Tata Steel R1: Carlsen gambles, beats Firouzja

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
1/17/2021 – Three players are sharing the lead after round 1 in Wijk aan Zee, as Magnus Carlsen, Anish Giri and Nils Grandelius all obtained victories with the white pieces. It was a topsy-turvy win for the world champion, who bravely gave up two pawns to get the better of 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja. Endgame specialist Karsten Müller analysed the rook ending that gave Grandelius the full point against Alexander Donchenko. | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit – Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

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“A typical first-round game”

Despite his magnificent historical record in elite tournaments, Magnus Carlsen tends to need some time to gain momentum at each event — he usually stumbles through the first rounds before turning up the heat. 

This time around, he kicked off the 2021 Tata Steel Chess tournament with a win over wunderkind Alireza Firouzja, but he did so despite, as he put it, “thinking too much and miscalculating” which made for “a typical first-round game”. The Norwegian sacrificed two pawns to get the win, and later commented:

I knew in my heart that once I’d [sacrificed a pawn on d5] I wasn’t going to back down later on and look for equality, so I knew at that point that at least mentally I’d already burned some bridges.

As it usually happens in games of this nature, the computers evaluated the position as advantageous for the side with the material. But for a human to deal with the pressure of finding precise manoeuvres at every turn is a whole different ball game. Carlsen explained:

If there’s something forced for him then it’s impossible to calculate with so little time.

In the end, it was a blunder by Firouzja that gave the world champion the full point and the shared lead going into round 2, as Carlsen was not the only player to kick off the tournament with a victory — Anish Giri and Nils Grandelius also won with the white pieces.

Jorden van Foreest

Jorden van Foreest held a draw against defending champion Fabiano Caruana on opening day | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

Firouzja cracks under pressure

A position was reached after 22 moves in which Carlsen could have chosen to go for a repetition and call it a day — in fact, that might have been a reasonable decision given the length of the tournament.


23.d5 White goes for it.

[23.Re5 Nd7 24.Ra5 Nf6 25.Re5 Most likely, Firouzja would have agreed to repeat the position, getting a draw with black against the world champion in round 1 of a tough event.]

23...exd5 24.e5 Ne4 25.Qd4 Rdc8 26.Raa1 a5 27.Rab1 Bc6 


In order to make the most of the initiative, Carlsen frees a square for his knight by giving up another pawn — 28.e6 fxe6 29.Ne5 Qf6 


Around this point, commentator Peter Leko stated, “I would say [White] is completely winning...if he wasn’t two pawns down”. The game continued 30.f3 Ng5 31.Rb6 Be8 32.Qe3 a4 33.Ng4 Qd8 34.Rxe6 Nxe6 35.Qxe6+ 


White’s position looks menacing, but if Black survives he has an extra pawn — and a very dangerous one at that. But now came the losing blunder: 35...Bf7 and White will break through decisively.

[Black needed to go for 35...Kh8 36.Qf5 Qb6+ including a key intermediate check. 37.Kh1 Bg6 giving up the piece, as after 38.Qxg6 Qxg6 39.Bxg6 a3 the a-pawn is a beast.]

There followed 36.Nxh6+ gxh6 37.Qxh6 Qc7 


Black is busted — 38.Qh7+ Kf8 39.Qh8+ Bg8 40.Qh6+ 1-0


Magnus Carlsen, Alireza Firouzja

17-year-old Alireza Firouzja will have plenty of chances to challenge the world champion’s supremacy | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

A sweet point for Grandelius

Sweden grandmaster Nils Grandelius was paired up against Daniil Dubov’s late replacement Alexander Donchenko in the first round. Grandelius felt he was better in the middlegame, but then found himself struggling for more in a rather balanced position. In the endgame, however, Donchenko blundered into a lost pawn endgame. Grandelius confessed:

The point is very sweet, but it’s so early that I’m mainly looking [at] the quality [of the game].

Endgame specialist Karsten Müller took a closer look at the ending:


All rook endgames are drawn. But over the board it can be very difficult to defend them of course. 36...Rd2? Usually going for activity is a good idea, but this is the wrong way to start.

[After 36...f4! 37.Re1+ Kf5= White’s king is not playing, so it is a clear draw.]

37.Re1+ Kd3 38.Re3+ Kc4 39.f4! h5


[The alternatives 39...Rf2 and 39...Rd3 do not save black] 

[But 39...Rc2!? was worth trying: 40.Rxe6 Kxc3 41.Rxh6 Kxb4 42.Rf6 Kxc5 43.Rxf5+ Kd4 44.h4 Ke4 45.Rf8 b5 46.Kg3 Rc5 47.Re8+ Kd4 48.Rb8 Kc4 49.Kf3 b4 50.g4 Rb5 51.Rxb5 cxb5 52.Ke2! The only winning move. 52...Kc3 53.h5 b3 54.h6 b2 55.h7 b1Q 56.h8Q++-.]



40...Rd3?! The pawn endgame is lost.

41.Rxd3 Kxd3 42.Kh4 Ke3 43.g3 Kf2?! 44.g4 hxg4 45.hxg4 fxg4 46.Kxg4 Ke3 47.Kg5 


47...Ke4 48.Kf6 Kxf4 49.Kxe6 Ke4 50.Kd6 Kd3 51.Kc7 Kxc3 52.Kxb7 Kxb4 53.Kxc6+- 1-0

Check out the full analysis in the replayable board below.


Nils Grandelius

Nils Grandelius | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

Giri beats Tari

Local hero Anish Giri also started with a win. The game followed a line recently played in a confrontation between Hikaru Nakamura and Carlsen. As the world champion had done last year, Aryan Tari gave up a piece on g4:


8...Nxg4 9.hxg4 Bxg4 10.Be3 Be7 At this point, however, Giri improved on Nakamura’s play, placing his king on g2 instead of h1 — 11.Kg2


The Dutchman later confessed that he was very well prepared in this line, although he did not expect to face it against Tari. His good preparation gave him a comfortable position in which it was only a matter of finding a way to break through, as he explained later.


Giri noted that he had a dream setup, as it is better to have a rook — instead of a queen — stuck on h3. In the diagrammed position, Black is busted due to 47.Nxf4+. Tari resigned.


Anish Giri, Aryan Tari

Anish Giri and Aryan Tari in good spirits before the game | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

Round 1 results


Standings after Round 1


All games



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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