Tata Steel Chess R5: Ju upsets Firouzja, Roebers stuns Niemann

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
1/19/2024 – Ju Wenjun, in the Masters, and Eline Roebers, in the Challengers, obtained remarkable wins over much higher-rated opponents in round 5 of the Tata Steel Chess Festival. Ju defeated an overly ambitious Alireza Firouzja, while Roebers patiently made the most of a positional advantage in her game against top seed Hans Niemann. Firouzja’s loss allowed Anish Giri to go into round 6 with a full-point lead, while Erwin l’Ami is the sole leader in the Challengers. | Photo: Tata Steel Chess Tournament / Jurriaan Hoefsmit

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An underrated world champion?

It was a memorable day for women’s world champion Ju Wenjun. The soft-spoken star obtained the biggest win of her career in round 5 of the Tata Steel Masters — Ju, who has a 2549 rating, defeated the 2759-rated Alireza Firouzja with the white pieces.

This is not the first time that the Chinese star beats a much stronger opponent. In May last year, she stunned a 2731-rated Vidit Gujrathi in round 2 of the Sharjah Masters. Much like Vidit, Firouzja will play in the upcoming Candidates Tournament in Toronto — i.e. these are not only very high-rated players, but also fighting competitors capable of outscoring elite colleagues when it matters most.

Such wins have prompted pundits to wonder whether Ju is heavily underrated, especially given the fact that she often plays in women’s tournaments. Fiona Steil-Antoni asked the world champion what she thought about this hypothesis, to which she replied that perhaps her playing level is, in fact, a bit above her rating. She also noted, however, that the difference between her level and that of most of her rivals in this event is certainly significant.

This was Ju’s first victory in the event. In round 2, she had obtained another remarkable result, as she had held Ian Nepomniachtchi to a draw in a fighting, 80-move encounter.

In the game, Firouzja replied to 1.d4 with 1...e6, allowing Ju to enter the French Defence with 2.e4. Understandably, the underdog chose to play the solid Exchange Variation.

Normal play would have led to a draw in most games involving two grandmasters, but Firouzja apparently thought that he could eventually outplay his opponent as he, more than once, rejected going for the most natural, simplifying continuations. An example of this attitude was seen on move 23.

Since the position is already simplified, Black already needs to be careful here due to his inferior structure with doubled pawns on the c-file.

The straightforward 23...Bxf3 would have almost certainly led to a draw, but Firouzja played 23...Qf7 instead, when White can reply by 24.Ng5, and the endgame reached after 24...Qg6 25.Qxg6 Bxg6 26.Rxe2 h6 27.Nf3 leaves Black with a tough defensive task ahead.

Granted, it is possible that Firouzja simply missed Nf3-g5 in the first diagrammed position. But also, perhaps he would have been more careful in calculating the consequences of not exchanging the minor pieces had he been facing a higher-rated opponent.

Notwithstanding, Ju still needed good technique to convert the advantage into a win. A couple of imprecisions close to the time control meant she had to work extra hard to get the full point, but she never lost the initiative and went on to get the job done at the end of the day.

Firouzja resigned the game in the following position.

Going into the fifth round, Firouzja stood in sole second place a half point behind Anish Giri. Since Giri managed to draw Praggnanandhaa R. on Thursday, he now has a full-point lead over a 4-player chasing pack consisting of Firouzja, Pragg, Wei Yi and Nodirbek Abdusattorov.

Giri had the black pieces against an excellently prepared Pragg, who lamented not having made the most of his chances in the game. When asked about whether he is ‘saving’ opening lines for the Candidates, the Indian prodigy responded that he is not hiding preparation in Wijk aan Zee, as there are still three months to go before the Candidates.

Pragg’s compatriot Gukesh D., who also qualified to the Candidates, did make the most of his chances in round 5. After collecting back-to-back losses in the previous two games, Gukesh defeated Nepomniachtchi with the white pieces, thus returning to a fifty-percent score (as he had obtained a win over Wei in round 2).

All remaining games ended drawn on Thursday.

Results - Round 5

Gukesh 1 - 0 Nepomniachtchi

Analysis by GM Karsten Müller

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Gukesh

Gukesh D. will face Ian Nepomniachtchi again in the upcoming Candidates Tournament | Photo: Tata Steel Chess Tournament / Lennart Ootes

Standings after round 5

All games

Challengers: L’Ami sole leader, Roebers beats Niemann

It was a great day for women’s chess and also for the Dutch representatives. Much like Ju in the Masters, 17-year-old Eline Roebers grabbed the biggest win of her career in the fifth round, as she beat top seed Hans Niemann to recover from a disappointing start. Meanwhile, 38-year-old Erwin l’Ami, a long-time second of Anish Giri, became the sole leader of the Challengers after collecting a third win in a row.

Roebers played sound, positional chess — albeit not without mistakes — to beat Niemann’s Caro-Kann Defence. 42...Nd5 by the U.S. grandmaster simply gave up a piece in what already was a tough position for him.

There followed 43.Bxd5 Rxd6 44.cxd6 Qxd6, and the white bishop is pinned to the queen. This recourse is not enough to recover the piece, though, as White counts with 45.g4

Roebers emerged a knight up and went on to convert her material advantage into a memorable 56-move victory.

Roebers was one of the six players who scored full points in the Challengers. Saleh Salem, Mustafa Yilmaz, Marc’Andria Maurizzi, Erwin l’Ami and Leon Luke Mendonca also obtained wins in the fifth round.

In round 6, sole leader L’Ami will face Anton Korobov — who stands in sole second place a half point back — in a duel between the two most experienced players of the event. Another enticing confrontation will be the one facing 20-year-old Niemann against current junior world champion Maurizzi.

Results - Round 5

Maurizzi 1 - 0 Santos

Analysis by GM Karsten Müller

Marc'Andria Maurizzi

According to Praggnanandhaa, Marc’Andria Maurizzi was the strongest player (out of the tournaments’ participants) in Wednesday’s football game | Photo: Tata Steel Chess Tournament / Jurriaan Hoefsmit

Standings after round 5

All games

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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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