Tata Steel Chess: Carlsen puts the brakes on Firouzja

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
1/22/2020 – Fabiano Caruana became the sole leader of the Tata Steel Masters after Magnus Carlsen took down former co-leader Alireza Firouzja in a highly anticipated match-up between the world champion and the 16-year-old. Carlsen is now one of four players trailing the leader by a half point. In the meantime, David Anton and Erwin l'Ami caught up with Pavel Eljanov in the lead of the Challengers. Expert analysis by GMs CONSTANTIN LUPULESCU and YANNICK PELLETIER. | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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Outplayed by the champ

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.

A lot has been said about Alireza Firouzja's performance at his first appearance in the traditional tournament of Wijk aan Zee. After eight rounds he was sharing the lead, having beaten the likes of Vladislav Artemiev and Anish Giri. But the toughest challenge was yet to come, as he was paired up against world champion Magnus Carlsen in round nine. It was their first classical encounter. Would the youngster continue to amaze by breaking the champ's streak? Or would Carlsen show who's boss when it mattered the most?

In the end, the Norwegian prevailed, outplaying his opponent from a complex middlegame position. The loss does not discredit Firouzja's performance, however, as this is literally the first time he finds himself facing a line-up made up mostly of 2700+ players. Moreover, the youngster will get a chance to show what he is made of in round ten, when he will have the black pieces against sole leader Fabiano Caruana. Perhaps the fact that he lost the lead against the strongest player in the world will alleviate the pressure, allowing him to show his best chess against the world number two.

Alireza Firouzja, Magnus Carlsen

We will see these two facing each other multiple times in the future — Alireza Firouzja and Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Alina l'Ami

Carlsen's strategy in the opening worked to perfection, as he later explained that he was striving to keep most pieces on the board. Slowly but surely, the world champion showed his class by executing accurate plans while his opponent had trouble finding his way in the midst of a highly strategic battle. Much like in his previous win over Nikita Vitiugov, it was not a one-move tactical oversight what provoked Carlsen's opponent to collapse:


As Constantin Lupulescu mentions (see full annotations below), Firouzja's plan to take the knight to e3 after 20.f1 is not really effective, as the piece would defend more effectively from a3 after 20.♘b1. By this point, White's position was quite uncomfortable nonetheless, but the plan suggested by Lupulescu seems to give him better chances.

After the text, Carlsen continued to put pressure on his young rival, until pragmatically finishing him off with a series of exchanges:


Firouzja resigned after 38...xf2+ 39.xf2 xf1, as 40.♔xf1 ♝xd2 41.♗xe5 can be responded with 41...♝c3, and Black wins. Coming from a slow start, in which he drew seven games in a row — mostly from inferior positions — Carlsen was visibly happy after this victory. He quipped:

I'm very happy, obviously. As happy as you can be beating a 16-year-old and moving to 'plus two' in round nine.

The seven-time winner of the elite tournament in Wijk aan Zee also pointed out that he is still in contention for first place:

Now I'm only half a point behind with four rounds to go, so the math suggests that I'm a candidate [to win the event].

The Norwegian will face an out-of-form Vladislav Kovalev with White in round ten. Will a third win in a row leave him tied for first before the final sprint? We'll have to wait and see. For now, we can enjoy Lupulescu's annotations of what in fact was the only decisive game of the day:


Portrait - Magnus Carlsen

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We just mentioned the fact that Kovalev has not shown his best form in Wijk this year. He was alone in the cellar of the standings table before taking advantage of Jeffery Xiong's strange handling of a clearly better position, and on Tuesday he found himself defending an inferior position with the white pieces from as early as move 10. Jorden van Foreest approached the opening creatively, going for a line that gave up his queen from the get go. Oddly enough, however, Kovalev chose a different path:  


In the post-game interview, Van Foreest explained that his rival was only prepared to face 9...♛a5 and not the Dutchman's 9...dxe5 (see diagram). Given the unorthodox nature of the position, Kovalev spent almost half an hour here, and instead of opting for 10.♘e6 ♝xe6 11.♖xd8 ♜xd8 he played the incorrect 10.f3, allowing 10...bd7, when Black is already in the driver's seat.

Van Foreest had a strong initiative and seemed to be en route to get a win that would leave him tied with Caruana atop the standings, but he failed to correctly assess the potential endgames that might arise. Credit must be given to Kovalev for his stubborn defence, which led to the game ending in a draw, as there was no way for Black to break his opponent's fortress:


Black captured White's last queenside pawn before the time control was reached and tried to break this fortress position for over 30 moves. But to no avail. Kovalev saved the half point and Van Foreest missed his chance to go into the final four rounds sharing the lead.


Vladislav Kovalev, Jorden van Foreest

A game to keep an eye on — Vladislav Kovalev v Jorden van Foreest | Photo: Alina l'Ami

Vladislav Artemiev and Jan-Krzysztof Duda also failed to make the most of superior positions, as they ended up drawing their games with Yu Yangyi and Jeffery Xiong respectively. Constantin Lupulescu analysed these games, praising in both cases the resilience shown by the players defending with the black pieces. The remaining three draws finished after 31 moves or fewer, with Vishy Anand the first one calling it a day — an understandable decision, given how disappointed he might have been after having missed a huge chance to take down Caruana in the previous round. 


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

Vladislav Artemiev, Jeroen van den Berg

Vladislav Artemiev chatting with star organizer Jeroen van den Berg | Photo: Alina l'Ami

In the Challengers, the fight to get a spot in next year's Masters continues to heat up. Top seed David Anton and local favourite Erwin l'Ami won key match-ups to catch Pavel Eljanov in the lead on 6 out of 9 points. L'Ami defeated Rauf Mamedov, while Anton got the better of Nils Grandelius. Much like Carlsen, Anton started slowly and is now rising through the ranks with two consecutive wins in rounds eight and nine. The Spaniard will be facing co-leader Eljanov on Wednesday in what will surely be the highlight of the day in "Group B".

Round 9 games - Challengers


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

Erwin l'Ami, Anish Giri

A Dutch meeting — Erwin l'Ami might face Anish Giri in next year's Masters section | Photo: Alina l'Ami

Round-up show

GM Yannick Pelletier reviews the action of the day

Standings after Round 9 - Masters


Standings after Round 9 - 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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