We’re back to strange times once again as the Omicron variant outbreak sweeps across the globe, with emergency protocols first being imposed across Europe, and with it many of the regular post-Christmas events that would normally entertain us and be reported on, have inevitably had to be cancelled.
While it is not the premier force it once was during its glory days, sadly the Caplin Hastings Chess Congress – the world’s most historic tournaments, and which still resonates in chess circles – was cancelled. And with the Netherlands being the first Western European country to go into a strict lockdown on December 18 through mid-January, there was an initial fear that the first major of the year, the 84th Tata Steel Masters, held in the fabled chess hamlet of Wijk aan Zee, could also be in jeopardy.
The good news is that the two marquee event of this unique ‘people’s chess festival’, the Tata Steel Masters & Challengers will go ahead as planned, but sadly there will be a lack of spirit and atmosphere in the playing hall due to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, with the cornucopia of amateur events being unable to go ahead under the same roof of the De Moriaan Center, nor will there be the usual electric buzz this year from the vast swathes of spectators following the action.
With the teaser launch tag line of “Are You Ready?”, it all kicks-off on Friday with the official opening ceremony on Friday January 14, with the first round getting underway on Saturday, and running right through to the end of January, with the 14 player field being headed by Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, plus a supporting cast of 12 players rated over 2700.
The full line-up (in rating order) is: Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Richard Rapport (Hungary), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Santosh Gujrathi Vidit (India), Daniil Dubov (Russia), Andrey Esipenko (Russia), Sam Shankland (USA), Jorden Van Foreest (Netherlands), Nils Grandelius (Sweden) and Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa (India).
Carlsen started his big 2021 title defence year off on a high last January with an impressive opening round victory over the emerging young pretender to his throne, Alireza Firouzja, who by the end of the year had clearly established himself as the new world No 2 and a genuine future threat to Carlsen’s crown. And despite Carlsen getting off to his promising start, the surprise package turned out to be local hero Jordan van Foreest, who with a strong finish, defied the overwhelming odds to score a very rare home Dutch victory in his country’s strongest tournament.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Alireza Firouzja
Tata Steel Masters 2021, (1)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Nbd7 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 Be7 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.Bxe7 Qxe7 9.e4 Nxc3 10.bxc3 0-0 11.Bd3 c5 12.0-0 cxd4 13.cxd4 b6 14.a4 The best try to squeeze something out of the opening, as 14.Qe2 e5! and Black has all but equalised, as White can’t play 15.d5 as 15…Nc5 with a strong knight outpost, and the threat of …Bb7, …Nxd3 and …f5 and lots of good counterplay. 14…Bb7 15.a5 bxa5 16.Rxa5 Nf6 Carlsen’s position looks strong, but he can’t make any headway due to his vulnerable hanging pawns on d4 and e4. If it was easy to defend them, then he would have relentlessly tortured his opponent into trying to defend his a-pawn. 17.Re1 Rfd8 18.Qa1 Qc7 19.h3 a6 20.Rc5 Qf4! In an ideal world, Firouzja was probably patting himself on his back with his attack on Carlsen’s pawns, and probably felt he’d done more than enough for a draw offer coming very soon. 21.Re5 Nd7 22.Ra5 Nf6 23.d5!? And just when Firouzja’s mindset was probably expecting a repeat of moves with 23.Re5 Nd7 and a draw, Carlsen decides to alter the balance of the game with a typical pawn sacrifice in such positions. 23…exd5 24.e5 Ne4 25.Qd4 Rdc8 26.Raa1 a5 27.Rab1 Bc6 28.e6 As is Carlsen’s wont, he continues to push that mythical envelope just that little bit further! 28…fxe6 29.Ne5 Qf6 Firouzja has handled the change in the dynamics to the game well, playing all the right moves – and the expectation was that Carlsen would soon realise it was time for the bailout. However…. 30.f3!? Just when it was expected by the talking-heads doing the commentary that the game would fizzle out with something like 30.Bxe4!? dxe4 31.Nxc6 Rxc6 32.Qxe4 the point being that 32…Rca6 is nicely answered by 33.Rb6! a4 (If 33…Rxb6?! 34.Qxa8+ Kh7 35.Qxa5 and White has a very minuscule of edges due to the e6-pawn.) 34.Rxa6 Rxa6 35.Qc4 Ra8 36.Rxe6 and a draw, Carlsen decided he wants to test the mettle of his young pretender by pressing on. 30…Ng5 31.Rb6 Be8 32.Qe3 a4! Seems to me like a good idea: that a-pawn is running, and running right up the board! 33.Ng4 Qd8 34.Rxe6 Nxe6 The automatic answer – but, short on time, Firouzja didn’t have the time nor the inclination to complicated matters further with 34…a3!? simply ignoring the capture of the rook, as the a-pawn continues to run dangerously up the board, that now forces 35.f4 Nxe6 36.Qxe6+ Kh8 37.Qf5 Qb6+! 38.Kh2 Bg6! 39.Qxg6 Qxg6 40.Bxg6 Rf8 41.g3 a2 42.Ra1 h5!? 43.Ne5! (The only move. If 43.Bxh5? Rfb8 44.Bg6 Rb2+ 45.Kg1 Ra3 and Black wins.) 43…h4 44.Nd7 hxg3+ 45.Kxg3 Rfc8 though I presume White will probably find a way to hold the balance, but it all looks very dangerous, what with Black’s active rooks and that big a-pawn on a2. But as I say, with the flag on Firouzja’s digital clock metaphorically hanging, “automatic” was the all-too human reaction here. 35.Qxe6+ Bf7?? Down to one minute for 5 moves, Firouzja finally cracks under Carlsen’s relentless pressure with a huge blunder, walking right into a forced mate. He had to play 35…Kh8! 36.Qf5 Qb6+ 37.Kh1 Bg6 38.Qxg6 Qxg6 39.Bxg6 a3 40.Ra1 a2 41.Ne5 Rcb8 42.Kh2! just in case there’s any tricks with a back-rank check! 42…Rb5 43.Bd3 Rb3 44.Bg6 and a slightly lesser version than the note above, with White’s ace being the threat of a back-rank mate that should mitigate that big a-pawn. 36.Nxh6+! [see diagram] Boom! And just like that, suddenly Firouzja has realised he’s walked right into a mating net. 36…gxh6 37.Qxh6 Qc7 38.Qh7+ Kf8 39.Qh8+ Bg8 40.Qh6+ 1-0 Firouzja resigns, not wishing to be mated after 40…Kf7 41.Bg6+ Kf6 42.Be8+ Kf5 43.g4#.