It wasn't quite the London Candidates in 2013, but the last round of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee had more drama than one might have expected. Entering the round Magnus Carlsen led Anish Giri by half a point, with three other players - Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ding Liren - another half a point behind. There was the potential for a five-way tie for first, but that couldn't happen, could it? It almost did.
One of the first games to finish was Radoslaw Wojtaszek vs. Giri, and there was never any question of Giri's winning that battle. Wojtaszek had a slight edge against Giri's Gruenfeld, and if anything he could have made his opponent sweat more than he did.
In the meantime, his three pursuers all won their games and caught up with him. Wesley So demolished Loek van Wely, but it seems to me that was more van Wely's doing than So's. The latter's plan from moves 16 to 18 surrendered his trumps while practically begging So to go on the attack. So did, and it was very effective.
Vachier-Lagrave had a bigger fish to fry, the (now barely) world's #2 player Fabiano Caruana. MVL played a Najdorf and found a nice pawn sac against the 6.h3 e5 7.Nde2 system, and it worked like a charm. A couple of years ago Caruana lost something like five games in a row to the Najdorf, and it would seem from this game that he hasn't quite gotten it figured out just yet.
The third member of the triumvirate, Ding Liren, also won, also with Black against the previous (pre-Caruana) world's #2 player, Levon Aronian. Aronian used the trendy Makagonov against the King's Indian, but this time the Makagonov had gone off the rails. White was losing before move 20, and while Aronian played it out for a long time he never came close to saving it.
So that left only the world champion. With a draw (or of course, a win) against Ivan Saric he would win the tournament, and with the white pieces against a rival rated 200 points below him how hard could this be? As it turned out, surprisingly hard. Saric was comfortably better well into the game and had some advantage even past move 30, but figuring out to make a serious dent in Carlsen's defense proved too difficult. Eventually Carlsen reached safety and briefly had an advantage of his own. Both players were a little inaccurate near the end of the time control, and a couple of moves later the draw was obvious. It was an excellent tournament for Carlsen: he won, he gained rating points, and had a six-game winning streak that included victories over Caruana and Aronian. But with four players just half a point behind - and three of the four younger than him (MVL is a month older) - there's reason to hope that there will be a fight for the #1 spot in the world in the not-too-distant future.
In the other games, Hou Yifan and Vasil Ivanchuk drew uneventfully, while the game that I thought would be an uneventful draw turned out to be anything but. Baadur Jobava outfought and finally defeated Teimour Radjabov on the white side of a King's Indian that turned into a sort of Benko Gambit. Early on Radjabov stood better and may have been winning at one moment, but once Black allowed White's a-pawn to start moving it was Jobava who enjoyed the better chances. I'm impressed that Jobava had the gumption to fight his way to victory - not many players would have a lot of heart after losing nine games out of 12.
The games, with my comments, are here, and these are the final standings:
- 1. Carlsen 9 (out of 13)
- 2-5. Vachier-Lagrave, Giri, So, Ding Liren 8.5
- 6. Ivanchuk 7.5
- 7. Caruana 7
- 8. Radjabov 6
- 9-10. Wojtaszek, Aronian 5.5
- 11. Hou Yifan 5
- 12. Saric 4.5
- 13. van Wely 4
- 14. Jobava 3
In the Challengers' group Wei Yi entered the last round a point ahead of David Navara, but with the black pieces against fellow GM Salem Saleh, who was riding a three-game winning streak, he was by no means assured of tournament victory. Indeed, Navara won quickly against David Klein, while Saleh had an edge against the tournament leader. Like Carlsen against Saric, Wei Yi defended well and didn't allow things to get out of control, and eventually he managed to hold a draw and claim clear first. That means he will be invited to the top group next year, and given his current rate of improvement who knows how strong he'll be by then!
By defeating Anne Haast Sam Shankland took clear third in the tournament with 9/13, a point behind Navara and a point and a half behind Wei Yi. For Carlsen, nine points was enough to win the top section; here, incredibly, it made Shankland almost an afterthought, despite his outstanding performance. Robin van Kampen defeated Valentina Gunina to take fourth with 8.5, Sam Sevian beat Jan Timman (who again played some bizarre chess) to tie with Saleh for fifth-sixth with 7.5, and the day's other winner was Erwin l'Ami (against Ari Dale).