Tata Steel Masters: Firouzja sole leader

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
1/19/2020 – 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja continues to stun as he defeated Jeffery Xiong to take the sole lead of the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee. Fabiano Caruana and Jorden van Foreest also grabbed full points and are now sharing second place with Wesley So on 4½ out of 7. In the Challengers, only Nihal Sarin got a win in round seven, which means Pavel Eljanov is still first on 5 points. Do not miss the thorough analyses sent by GM DANIEL FERNANDEZ and the round-up video by IM LAWRENCE TRENT. | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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A speedy ascent

The 82nd edition of the chess festival in Wijk aan Zee takes place from January 11th to 26th. The Masters and the Challengers are both 14-player single round robins. Rounds start at 12:30 UTC, except January 16th in Eindhoven, when it starts 30 minutes later.

The quick progress Alireza Firouzja showed in the last couple of years made it clear that we were in the presence of a highly talented chess player, but having him as the sole leader of the Masters section in Wijk aan Zee is still surprising news. Firozuja has won all four of his games with White at the Dutch coastal city and has lost only to Wesley So. His performance has gained him 15.7 rating points, leaving him in 19th place of the live ratings list.

The last player to make as much noise at such an early age was Wei Yi, who seemed to be en route to become a regular among the elite but has stumbled to make steady progress lately. Only time will tell if Firouzja lives up to the expectations, but winning his inaugural Tata Steel Masters would certainly leave a mark — one that might become the first step on a road of remarkable successes.

When asked about his chances to get the title, the ever-smiling Firouzja chose to point out the fact that he still needs to face two world champions in the coming rounds, a prospect he was visibly looking forward to.

Alireza Firouzja, Magnus Carlsen, Jeffery Xiong

Checking out a future challenger? — Magnus Carlsen watching Alireza Firouzja playing White against Jeffery Xiong | Photo: Alina l'Ami

His latest victim was Jeffery Xiong, who lost for a second time in three rounds after having started off on the right foot — he beat Jorden van Foreest in round two. White was the one putting pressure out of the opening, and on move 25 Xiong set the tone for the rest of the game by choosing to defend passively instead of giving way to a sharp struggle on the kingside:


Black created a permanent weakness and blocked his light-squared bishop with 25...f5. From this point on, Firouzja showed he can successfully turn the screws in strategically superior positions until getting a 68-move victory. In the diagrammed position, however, Black could have opted for 25...g5, when after 26.fxg5 fxg5 27.♘f3 g4 Black gets some activity and a chance to muddy the waters.

Grandmaster Daniel Fernandez analysed the game in full, not only pointing out the critical variations of the encounter but also showing an interesting sideline, championed by Luke McShane, that White can use in this opening:


Post-game interview with Alireza Firouzja

Another youngster that is drawing the attention of spectators and commentators alike is Jorden van Foreest. The lowest rated player in the field is one of three players chasing the leader a half point back, and in fact could have been easily sharing first with Firouzja had he taken advantage of a clearly better position against Carlsen in round four. Not only that: Van Foreest also became the first player to score a victory with Black (in round seven!) at this year's Masters.

The Dutchman defeated Nikita Vitiugov using the French Defence. The Russian made a strange decision on move 10:


The most obvious way to go here is 10.♗e3, protecting the all-important d4-square in typical French-Defence style. Instead, Vitiugov opted for 10.d3, allowing 10...xd4 11.xd4 cxd4, when Black quickly gained the upper hand.

Van Foreest somehow lost the thread during the conversion of his advantage when the time control was approaching, but nonetheless managed to keep enough of an edge until finally scoring the full point. The 20-year-old will have the white pieces against the leader on Sunday — will he take the top spot with a win over the tournament sensation?


Nikita Vitiugov, Jorden van Foreest

Nikita Vitiugov was worse from the start against Jorden van Foreest | Photo: Alina l'Ami

Two household names share second place with 2644-rated Van Foreest — Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana. The latter scored his second victory of the event against Daniil Dubov. Out of a Sicilian Rossolimo, the challenger to the 2018 World Championship correctly gave up a pawn for the initiative. In a struggle that, according to Caruana himself, was balanced throughout the middlegame, the American kept putting pressure on his opponent, who at some point could have given back the material to ease his defensive task:


As Daniel Fernandez notes on his annotations (see full game below), "One of the biggest dangers in such positions is not knowing what you are playing for. If Black had been fine with a draw at this point then the freeing 24...a5 25.♗xa5 ♜a8 26.♗b4 e6 would probably have come to mind". Instead, Dubov opted for 24...a6, only to see how White later used the a5-square as a very effective blockading spot.

Caruana showed his class and got the win after 79 moves. He confessed:

I struggled to sort of break through in the last few games — made a bunch of draws — so this win doesn't put me in the lead [...] but it still keeps me in a good position.


Fabiano Caruana, Daniil Dubov

Fabiano Caruana v Daniil Dubov | Photo: Alina l'Ami

In the clash between Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion found himself defending a pawn down after missing a tactic on move 25. For the Norwegian, having collected seven draws is not the tragedy — it is the way in which he got the half points that seems to worry him:

The problem is mostly that I'm playing awful chess. I would be okay with the draws if I was playing okay, but right now mostly I'm concerned about the fact that things are not working so well in my game.

This draw and the remaining three games that finished peacefully were also analysed by Fernandez:


All games of the Masters available at Live.Chessbase.com

Meanwhile, in the Challengers, six out of seven games ended up drawn on Saturday. The winner of the day was Nihal Sarin, who took down Dinara Saduakassova with White. This means Pavel Eljanov is still alone atop the standings table, followed by Surya Shekhar Ganguly and Erwin l'Ami — the two players on 4½ out of 7 are paired up against each other in round eight, with Ganguly having the white pieces in the key match-up.

Round 7 games - Challengers


All games of the Challengers available at Live.Chessbase.com

Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2020

Chess is in the air | Photo: Alina l'Ami

Round-up show

IM Lawrence Trent reviews the action of the day

Standings after Round 7 - Masters


Standings after Round 7 - Challengers



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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