John Brezina's FIDE Candidates Report

11:39am Sunday, May 26th, 2024

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" either becoming a world champion challenger would be exciting and great for American chess."

Once again John Brezina brings us an International GM tournament report. This time from the recent FIDE Candidates Tournament held in Canada. The heading photo is the trophies that were awarded to the Men's and Women's Championship winners. As always, I am pleased to select and caption Mr. Brezina's fantastic photography.

The tournament winners showing off their trophies. Tan Zhongyi and D. Gukesh

Quoting John Brezina. "The Candidates tournament took place in Toronto Canada with the Open and Women's fields together for the first time. Making the two eight-player fields extra special was a brother and sister competing in each for the first time as well, Vaishali Rameshbabu and Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa. But perhaps the main reason I attended was that the two top American players were competing for a chance to become the challenger to world champion Ding Liren, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. Being my third candidates tournament I have attended, I can attest that this was the best run and organized of the three."

The classy location for the tournament. 

"It took place at the Great Hall near downtown Toronto and tickets for all fourteen rounds quickly sold out once the tournament began. It is always a challenge to balance conditions for the players and to give fans a chance to watch the players and the hall did a good job. The playing hall was on the main level with a wrap-around balcony that allowed spectators a birds eye view of the players for a specified time period. A fan zone in the basement allowed ticketed fans an assortment of entertainment including commentary from Canadian GM's, boards to play on, but most important a chance to meet the players that came down for an interview after their game and get a photo or autograph."


Opening ceremony dignitaries on the job... 


...until Mr. Brezina took over :-)

"First thing to take place was the opening ceremony which I was privileged to attend as a member of the media. This took place at the beautiful Hotel 1 in Toronto which was a short distance from the playing hall. Upon entering the hotel I just happened to catch Levy Rozman for a brief moment in the lobby as he was about to interview Hikaru Nakamura. I arrived early to attend the players meeting and then the media press conference that preceded the official opening. The Scheinberg family from Canada has been a key sponsor of recent chess tournaments including this one where Mr. Scheinberg spoke briefly at the opening ceremony. It would appear that he is what I would call the Canadian version of our Rex Sinquefield. Both great benefactors to our beloved game."

Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi signing chessboards...

...but can you decipher the signatures :-)

"As players entered the ceremony hall, all were asked to sign a multitude of boards that were later auctioned off. It was quite a site to catch them signing against a full wall mirror which made for some unique pictures. First was the players meeting where officials went over all the rules and regulations of tournament play and fielded questions and concerns from the players. Shortly after the media press conference commenced where Fabiano Caruana and Vaishali Rameshbabu were guest speakers that took questions from the media. Officials also went over rules for the media and expectations at the playing hall. Afterwards Vaishali stayed for interviews and I had the privilege of meeting her along with her mother."

John Brezina is flanked by a proud mother and her chess playing daughter. 

"There was a short break between the conferences and the official opening ceremony where a cocktail reception took place. This was a great opportunity to meet players and officials that make everything happen. A special moment was when former world champion Vishy Anand first arrived and was chatting with Nakamura's second Kris Littlejohn where I was able to say hello to both of them. Irina Krush also was in attendance as she and Vishy were both doing commentary for the entire tournament. It was a nice prelude to the ceremony as music played and people mingled and shared stories. I met local volunteers including those that ran the chess club at the Madison Avenue Pub that Magnus Carlsen helped make famous. More on that later. After an hour of socializing, players made their way across the hall for the official opening."

Somebody else with John Brezina :-)

"South African chess player and WIM Charlize Van Zyl was master of ceremonies along with chief arbiter Aris Marghetis. Players and dignitaries alike filled the first row as the ceremony began. Canadian Chess Federation president Vladimir Drkulec was first to speak and welcome the players and fans to Toronto. All the players were introduced to the stage one at a time in order of rating to receive a gift bag and speak a few words. It was quite remarkable to see all sixteen players sitting in a row all together. A special introduction for Isai Scheinberg who has been a major sponsor and partner of FIDE events where he then gave a warm welcome to the players. After some entertainment from a local magician, deputy president of FIDE and former world champion Vishy Anand officially declared the Candidates tournament open."  
"The Great Hall where all the action took place was located in the Queen Street West area of Toronto. I arrived early to settle in the provided media room and tour the facility and learn the layout. It was bustling with photographers and journalists from all over the world preparing for a three week long tournament. The St. Louis Chess Club crew setup in the corner for interviews by Begim Tokhirjonova initially and later by Anastasia Karlovich. FM Fun Master Mike Klein of was there and did great interviews throughout the entire tournament. One side of the room had the official FIDE table where press officer Anna Burtasova interviewed players after their games and took questions from the media."

A birds eye view of the playing area.

"Upstairs from the main playing hall was the VIP room which was also the level for the viewing balcony overlooking the players. The balcony had strict rules for fans and media alike. There were designated times that you were allowed in for a period of up to two hours. Space was limited and no phones or cameras were allowed. The Fan Zone was set in the basement of the hall where it could only be entered from outside at another entrance. Security was present and acted professionally at each entrance and they did a great job clearing people through including the players. And especially handling the crowds that swelled at times near the exit where players would occasionally stop for autographs."

"Now onto the actual tournament. I was fortunate to attend rounds 1, 6, 7, 13, and 14 where I will give my account and perspective as a photographer and media representative. The media were given specific instructions for the playing hall. We had to meet exactly twenty minutes before the round to be escorted in by FIDE marketing and PR officer Anna Volkova. It was quite thrilling to walk into the playing hall for the first time, as if walking onto the gridiron before the Superbowl. The first player had arrived before us and it was Aleksandra Goryachkina sitting at the board in the middle of the floor taking in the moment. Alireza Firouzja arrived early too in his green suit, always making for great photos at the board. Photographers made their way around the floor like busy bees trying to capture that moment as players first arrived."

Alireza Firouzja arrived early...

...and decided to take a nap :-)

"Once the round began, we would only have ten minutes to capture as much gold as we could through the lens. Many of the players showed up last minute making that time even more precious. I was moving around to many different boards focusing so much on the camera and photo that I almost missed looking up at the crowd that had formed above me. That's when I finally took a moment and just looked around at the players around me and their fans above and just thought, how lucky am I to be here. Then the moment I had been waiting for, the number one and two seeds to arrive. First was Hikaru Nakamura to appear at the main board where all the cameras were now focused on. The camera clicks were nonstop as Hikaru settled into his seat and waited for his opponent. It wasn't long where as if on cue, in walked top seed Fabiano Caruana to shake hands with his American compatriot. I was there front and center with the best seat in the house and I would remain planted there for the start of the match."

Fabiano Caruana arriving for his game with Hikaru Nakamura. 

"Call me a bit biased but I have to admit that I was internally rooting for both American players as either becoming a world champion challenger would be exciting and great for American chess. They were paired up together early as other countrymen were in order to dissolve any illusion of collusion towards the end of the tournament. After everyone settled in at their boards, the arbiter gave a brief talk and introduced the special guest to make the ceremonial first move on the top board. Isai Scheinberg made his way to the board and shook Fabiano's hand before grabbing his e-pawn and moving it to e4. He then shook Hikaru's hand and made his way off stage. With the formalities all done, the players shook hands and the 2024 Candidates match was underway."
"After a plethora of pictures on the main board, I turned my focus on the other seven boards to capture them all in my short allotted time. Another great matchup was the young Alireza Firouzja and the even younger Praggnanandhaa. Their game ended in a draw after 39 moves and a repetition of moves where Alireza saved the game despite his King being wide open. Next to them was the youngest player in the field, Gukesh D, at only seventeen years old. He was playing his fellow countryman Vidit Gujrathi. Much focus was on the youngster in his first Candidates, and that focus would grow immensely towards the end of the tournament. A draw was agreed between them after a short 21 move game. And last in the Open field was the defending world champion challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi who faced Nijat Abasov from Azerbaijan. Another quiet 34 move draw. Incidentally, Nijat was being helped by another former Candidates player, his countryman Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. All four draws in the Open as players tested each other out for the long fourteen game match."

Alexsandra Goryachkina can beat you at chess... 

... do you doubt it :-)

"In the women's field, veteran Indian player Humpy Koneru faced her younger compatriot Vaishali Rameshbabu. Five out of the fourteen players were from India, a testament to the legacy of former world champion Vishy Anand. They finished in a quiet draw with an equal endgame. Both playing each other under the FIDE flag were Kateryna Lagno and Aleksandra Goryachkina. Both powerful players and perhaps their mutual respect steered them into a draw after 36 moves with all the heavy pieces still on the board. Former Bulgarian champion Nurgyul Salimova faced off against former world blitz & rapid champion Anna Muzychuk. 40 moves and a drawn rook ending. And finally the two powerhouse Chinese players faced off. Former women's world champion Tan Zhongyi and former world champion challenger Lei Tingjie. They played into a rook & bishop endgame where Lei had an outside passed pawn. Perhaps thinking she could convert one of her pawns, Lei gave up the rook exchange for a bishop. But accurate play by Tan stopped her pawns and forced Lei's resignation. The only decisive game of round one and would set the tone for Tan's road to take the title back from Ju Wenjun."

... and so can Tan Zhonogyi, the Women's tournament winner. 

"During the round I paid a visit to the Fan Zone where Canada's Chessbrahs were commentating. Chess boxing star Aman Hambleton was seen playing occasionally and talking with fans. I couldn't resist getting a boxing pose with the GM. Chess streamer and commentator Nemo Zhou was also talking with fans as well as ChessBase India co-founder Sagar Shah. Worth the ticket price alone for fans to get a chance to see the players and meet other chess celebrities. As the games ended through the day, players stopped in the media room for their obligatory interviews. Fans began to line up outside the players' exit hoping for a chance to meet their favorites. And as I followed Hikaru Nakamura outside, he was instantly surrounded by fans which he kindly took time with. This is always my favorite part to capture as fans young and old alike beam at the chance to get a picture with their favorite player. It reminds me of the day ten years ago when I first met Magnus Carlsen in St. Louis. That set me on my path to what I do today and can only imagine others getting inspired the same way to grow our wonderful game. And this was all just on day one!"

This is Kateryna Lagno, and she can beat you too :-)

"I returned to Toronto for rounds six and seven as my schedule allowed. It becomes quite expensive to try and attend these entire tournaments as one can imagine so I have to be selective. You never know what you may miss in a round and I missed an incredible special guest for the opening move of round five. I learned later it had been kept quite secret as he was in town for a concert. The incredible tenor Andrea Bocelli is an avid chess player that many people are unaware of. I have been a fan of his music for decades and knew of his love for chess. What an honor to have him grace the players' stage, I was just a day late, unfortunately."

"Going into round six Gukesh and Nepo led with 3.5 points while Tan Zhongyi was leading her field with the same. The two big matches for me to follow were our American players. Nakamura faced leader Gukesh a point behind and Caruana faced leader Nepo just half a point behind. Both games ended in quiet draws where no one wanted to take any chances with so much tournament play remaining. Not so for the rest of the field as all six other games were decisive. Tan Zhongyi extended her lead with another win while Goryachkina stayed half a point behind with her win."

The Fan Zone

"The Fan Zone was the place to be for round six as the players finished their games. First Nepo stopped by for an interview with Charlize van Zyl and then took time for autographs. The line stretched around the room. Later on Vidit and Hikaru joined the zone and double teamed the autograph line. Unfortunately not everyone got to the front of the line as time was limited. But for the keen observers that followed Hikaru outside where Sagar setup to interview him, they got their chance. Afterwards Hikaru graciously posed and signed more for everyone that surrounded him."

"As exciting as all of that was, the evening chess scene was just getting started. I had been invited to the Madison Avenue Pub since Pub Chess Toronto meets there every Wednesday. It has long been popular but even more so as Magnus Carlsen had paid them a visit multiple times last year. There are some great YouTube videos posted about this visit that give you a sense of the club atmosphere there. I had met several of their organizers and what an impressive place to unwind after a long day. A huge bar and restaurant spread out over several floors and an outside patio where everywhere you turned, someone was playing chess or socializing with friends. I watched a few games from the ongoing tournament where I noticed one of my fellow reporters playing. Stock Ulrich, a German newspaper reporter for Die Zeit, a rather large publication. After he was done we began a nice friendship sitting down for a few games ourselves. It was a great way to get to know him a little better as we blitzed and chatted through the night. Another favorite aspect of chess for me, such a great avenue to meet new people from around the world."

The tournament winner arriving at the board.

"Fortunately most big chess tournaments begin in the afternoon, and for good reason. Many chess players are night owls as the previous night proved. The rain returned as I headed back to round seven where Hikaru had another chance to catch the other leader he now faced, Nepomniachtchi. Goryachkina had a chance to catch tournament leader Zhongyi on the other side where she trailed by just half a point. The Hikaru and Nepo game was wild with a flurry of exchanges starting on move 26 where Nepo sacrificed his minor pieces for Hikaru's queen. While it looked scary for Nepo with his queen against three minor pieces, he accurately calculated the draw by keeping Hikaru's king cornered. The only decisive game in the open was Firoujza taking down co-leader Gukesh, his first and only loss of the tournament. While Gukesh was one step away from promotion, Firoujza's extra knight and two rooks set up a mating net to force resignation on move 40.

"The only other decisive game was Lei Tingjie over Vaishali. She struggled along with her compatriot Koneru who now both were in last place along with Muzychuk at the halfway mark. Nepo and Zhongyi both maintained their leads by just half a point setting up an exciting second half. Back in the media room, Nakamura and Nepo gave a lengthy and in depth press conference. Special guests showed up as well for the press conference including Mr. Scheinberg and Michael Khodarkovsky. Hikaru & Nepo both showed their quick in depth calculation skills from the game where us mere mortal chess players could just watch with awe."

Try to tell me chess isn't becoming more popular.

"Afterwards I headed down to the Fan Zone where Pragg headed after his draw with Caruana. Charlize began the interview with Pragg and then opened the floor to questions where I mustered up the courage to ask him about a former coach and trainer that a student of mine relayed to me. I learned once again that taking pictures of the players is much easier than asking questions with all eyes and cameras on you. Back upstairs I caught a special moment just outside where Vidit had just finished his interview and was about to exit the building. It was the last game to finish and I waited by the door and looked outside where I saw two young fans waiting for quite some time in the rain. There were a number of fans waiting for a last chance to see Vidit on his way out. He was quickly escorted out through the rain and straight into the waiting van. The look of absolute joy on the youngsters faces turned to sorrow as it looked like they would not get to meet their favorite player. But in a touching moment, Vidit saw their disappointment from inside the van and hopped back out to sign autographs and take a picture with them. The look on their faces said it all as their mother took the picture and officials held umbrellas."


Downtown Toronto, Canada.  

"After a week off, I returned again for the final weekend and the last two money rounds. Hikaru was heading into the penultimate round tied for first with Nepo and Gukesh after three straight victories. Caruana trailed by half a point. Tan Zhongyi maintained her lead by half a point but it was over Lei Tingjie now. I arrived early back in Toronto that Saturday because I had been invited to ChessBase India's first chess in the park event by Sagar himself. It was held in Trinity Bellwoods park before round thirteen near the venue where many Indian chess fans arrived for a chance to meet Sagar despite the chilly weather. It was a nice meeting to show support for Gukesh as he was tied leading into the final two rounds. Sagar met with many fans and even stated that if Gukesh won the tournament, he would do his best to get Gukesh to visit the park and meet all these fans. More on that later. All of this was broadcast on ChessBase India back home with a final picture of Sagar and fans in front of a large Indian flag."

Nepo gets a laugh out of Hikaru 

"The buzz of excitement was electric on stage as we waited for the players. The main board was between leaders Nakamura and Nepo with a special guest making the ceremonial move, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Mack Hollins. Gukesh faced Firouzja while Caruana faced Pragg. Fans lined up around the observation deck for the start of another sold out round. The Nakamura-Nepo game ended uneventfully after a short 27 move draw where neither player wanted to take any chances with one round left. This left the door open for Gukesh where he pressed on after a queen trade that helped his position on the board and in the standings with a victory."
"All the attention then turned to the Caruana-Pragg game. Fabi now needed a win to keep his chances alive in the final round. High pressure situations are nothing new to the veteran and he showed incredible perseverance on the board. Pressing late into the evening, the last and longest game of the tournament would be a titanic struggle. In the end both promoted their pawns to queens, but with Fabi first, the victory was secured after 89 moves. Caruana now joined Nepo and Nakamura a half point behind leader Gukesh setting up an epic finale as they all would face each other."

Tan Zhongyi with a cool hair clip and her interpreter on the left.

"On the women's side, Zhongyi maintained her lead by drawing her game while Tingjie slipped and lost her game against Vaishali. This meant a last round draw for Zhongyi would secure the tournament win. During the round I headed to the Fan Zone again where this time I caught Mack Hollins playing chess and talking with fans. He is a very good player as I watched his games and snapped a few pictures. It was nice to talk with him afterwards and learn of his passion for chess and how he liked the mental exercise it provides as his NFL job provides the physical exercise. I had to mention the Denver Chess Club and invite him to visit after the Bills come to town and play the Broncos. He liked the idea."
"After the Nakamura-Nepo press conference, Hikaru headed out to a trove of fans lined up outside. I trailed just behind him barely able to open the door and capture pictures as the crowd swelled around him. I guess that's what happens when you are the number one streamer with millions of fans. After each round he would post a recap of his game on his YouTube channel and offer great insight and analysis. The crowd was only equalled for Gukesh after his victory. Sagar headed out first into a sea of fans and then chants for "Gukesh" rang through as he made his way barely through the crowd into the waiting van. Much later into the evening, die-hard fans waited for Caruana and chanted "USA" as he made his way out after the marathon win over Pragg. What a finish to such an exciting day."
"Before the start of the final round on Sunday, another event was taking place in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Chess in the Park Toronto was having their weekly meeting and their director Olga Mushtaler had invited me to attend. She is also the vice president of the Canadian Chess Federation. Quite a group of avid chess players began to show up including a women's Canadian Olympic chess team player and the Canadian Chess Federation president Vladimir Drkulec. Olga organized a blitz tournament which she convinced me to play in while I took some photographs. The strongest player to show up was none other than GM Ben Finegold. Quite a lineup of players in the park under the backdrop of the CN Tower in Toronto."

Former Bulgarian Champion, Nurgyul Salimova (w) vs. Kateryna Lango (b)
"I had to skip the last round of the blitz tournament to make my way back to the hall for the start of the last round which I was not going to miss. We all made our way onto the stage to await for the gladiators. Ian Nepomniachtchi settled into his chair first for what would become an unbelievable game. Tan Zhongyi sat down for her final game against Muzychuk needing just a draw to clinch the title. But once again I planted myself in front of Nakamura as he faced Gukesh and held his destiny in his hands. Rumors began to swirl that a very special guest would make the opening move, Rex Sinquefield. But as everyone waited for the start of the round, it was said that he was running late and the players shook hands to start the finale. Back in the media room after the start of the round, Rex Sinquefield did make an appearance for an interview with the St. Louis Chess Club back home. He stayed briefly and then made his way up to the VIP room to watch the finish with the hopes of an American victory."
"In the women's field, Tan Zhongyi was never in any real trouble where she made the draw and claimed the challenger's title. Lei Tingjie pressed hard for the win against Koneru but lost a promising position and lost her second game in a row falling to a third place finish. Humpy Koneru started slow but a stellar second half brought her into a final second place finish. Vaishali finished very strong with a last round victory over Lagno, her fifth win in a row placing her tied for second place. Zhongyi made her way to the media room for many interviews and a press conference with her interpreter. Mike Klein's interview with the champion was interesting as a new interpreter was used, chess streamer and content creator Nemo Zhou. New in Chess editor-in-chief Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam was next in line to get an interview for his next issue." 

Hikaru welcomes Gukesh to the game with the traditional handshake

"Back in the playing hall, Gukesh equalized after the opening and never gave Hikaru any chances. Magnus Carlsen even provided live commentary on another stream as the game was being watched all over the world. After 71 moves and only kings left on the board, a draw gave Gukesh at least a tie for first depending on the Caruana game. It is remarkable that Gukesh is half of Nakamura's age and was able to keep such a calm demeanor and focus for the duration of the tournament. They both made their way to the conference table where Hikaru praised his opponent for such a successful tournament. But not on a total victory just yet as they were all closely watching the Caruana-Nepo match which would decide that. It started to look promising for Fabiano but it was far from over. Hikaru made his way out to make his final recap video and Gukesh headed back to his hotel through an enormous crowd of fans to wait for the final result."

It takes quite a few people to broadcast a chess tournament to the whole world. 

"The media room was all a buzz watching every last move of the game that would decide if a tie break match would happen the following day. Fabiano was in a titanic struggle and a must win situation to catch Gukesh and keep his tournament hopes alive. Tatev Abrahamyan was there as well, watching closely with everyone else and riding the emotional roller coaster. Computer engines were running hard and someone would occasionally blurt out, plus four or plus two and excite the crowd. Sagar was there broadcasting live on ChessBase India and his face would tell it all as the game started to equalize late into the night. His excitement grew as it looked as if India was about to get a shot at the world title again. It was then announced to the media in the room that a draw was agreed upon. Many people in the room began to congratulate Sagar for India's win, including myself since I was sitting right in front of him. Later on it was learned that at the board before the draw was agreed upon, Nepo was languishing not just over his dashed tournament, but audibly apologized to Fabiano for his lost chance where Fabi replied, "It's my fault" and then the handshake."

Fabiano Caruana was not happy to miss a three move tactic. 
"We all waited for the players to come in for their final press conference and I must say that I have never felt such a somber moment as Fabiano walked in. They both made their way to the table and Fabiano looked at the computer immediately and realized the three move tactic he overlooked that could have won him the game and stated he felt "like an idiot". To their credit they both went over in great detail of the game despite it being so late and tired. Both players tied with Hikaru for second place just half a point shy of Gukesh. An incredible finish but only one place matters in the Candidates tournament. Both of them slowly made their way out into the hallway to wait for the hotel shuttle where everyone gave them space as they contemplated what had just happened." 
"Shortly afterwards Gukesh and his second returned for the victory press conference. The youngest player in Candidates history to win at just seventeen years old. He kindly obliged to interviews and was then escorted down to the Fan Zone to give autographs and photos to a massive crowd. While that was going on another large crowd was gathering outside. He was escorted back to the media room where he gave an online interview with his ChessBase India fans back home. I found an opportunity to congratulate him as well as he made his way through the room. Staff then prepared to escort him out through the crowd which had swelled and began chanting "Gukesh". They were somehow able to get him into the van eventually and end the most dramatic day of chess I have been a part of."

Picnickers in Trinity Bellwoods Park under the cherry blossoms in full bloom...

...and local players don't mind a little chilly weather

"The following night was the closing ceremony which afforded me the day to finally get around to see the city of Toronto. The blue sky day and weather was the best of the tournament and I took advantage of it by visiting High Park where the cherry blossoms were peaking. It was a formal evening for the closing with a dinner to follow. A fitting end to a long three week tournament. The staff had been great throughout and well organized, I cannot thank them enough. Many special guests arrived for the closing including Sunil Weeramantry who were all visiting and chatting with old friends before dinner. Sagar kindly stopped by to let me know that Gukesh would indeed show up at the park the next day for his fans as he had hoped. Everyone was finally ushered to their seats to begin the ceremony.  After speeches by dignitaries, the winners for each group were called to the stage for prizes, trophies and a group photo. The party went on late into the evening and was a great way for players and staff to wind down after a job well done."

The champion, in a pale blue suit, is surrounded by fans...

...and here Chess India is welcoming their hero

"I was able to attend the meeting in the park the next day before I caught my flight back home. It was quite something to see the fans show up for a chance to see the champion Gukesh. Sagar once again warmed up the crowd before getting word that he was on the way. The crowd's excitement peaked when he was spotted and droves of fans ran towards him. He was being escorted in with security but fans were very respectful. He gave much of his time for photos and autographs as fans lined up for their chance. It was a nice way to end the trip for me as I then headed to the airport. I have included many of my photos and video clips captured over several rounds and visits. My biggest collection and report so far from any chess event. Please enjoy..."

ChessBase India in the park: 

John Brezina

Colorado Chess Informant Editor 

Last Modified: 5/29/2024 at 10:29pm Views: 181