One of the big traditions of the storied Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee is the inclusion of “underdogs” competing among the world’s top elite. More often than not this can lead to more exciting play as the top dogs go for the jugular of their less experienced opponents. But sometimes, just sometimes, we can get a Wijk fairytale moment, as witness Sweden’s Nils Grandelius, who is playing the tournament of his life.
In one of the best Swedish performances since the great Ulf Andersson in the 1970s and through the ‘80s, sub-2700 rated Grandelius demolished the Covid-postponed Candidates Tournament co-leader and world #5, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who self-destructed after unwisely opting to press the “gamble button” in a critical moment in the highly-theoretical duel in the Sicilian Najdorf Poisoned Pawn Variation.
And with the only win of the fifth round, underdog Grandelius now snatches the outright lead in the tournament, a half-point ahead of defending champion Fabiano Caruana, Pentala Harikrishna, local hero Anish Giri, and favourite Magnus Carlsen, who is currently stuck in a rut after being held to four successive draws to sub-2700 players that the world champion would hope and expect to beat.
But another Wijk tradition is that the 83rd Tata Steel Masters is a marathon and not a sprint, so much can happen over the remaining eight rounds – but it certainly is going to be interesting to see if Grandelius can hang in there, especially with the super-GM top dogs of Carlsen and Caruana breathing down his neck. The weekend play can turnout to be the most interesting and deciding rounds at Wijk!
1. Nils Grandelius (Sweden) 3½/5; 2-5. Pentala Harikrishna (India), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 3; 6-9. Jorden Van Foreest (Netherlands), Alireza Firouzja (FIDE), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland), Andrey Esipenko (Russia) 2½; 10-13. David Anton (Spain), Aryan Tari (Norway), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) 2; 14. Alexander Donchenko (Germany) 1½.
GM Nils Grandelius – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
83rd Tata Steel Masters, (5)
Sicilian Poisoned Pawn
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 The Bobby Fischer favourite of the Poisoned Pawn Variation, one of the most heavily-analysed variations in chess, with the theory of many of the main lines going deep into 30 or more moves. And in today’s modern game, MVL is the recognised Poisoned Pawn guru – and with it comes the challenge that he can be an easy player to deeply prepare a specialised line for, us happen in this game. 8.Qd2 Qxb2 9.Rb1 Qa3 10.f5 Be7 In the days when Fischer, and then Kasparov played the Poisoned Pawn, the “mainline” used to run 10…Nc6 11.fxe6 fxe6 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.Be2 Be7 14.Rb3 Qa5 15.0-0 Ra7 which, as far as I recall, all seems to be “played out” to a draw after a series of sacrifices from White (and Black). However 10…Be7 is a relatively new approach from Black, who looks to try and keep a little life in the position. 11.fxe6 Bxe6 12.Nxe6 fxe6 13.Bc4 This has become something of a speciality of China’s former teenage star Wei Yi. 13…Nbd7 14.Bxe6 Nc5 15.Bb3!? Previously seen before in a few correspondence games, this is something of an over-the-board novelty from Grandelius, who obviously had this well-prepared in case MVL played the Poisoned Pawn. Instead, 15.Bf5 has been played before, and 15.Bc4!? was a novelty that Caruana successfully uncorked against MVL in the 2019 Altibox Norway Chess – and once again, the Frenchman gets demolished by a further new idea on the same move. 15…Rc8 Useless is 15…Nxb3? 16.Rxb3 Qc5 17.Rxb7 Bd8 18.Be3 Qc6 19.Rb3 (Not 19.Rxg7?? Ba5!) 19…0-0 20.0-0! where, apart from the extra pawn, White has the better-placed pieces to continue the attack with. 16.0-0 Nxb3 17.Rxb3 Qc5+ 18.Be3 Qc4 19.Rf4 Qe6?? The critical moment of the game, and either MVL has had a a brain freeze by forgetting the theory to gift Grandelius a free pawn and also empowers his rook on the seventh, or he’s unwisely opted to press the “gamble button” against his lower-rated player. The consensus from those seven previous correspondence games mentioned was that 19…Nh5! 20.Rf5 Nf6 and White has nothing better than repeating moves. Did MVL try it on against Grandelius? If so, big mistake, as the Swede has been in fantastic form at Wijk, certainly playing at a level that bellied his sub-2700 rating – and MVL soon lives to regret his rash choice. 20.Rxb7 0-0 21.h3! Stopping any future ideas of …Ng4 and offering the king a convenient escape square, just in case. 21…Rb8 22.Ra7 Ra8 23.Rxa8 Rxa8 24.Nd5 It does look a timely move for the knight to dominant the d5 square, taking advantage of the fact that 24…Nxe4?? loses on the spot to 25.Nxe7+ followed by Qd5+ picking up the loose rook on a8 – but better and stronger was 24.Qd3! first, the point being that 24…Rb8 as in the game, then 25.Qxa6 is winning. And instead if Black tries 24…Rc8 then now 25.Nd5! is very strong with the e-pawn protected. 24…Rb8 25.c4 Bd8? Another strange decision from MVL – a better try was 25…Nxd5 26.exd5 Qg6 and Black has genuine saving chances. 26.Qf2 Nd7 27.Bd4 Bg5 28.Rf5 Bh6 It’s not so much a fairytale but a nightmare for MVL, as Grandelius, with the dominant Nd5 and his active pieces, is allowed a freehand to build up a very formidable attack that soon crashes through for victory. 29.Kh2 Just to avoid any tricky back-rank checks that might spoil the party. 29…Rc8 30.Qg3 g6?? This is the ultimate death knell for MVL. The only try was 30…Re8 and pray that you can somehow hang on. 31.Qh4! [see diagram] The rook is taboo as Black’s game crashes with it. 31…Bf8 After 31…gxf5 32.exf5 Qe8 (If 32…Qxf5?? 33.Ne7+ wins the house.) 33.Ne7+ Kf7 34.Nxc8 Qxc8 35.Qxh6 Nf8 36.Qh5+ Ke7 37.f6+ Kd7 38.Qf7+ Kc6 39.Qd5+ Kc7 40.c5! dxc5 41.Qxc5+ Kd7 42.Qf5+ Kc7 43.Qd5 and Black is hopelessly lost. 32.Rf6! Qe8 MVL capitulates, but no better was 32…Nxf6 33.Nxf6+ Kf7 34.Qxh7+ Bg7 35.Ng4 easily winning, as 35…Rg8 falls to 36.Nh6+ and Black can resign. 33.Rxf8+! Qxf8 34.Ne7+ Kf7 35.Nxc8 1-0 MVL resigns, rather than trying to cling on to the wreckage of 35…Qxc8 36.Qxh7+ Ke8 37.Qxg6+ Ke7 38.Qg5+ Kf7 39.Qf5+ Ke8 40.Qe6+ Kd8 41.Qxd6 Qxc4 42.e5 etc.