In the famous 1999 edition of the Wijk aan Zee tournament, Garry Kasparov had a seven-game winning streak that included what may be his most famous game ever, his attacking gem against Veselin Topalov. Amazingly, he rated his later win over Peter Svidler even more highly, which shows what great form he was in. His play in the tournament was lauded as one of his best ever results, and it was the first of a long series of super-tournament wins for the then-world champion. One can pile on the praise, but what's generally forgotten about that event is that Viswanathan Anand finished only half a point behind the winner, and he - unlike Kasparov - went undefeated.
I bring this up because something similar is happening this time around. Magnus Carlsen has been leading the current edition for quite a while now, thanks to a six-game winning streak, and he has elevated his already stratospheric rating even higher. But meanwhile, almost as if in the distant background, Wesley So is just half a point behind. As in the 1999 tournament, the leader has lost one game while the runner-up has gone undefeated, and the leader's title, rating, streak and presence has sucked up most of the attention. But it's a close competition, and as the current tournament has two rounds yet to go it isn't over yet. (And as we saw in the Qatar Masters, having a six-game winning streak doesn't guarantee first place - just ask Anish Giri and Vladimir Kramnik.)
So was a point back entering the round, but he cut the gap in half by beating Ivan Saric in what was to me a rather strange game. Saric played a sideline of the Zaitsev Ruy with Black, but even though there wasn't too much theory to master (at least relatively speaking) he seemed unprepared for So's 18th move. His initial reaction was correct, but on his 20th move he played a novelty that left him clearly worse and living on the edge, and his 23rd move lost a piece to a short combination.
Carlsen had White against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and had the pleasure of playing not one but two lines against the latter's Gruenfeld! (It started out as a 7.Be3 Classical line, only to transpose six moves later into the 7.Nf3 + 8.Rb1 variation.) Carlsen got a good position and started to outplay his opponent, but despite winning a pawn he couldn't manage to push him over the edge.
Anish Giri defeated his countryman Loek van Wely on the white side of a Pirc. Giri found some nice tactical ideas, and even though one of them made his life more difficult than it needed to be, he was in control pretty much throughout the game and was a deserved winner. That put him into a tie for third place with Vachier-Lagrave, half a point behind So.
Ding Liren is also in that third place tie after an absolute gift from Radoslaw Wojtaszek. Wojtaszek was better throughout (though maybe never quite winning), and pressing for hour after hour. Had he played g4 on move 59 or 60 he would have kept some winning chances, but after that he needed to show a little caution. Unfortunately, he uncorked the blunder 62.Bb7??, forgetting that Black could have ideas too (this is psychologically understandable when all the winning chances have been yours for the past four hours), and after 62...b5 the game was essentially over. Wojtaszek played three more moves, but there was nothing to be done. Chess can be cruel!
The day's last winner was Hou Yifan. That was her first win of the tournament, and if you've been following the events you can probably guess who her opponent was...Baadur Jobava. He's having the tournament of his life, in a bad way, with just 1.5 points out of 11, and has lost 35.7 rating points and dropped 25 spots on the rating list. Today he was worse but not lost in a queen and bishop ending, but that changed when he blundered the bishop to a simple fork on move 39.
In the department of draws, Levon Aronian was had an enduring edge against Vasil Ivanchuk but couldn't reel him in, while Fabiano Caruana couldn't make anything out of his small edge against Teimour Radjabov.
- van Wely (3.5) - Jobava (1.5)
- Radjabov (5.5) - Hou Yifan (4)
- Ivanchuk (6.5) - Caruana (6.5)
- Vachier-Lagrave (7) - Aronian (5)
- Ding Liren (7) - Carlsen (8)
- Saric (3) - Wojtaszek (5)
- Giri (7) - So (7.5)
There are two huge games there, and the chase pack really needs to see a win by Ding Liren as Carlsen will have White against Saric in the last round.
In the Challengers' group it was Wei Yi's turn to pull ahead. The 15-year-old has 9/11 after defeating Bart Michiels, half a point better than David Navara, who could only draw against Valentina Gunina. Sam Shankland won his game with David Klein to take sole possession of third place, half a point ahead of Robin van Kampen (who lost to Salem Saleh) and Vladimir Potkin, who won in bizarre style against Jan Timman.
Timman had to defend a long time, but finally reached a relatively comfortable position with rook and pawn against rook and bishop. Maybe Potkin would eventually win the pawn and reach rook and bishop vs. rook, but while players do sometimes win that ending Timman is a great endgame expert who was writing articles on that ending before Potkin was even born. But see for yourself what happened, starting from the position after Timman's 73rd move. Everything is healthy, and then he plays 74...Kd6-c7 and 75...Kc7-d8, which is absurd and then some, and then there's the insane 76...Re6?? to cap it all off. Assuming this actually happened and isn't a DGT error on steroids, all I can come up with was that Timman thought that 77.Bxe6 would be stalemate. But really, the whole thing is nuts, and I hope someone who was at the tournament today or has read an eyewitness report can shed some light on this.