Tata Steel R8: Esipenko stuns Carlsen, Firouzja grabs the lead

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
1/25/2021 – Alireza Firouzja grabbed the sole lead at the Tata Steel Masters by beating Pentala Harikrishna with the black pieces, but remarkably this was not the most shocking development of round 8 as Andrey Esipenko defeated world champion Magnus Carlsen in their first-ever confrontation in classical chess — Carlsen played aggressively with the black pieces and was duly outplayed by the 18-year-old. With his win, Esipenko joined the four-player chasing pack which also includes Anish Giri, Fabiano Caruana and Jorden van Foreest. | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit – Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

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“I’ll sleep very well today”

It was not the first time the world champion kicked off a classical tournament somewhat disappointingly, but it would have surprised no one if he had suddenly begun to score win after win on his way to yet another tournament triumph. After eight rounds at the Tata Steel Chess tournament, the well-known storyline is less likely to repeat itself this time around, as Magnus Carlsen stands a full point behind leader Alireza Firouzja after losing with the black pieces against Andrey Esipenko.

Esipenko, who has previously expressed great admiration for Carlsen, faced the world champion for the first time in a classical game on Sunday. Perhaps recognizing this as a big chance to start his ascent towards an eighth tournament win in Wijk, Carlsen entered a sharp variation of the Sicilian Najdorf with black. Esipenko did not hesitate to respond with principled play, getting a clear advantage as early as move 14. The 18-year-old kept his nerves from that point on and managed to convert his advantage into a 38-move win. The youngster happily confessed:

I don’t know how I will celebrate, but I’ll sleep very well today.

As Tarjei J. Svensen mentioned on Twitter, this was Carlsen’s sixth loss in the main group of the Tata Steel tournament — an astounding stat if we take into account that this is the 14th time he plays in the ‘A group’ for a total of 177 games! He had not lost a single game in Wijk since 2017 and had not lost to a player rated below 2700 since 2015.

Soon after the loss, the world champion — not one to take losses lightly — quipped on Twitter:

At 18, Esipenko is still a teenager — but he is not the youngest participant in Wijk. The highest-rated junior player in the world is also in the lineup, and he is the sole leader with five rounds to go! 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja defeated Pentala Harikrishna with black to collect his third consecutive victory and go into the second rest day atop the standings table. Note that Firouzja managed to reach the top of the table despite losing in round 1 against Carlsen.

Four players — Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, Jorden van Foreest and Esipenko — stand a half point behind the leader. Fittingly, Firouza will face Esipenko in Tuesday’s ninth round.

Andrey Esipenko

A force to be reckoned with — Andrey Esipenko | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

Beating the champ

The Sicilian Najdorf has been frequently explored throughout the event, and Carlsen did not want to miss on the fun, as he played a sharp variation of the setup looking to get winning chances against his young opponent:


Black’s chosen approach invites White to immediately advance on the kingside with 8.g4 b5 9.g5. Of course, this is still theory, as Esipenko kept blitzing out his moves until his opponent deviated by opting for a questionable queen manoeuvre:


Carlsen went for the aggressive-looking 12…Qh4, but ended up retreating his queen after 13.Rg1 g6 14.0-0-0 with 14…Qe7 — it would have made perfect sense for Black to place his queen on e7 in the diagrammed position.

By this point, commentators thought the world champion needed extreme precision and some luck to hold a draw from this position, given how even a small inaccuracy can lead to massive swings in the evaluation of such sharp positions. At the same time, however, it was not obvious that the youngster would manage to find all the right continuations while facing the strongest player in the world.

But Esipenko never lost the thread. In fact, the Russian talent had no trouble finding a killer tactical shot on move 17:


White has 17.Ncxb5 axb5 and 18.Nxc6, when after 18…Bxc6 there is 19.Qc3 with a double attack against the bishop and the h8-rook. Black needs to continue with 19…0-0, but after 20.Qxc6 it is difficult to imagine him surviving such a dreadful position.

Carlsen tried to complicate matters from that point on, but to no avail. Esipenko continued to find the right manoeuvres at every turn, until getting the full point on move 38.


Magnus Carlsen

Looking for ways to survive — Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

Firouzja’s third straight win

The 17-year-old wunderkind keeps impressing the chess world. On Sunday, he scored his third consecutive win — the fourth so far in Wijk — to become the sole leader with five rounds to go. His remarkable performance has gained him 11.8 rating points, which have prompted him to climb to 14th place in the live ratings list. The sky is the limit for the ever-smiling star.

Against Harikrishna in round 8, Firouzja found himself in a better position out of a rather atypical opening. He later confessed that he felt he was much better throughout the game but also mentioned that converting his advantage in the endgame was “very tough”. 

A pawn sacrifice opened up lines for Black’s bishop pair:


Here White needed to keep the status quo with a move like 37.Rh2, leaving his knight on the nice blockading d3-square. Harikrishna’s 37.Nf4, on the other hand, allowed 37…d3 38.Nxd3 Bd4+ 39.Nf2 Rc2:


Black’s pieces have come alive. Harikrishna continued to put up great resistance — as he had done since the early middlegame — but had to accept defeat once Firouzja’s passed d-pawn reached the third rank.


Alireza Firouzja

Sole leader Alireza Firouzja | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

Round 8 results


Standings after Round 8


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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