- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2018

In newspaper terms, the sidebars may have been more compelling than the main story at the 80th running of the powerful Tata Steel Chess Tournament in the chess-obsessed Dutch city of Wijk aan Zee.

Despite a game challenge from local star GM Anish Giri, Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen prevailed in a blitz playoff for his record sixth Tata title Sunday, earning comparisons to Swiss tennis great Roger Federer, who was winning his sixth Australian Open on the same day. Carlsen had actually had a relatively indifferent tournament record in recent super-elite events, so his plus-five result (5-0-8) against a world-class field in Wijk aan Zee is a good sign as he gears up for another title defense later this year.

But if Carlsen’s brilliance isn’t exactly news, there were some other intriguing subplots from the tournament. In the Category 15 B Tournament, a companion event that has often served a steppingstone for young players on the verge of a breakthrough, 23-year-old GM Santosh Gujrathi Vidit booked a berth in next year’s premier event with a fine 9-4 result. And young American star GM and former world junior champ Jeffery Xiong of Texas showed great fighting spirit in notching clear third in the B event at 7½-5½, winning his final three games with the Black pieces to surge up the leaderboard.

The third win may have been the hardest as Xiong found himself in deep trouble early in his final-round game against young German GM Matthias Bluebaum. In a relatively rare Grunfeld Defense sideline, Xiong’s menacing kingside pawn mass proves less potent than White’s passed d-pawn, which drives a wedge in Black’s underdeveloped position and constantly threatens to advance to the queening square.

White’s edge only grows on 18. Bh4 Qf8?! (tougher was 18…Qa5 19. Qxa5 Nxa5 20. Rd1 Nc6) 19. Nd5 (the d5-outpost is a massive strategic asset for Bluebaum) g3!? 20. fxg3 Rc8 21. Nb6 Rb8 22. 0-0-0 f4 23. Nd5, and White has an extra pawn in addition to positional edge.

But Xiong keeps plugging away, and White squanders his fine play with the inaccurate 28. Qxd5+ Kh8 29. Bg3?! (in light of Black’s reply, there were much better options; e.g. 29. g4! Rxg4 30. Qd2 Bd4 31. d7 e3 32. Qh2 b5 33. d8=Q Rxd8 34. Bxd8 Qxd8 35. Be2, with a clear plus) Qf6! (with a clear — and lethal — threat of mate) 30. Qd2 e3! (exploiting the fact that the queen dare not leave the defense of the b2-square) 31. Qc3 Qe6 32. Qa3? (another error; better was 32. Qd3 Rg4 33. Be1 Nd4 34. Kb1 e2 35. Bxe2 Nxe2 36. Rd2 Rxg2 37. Rf1, with an unclear position) Rg4 33. Be1 e2, winning a piece, though the battle isn’t over.

The looming 40-move time control may have gotten to both players, as White misses a golden opportunity to get back in the game after 37. d7 Nd4? (careless — the prudent 37…Rd8 38. Rhd3 Qf4+ 39. Kb1 Qf5! is much stronger, as 40. Ka1 Rxd7! 41. Rxd7 Qxd7! 42. Rxd7?? Rg1+ leads to mate) 38. Qd6? (see diagram), overlooking 38. Re3! Kh7 39. Rxd4! Bxd4 40. Qe7+ Bg7, with endgame drawing chances in lines such as 41. d8=Q Rxd8 42. Qxd8 Bxc3 43. Rxc3 Qf1+ 44. Qd1 Qxd1+ 45. Kxd1 Rxb2.

Given a second chance, Xiong doesn’t waste the opportunity: 38…Ne2+ 39. Kb1 (Kc2 Nxc3+ 40. Kc1 Nxa2+ is no better for White) Nxc3+ 40. Rxc3 (or 40. Kc1 Nxa2+ 41. Kb1 Qc2+ 42. Kxa2 Qxb2 mate) Rxb2+!, and White resigned as 41. Kxb2 Qxc3+ 42. Kb1 Qb2 is mate.

Bluebaum-Xiong, 80th Tata Steel Tournament, Group B, January 2018

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Bg5 Ne4 5. Nxe4 dxe4 6. e3 c5 7. Ne2 Bg7 8. Qd2 O-O 9. d5 h6 10. Bh4 g5 11. Bg3 e5 12. h4 g4 13. Nc3 f5 14. h5 a6 15. d6 Nc6 16. Qd5+ Rf7 17. Qxc5 Be6 18. Bh4 Qf8 19. Nd5 g3 20. fxg3 Rc8 21. Nb6 Rb8 22. O-O-O f4 23. Nd5 Rc8 24. Nb6 Rb8 25. gxf4 exf4 26. exf4 Rxf4 27. Nd5 Bxd5 28. Qxd5+ Kh8 29. Bg3 Qf6 30. Qd2 e3 31. Qc3 Qe6 32. Qa3 Rg4 33. Be1 e2 34. Bxe2 Qxe2 35. Bc3 Qxc4 36. Rh3 Rxg2 37. d7 Nd4 38. Qd6 Ne2+ 39. Kb1 Nxc3+ 40. Rxc3 Rxb2+ White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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