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Two Americans Are One Win From The World Chess Championship

The American men’s soccer team is missing out on next year’s World Cup, but members of a different U.S. national team will have a shot at international glory. The elite field for chess’s Candidates Tournament is now set,1 and two American grandmasters have qualified: Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So. The winner will go on to play for the World Chess Championship, the game’s pinnacle title, and the probability that it will be either Caruana or So is about 30 percent. An American hasn’t won a world championship since Bobby Fischer did in 1972.

The Candidates Tournament, a 14-game double round robin, will take place March 10-28 in Berlin. The winner challenges the reigning world champion and world No. 1, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, in a one-on-one, 12-game match for the title later next year. (The date and location of that match have not yet been announced.) Carlsen successfully defended his title in a tense match last year in New York City; he’s been world champion since 2013.

Who is likely to be next to challenge the champ? Using the eight candidates’ most recent Elo ratings, I simulated a million hypothetical Candidates Tournaments and tallied the winners. Here are each player’s chances of winning the tournament based on those simulations:

Candidates Tournament simulations
PLAYER WORLD RANK CHANCE OF WINNING
🇦🇲 Levon Aronian 2 21.2%
🇺🇸 Fabiano Caruana 3 17.6
🇦🇿 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 3 17.6
🇺🇸 Wesley So 6 12.3
🇷🇺 Vladimir Kramnik 7 11.9
🇨🇳 Ding Liren 10 8.4
🇷🇺 Alexander Grischuk 11 6.9
🇷🇺 Sergey Karjakin 13 4.2

Based on 1 million tournament simulations using Elo ratings for each player.

Sources: 2700chess.com, author’s analysis

It’s a wide open race: Five players have a better than 10 percent chance of winning the tournament and challenging Carlsen. At the top, Levon Aronian, the world No. 2, has a roughly one-in-five shot. At the bottom, Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, the runner-up in the 2016 World Chess Championship, has a roughly 4 percent chance. The most notable absence from the field is the world No. 5, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, who narrowly missed qualifying on a few different fronts.

Both of the Americans in the field transferred to the American team — Caruana from Italy and So from the Philippines. They are now the flagships of a broader movement, fueled by money and imported talent, to make American chess great again. Caruana has roughly an 18 percent chance and So a 12 percent chance of winning Candidates. In the 2016 Candidates, Caruana missed winning by a single point. This will be So’s first Candidates.

You don’t need to wait until March to watch these grandmasters do battle, however. Caruana and So are slated to play in two major tuneup tournaments: the London Chess Classic next month and Tata Steel in the Netherlands in January. Many of the candidates will be sparring there — alongside Carlsen himself — before they head to Berlin.

Read more: American Chess Is Great Again

Footnotes

  1. The eight grandmasters qualified via a few chess-world paths: the official ratings lists, the just-completed FIDE Grand Prix, the Chess World Cup and an organizer’s wild-card selection. The runner-up in last year’s World Chess Championship also qualifies.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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