caruana-Kramnik, we immediately witnessed a crucial moment when it became clear the players were playing for a win. As Kramnik lost, he was forced in the next rounds to make up ground. But in round 3 he lost again - against a ghost of the past: James Tarjan. Also here - under pressure due to the circumstances-, Kramnik overplayed his position. Tarjan, with white, played quietly the chess-equivalent of Catenaccio and let Kramnik come. He built up a nice position but didn't calculate well his combination, Tarjan saw the hole and just took the point with "normal" play.
Kramnik must have been mentally broken - a more emotional player (think the type like Kortchnoi) would have destroyed the board. But Kramnik took the defeat with dignity and his - automatic- elimination for the world-title. In a "normal" open tournament against a veteran rated 400 points less. It must hurt.
The press loved it - what a story. A noble "unknown player" (although, double Olympic gold and in may 1981 conform Chessmetrics top 40 of the world), 23 years older, eliminates an ex-world-champion. This is the classic David against Goliath tale. The mouse that roared. It reminds me of the Tour de France of 1956 won by the absolute underdog Walkowiak. Or Rulon Gardner, defeating one of the best sportsmen of all time, the almost invincible wrestler Alexander Karelin, in his last match for Olympic gold.
We love champions and we like to keep track of records and lists. But at some moment their era ends. And this we also like to witness. How great Anand and Kramnik were, their generation must make slowly place for the superkids, able to play a gear faster - and especially are extremely tough, if needed playing till 2 bare kings (which Fisher also once did - and even played 3 more moves).
It is not hard to support Tarjan - it is a nice story. An old grandmaster returns to play chess and defeats one of the greatest players of the latest years. It’s the stuff that makes heroes. But as said, it was mainly Kramnik losing the game, not Tarjan winning it.
Losing a game when you are the big favorite (at rating) hurts - I can tell you from experience. I once lost a game against somebody 450 points lower rated in the interclub - the way how will likely be considered by my opponent as his most beautiful game ever:
It just demonstrates that you should never underestimate somebody. Everybody can have a good day and has a hidden supply of strength. The game against Kramnik was for Tarjan one of his best experiences in his career, but for Kramnik was it a bitter pill to swallow - especially considering the circumstances. His goodbye from the world-champion-cycle (together with Anand - Topalov, Gelfand, Ivanchuk which we already lost earlier) marks the end of a great generation of players - Kramnik was probably the last one of the school of Botvinnik-Kasparov.
It is now at the generation grown up with Fritz and internet. It is a generation which adds creativity to perseverance. The players don't know the classics anymore but can calculate very well and dare to take risks on top of a very good endgame-technique. And finally novelties at move 5 varied with novelties at move 25 or 35...
Chess has changed but not necessarily bad. The generation of Carlsen has shown us beautiful things and there are still nice things ahead of us.