While new world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway was taking a Silicon Valley victory lap, GM Levon Aronian of Armenia was winning the first major tournament of 2014 and in the process making a strong statement that he might be Carlsen’s most dangerous challenger in the candidates’ cycle ahead.
Aronian, the second-ranked player in the world behind Carlsen, decisively won the 76th Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee and other cities in the Netherlands. Aronian finished at 8-3, 1 points ahead of Dutch GM Anish Giri and Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, clinching first place with a round to go. The Armenian star, who now has won Tata four times, would have finished an eye-popping 9-2 in the event but for a last-round loss to veteran Dutch star Loek van Wely in which the Armenian, in a very strong position, overlooked a mate-in-one in time pressure.
Equally impressive, the 31-year-old Aronian manhandled some of the young guns who are seen as his chief rivals in the bid to take on Carlsen, defeating both U.S. No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura and Italian GM Fabiano Caruana at Tata.
Speaking of young guns, rising American star GM Kayden Troff of Utah got his first taste of elite international competition, playing in the strong Tata Group B flight. It wasn’t exactly a Pillsbury-Hastings 1895 moment for Troff: He won his debut game against Holland’s IM Marijn van Delft, but would not win another full point, finishing in a tie for 11th at 4-8. Croatian GM Ivan Saric won with a fine 10-3 score, with legendary Dutch star Jan Timman, now 62 and an infrequent competitor on the international stage, claiming second place on tiebreaks ahead of Georgian GM Baadur Jobava.
Carlsen, meanwhile, was enjoying the perks of a champion. He was spotted giving a simultaneous exhibition to a group of employees at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters (he won every game) and later checkmated Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates in a casual game in all of nine moves. (Gates is an avid bridge player, so perhaps he should get a pass on this one.)
Aronian isn’t always as flashy as some of his peers, but his play has a rigor and beauty all its own. The decisive game at Tata came in Round 9, when the Armenian was clinging to a half-point lead against Karjakin when the two sat down to play. The Russian used a Queen’s Indian line he had employed last year to defeat Aronian, but this time White came prepared.
Black’s 18. Nf4 Qd6?! is the first new move of the game, but Karjakin quickly gets into trouble after 19. Bxf6 Bxf6 20. cxd5 exd5!? (Nxd4 was an interesting alternative, with the idea of 21. dxe6 Bxe5 22. Bxb7 Rab8 23. exf7+ Kh8 24. Be4 Bxf4 gxf4 Rxf7, with good compensation for the pawn) 21. Bxd5 Bxe5 22. dxe5 Qxe5 23. Re1 Qf6 25. Qg4 Qg6 26. Qh3! (keeping the pressure on; White’s original plan to trade queens here would have given Black some breathing room), with a clear initiative for White.
White cashes in with a mini-tactic after 30. Rbc1 Kh8? (the “threat” was 31. Rxc6 Bxc6 32. Ne7+, although things aren’t so clear after 31…Rxd5 32. Rc7 Rh5 33. Qg4 Bxe4 34. Qxe4 a5; safer anyway here for Black was the straightforward 30…Rfe8) 31. Nxb6! axb6 32. Bxc6 Bxc6 33. Rxc6 Rd2 34. Qh4! (Rxb6?? Qd4 and Black wins) Rxa2 35. Qb4! h5 36. Qxb6, winning a pawn.
Aronian’s endgame play is impressive, coolly allowing his kingside to fall while pressing forward with the precious b-pawn. Things come together nicely on 51. b5 Kh3 (f5 52. Kd4 f4 53. gxh4 gxh4 54. b6 Kh3 [h3 55. Rb3!, as in the game] 55. Ke4 Kxh2 56. Kxf4 h3 57. f3+ Kg1 58. Kg3, arriving just in time) 52. gxh4 gxh4 53. f4 Kg4 54. b6 f5 55. Kd4 Kxf4 56. Rb3!, and the rook is perfectly placed, cutting off the Black king while supporting the White passed pawn.
It’s over on 60. b7 f4 61. Rg7, and Black faces 61…f3 62. Kc7 f2 63. Rf7 Rg8 64. b8=Q; Karjakin resigned.
Top-level tournaments rarely feature miniatures, as elite grandmasters are not in the habit of losing quickly. Oddly, the premier Tata tournament had a pair of shorties, with German GM Arkady Naiditsch going down in 19 moves (with White!) to India’s Pentala Harikrishna, and Cuba’s Leinier Dominguez Perez needing just 21 moves to take out young Filipino GM Wesley So.
So’s Petroff Defense is supposed to be one of the most drawish defenses in chess, but White castles long and launches an early kingside attack. Black looks solid up until 15. h5 Re8 16. g4 g6? (violating the old rule not to move pawns in front on one’s king before it is absolutely necessary; fine for Black were 16…d4 17. h6 g6 18. cxd4 Bxf3 19. Qxf3 Qxd4; or even 16…h6!? 17. Qf5 Re6 18. Rde1 Qd7 19. Qh7+ Kf8 20. Bf5 d4! 21. Bxe6 fxe6 22. Qd3 Qd5 23. Rh3 Qxa2, with good compensation) 17. hxg6 hxg6 18. g5 Bg7 (see diagram; 18…Be7 19. Bb5 Rf8 20. Qh4 is also strong for White) 19. Rh7!, a stunning offer of the rook.
Now 19…Kxh7? loses to 20. Qxf7 Re7 21. Rh1 mate, while Black must deal with the threat of 20. Rdh1 Qe7 21. Bf5!! gxf5 22. Qh2 f6 23. g6 Qe2 Rh8+ Bxh8 25. Qxh8 mate. A rattled So fails to find the best defense and goes down quickly: 19…d4 20. Bc4 Qe7?? (mandatory was 20…Bxf3, with survival chances after 21. Rxg7+ Kxg7 22. Qxf7+ Kh8 23. Qxg6 Re7 24. Qf6+ Rg7 25. Qxf3 Qxg5+ 26. Kb1) 21. Qh4!, and Black resigns facing 21…Bxf3 Rxg7+! Kxg7 23. Qh6+ Kg8 24. Qxg6+ Kf8 25. Qh6+ Kg8 26. g6 and mate in a few more moves.