The first super-tournament of the year is approaching the halfway point, and after six of 13 rounds three players share the lead in the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee: Fabiano Caruana (the early leader, who has been caught), Ding Liren, and Magnus Carlsen. All three players have +2 scores; let's see how they got there.
Round 1 was a success story for the American entrants in the field. Wesley So won convincingly against Anish Giri, while Caruana won - less convincingly - again Pavel Eljanov. Caruana's compensation for a pawn sacrificed in the opening was sketchy at best, but the pressure of his sustained initiative led Eljanov to make some serious errors near the end of the first time control. The round's third victor was Ding Liren, who won a pawn and ground out a victory against Michael Adams in a rook and knight endgame with all the pawns on the kingside. Of the draws, Hou Yifan was much better and probably winning against Sergey Karjakin, and Loek van Wely had excellent chances against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
In round 2 all seven games were drawn, including the marquee matchup between Carlsen and Caruana. Carlsen had an advantage early on, but it quickly dissipated. Perhaps the best chance anyone had for a win came in the Hou-So game: Hou had an extra pawn but no obvious way to take advantage of it.
Round 3 saw two decisive games: Caruana-Adams and Mamedyarov-Eljanov. Caruana was a bit worse almost through the first time control, and even once it had been made he was only slightly better. Everything went wrong for Adams in the second time control, however, and Caruana became the sole leader with 2.5/3. As for the other game, Mamedyarov was much better throughout and well on his way to a deserved victory. In fact, Eljanov's position was nearly resignable when Mamedyarov hung his rook for absolutely nothing. In general, Mamedyarov is a player who is blessed with "good luck", but not this time.
The round also produced the first game of what could turn into a historic rivalry between Wei Yi and Carlsen; this time there was no winner nor anyone who could bemoan any serious missed chances. David Navara, by contrast, should have beaten Giri, while the other three draws were relatively free of drama.
Round 4 was the last one prior to the tournament's first rest day, and like the first round it produced three winners. Hou Yifan stopped coming close to winning and finally did win a game - handily - against Navara. Eljanov parlayed his good fortune in the previous round into a second straight win, this time over van Wely. Van Wely faltered in an equal but complicated position due to time pressure, and not for the last time in the tournament. Winner #3 was Sergey Karjakin, who rolled up Evgeny Tomashevsky in almost embarrassing fashion. When was the last time you saw a super-GM so dominated in a final position? As for the draws, Wei Yi and especially Caruana had very good winning chances against Adams and Giri, respectively, despite having the black pieces.
In round 5 Carlsen finally "woke up", though it could have turned out disastrously. An interesting but reasonably calm game with van Wely blew up when Carlsen tried the extravagant 21...Ng4!? 22.Bxg7 Kxg8 23.f3 Qg5?!? Objectively the sac was dubious at best, and it was clear from the subsequent play that Carlsen hadn't worked everything out - not even close. With a 200-point rating advantage and a big lead on the clock, however, Carlsen decided to take a risk to get his tournament going. Van Wely played well at first, but very short on time missed a clear forced win (29.Qh4+ wins the exchange at the very least), then lost the thread and finally blundered in an already lost position.
Mamedyarov finally won a game, taking advantage of tournament tailender Adams' terrible form. The other winner was Ding Liren, who moved into a tie for first by beating Karjakin. Karjakin had singlehandedly defeated the Chinese team in a Russia-China summit last year, but the story in early 2016 is being written differently.
And now, at last, round 6 - today's round. The concept of the "hot hand" in sports has been widely rejected by statisticians (though there has been some recent pushback against that rejection), but it seems to me that there are chess players for whom confidence makes a colossal difference. Bobby Fischer was one of them, and Magnus Carlsen is another. There have been numerous tournaments in recent years where he has struggled and failed to win a game for several rounds, and then once he wins one game more wins follow in rapid succession. That happened at the end of the London Chess Classic, and it's starting to happen here. A lucky but deserved win* over van Wely was followed by a speedy victory over Tomashevsky. The sequence 16.f4 exf4 17.Rf1 was very attractive, but even so Tomashevsky was alright until he played 20...Ne4. Had he traded on d4 first he would have been okay; omitting the trade, he wound with a horrid structure that Carlsen had no trouble exploiting.
(* Deserved because he took a reasonable, calculated risk that put van Wely under strong pressure to go along with his difficulties on the clock; lucky because van Wely did obtain a winning advantage, and was only one) good (and not particularly amazing) move from converting it into a sure victory.
Giri finally won a game, defeating Mamedyarov, and the remaining games were drawn. Two were especially interesting: So-Caruana and Hou Yifan - Wei Yi. Both games featured opponents from the same country, and in both cases the player with the white pieces enjoyed serious winning chances in a long game, though it's not clear that either So or Hou missed a clear win at any point.
Round 7 is tomorrow, and here are the pairings:
- Navara (2.5) - Karjakin (3)
- Caruana (4) - Ding Liren (4)
- Wei Yi (3) - So (3.5)
- Mamedyarov (2.5) - Hou Yifan (3.5)
- van Wely (2) - Giri (3)
- Tomashevsky (2) - Adams (1.5)
- Eljanov (3.5) - Carlsen (4)
A brief note about the Challengers' section: Alexey Dreev and Baskaran Adhiban share the lead with undefeated 5/6 scores, and Eltaj Safarli is just half a point behind. For those who are interested I found two games especially interesting from today's play: Admiraal-Sevian and Van Foreest-Abasov.