Tata Steel Challengers: Kovalev out in front

by Macauley Peterson
1/26/2019 – Vladislav Kovalev has won three in a row and takes a half point lead into Sunday's final round. Maksim Chigaev and Andrey Esipenko remain undefeated and a half point back. But Kovalev has the easiest pairing in Round 13 — White against the bottom seed Stefan Kuipers — while the young Russians both have Black against tougher opponents. We take a closer look at the past week in the Challengers. | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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Russian newcomers give chase

Three Wijk aan Zee rookies are at the top of the Challengers leader board — two from Russia, one from Belarus. The average age between them is a mere 21 years and through ten rounds of play, they collectively amassed 21½ points. Two rounds later the trio of Kovalev, Chigaev and Esipenko has 26 points and are virtually certain to finish in the top three spots. The only question is, in which order. Kovalev is not only leading, he also has the best Sonneborn-Berger score, which will be the decisive tiebreak criteria, since the three players have drawn their games against each other. He is clearly in the sweet spot with White against Stefan Kuipers, the bottom seed in last place. A draw should be enough, but even a freak accident would put the pressure on his Russian rivals to win with Black.

Standings after Round 12


Vladislav Kovalev is by far the strongest player from Belarus, and also the youngest in the top ten nationally. He won the prestigious Aeroflot Open in 2018 and was invited to the Dortmund super-tournament as a result, where he turned in a strong performance, undefeated with a win over Anish Giri. After Saturday's win in Wijk aan Zee, he has just barely cracked 2700 for the first time.

By the end of play in Friday's Round 11, Maxim Chigaev was tied for the lead with Kovalev on 8/11. But their ascent is largely thanks to one round earlier.

To win a tournament, you not only have to play well, but you also need a little luck, and both Chigaev and Kovalev were very lucky in Round 10. Kovalev was clearly worse against IM Vincent Keymer out of the opening but still managed to win. 


After dubious opening play from Kovalev, White is a pawn up and has a pleasant position. Kovalev deserves some credit for applying constant pressure and eventually provoking a mistake that changes the course of the game:


You can play the moves on the live diagram

It's understandable that Keymer would love to exchange some pieces, but 31.Nc5? was the wrong way. 31...Rae8 and if White exchanges on e6 the e3-pawn will drop. So Keymer tried 32.Rd2 Rf2 33.Ne4 Rg2 but now Black's piece activity more than compensates for the pawn deficit and he's playing for two results. 


An unusual sort of zugzwang. 44.Ka1 Rc3 and White can't avoid losing either the g-pawn or the a-pawn (after Rc2). Kovalev converted with relative ease.

Kovalev and Keymer

Kovalev and Keymer join a long list of talented players whose names start with 'K'! | Photo: Alina l'Ami

Chigaev surged to the lead by scoring 4½/5 from Rounds 6 to 10. In Round 10, down a pawn with Black against Praggnanandhaa, he was able to save himself with a hidden tactical idea in the endgame. Praggnanandhaa lost his bearings and missed a chance to keep the game drawn.


Draws against Anton Korobov and Lucas van Foreest, however, let the lead slip away.


Maxim Chigaev has to win on demand on Sunday to have an outside shot at joining the Masters | Photo: Alina l'Ami

16-year-old Andrey Esipenko has had a hotter hand in the second half. He beat the top seed Anton Korobov — who had been leading — in Round 7, and has scored 5/6 since then.

IM Merijn van Delft focused on this game during his last 'Game of the Week' live webcast: 

Merijn is live at 19:00 UTC (20:00 CET, 2 pm EST)

Esipenko has Black against Evgeny Bareev in Round 13 and he will also have to press for a win to have any chance at an invitation to next year's Masters group.

Results of Round 12


Round 13 pairings


IM Lawrence Trent also made the Challengers group the focus of his most recent Weekly Show:

Lawrence is live most Tuesdays at 18:00 CEST / 5 pm BST time / 12 Noon EDT

All games


Andre Schulz and Johannes Fischer contributed reporting


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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