After a troubled year of cancellations, disruptions and migrations to online play, the chess world is starting 2021 on a refreshing note of normalcy — an actual over-the-board elite tournament played at classical time controls in one of the great traditional venues for the game.
Norwegian world chess champ Magnus Carlsen and American No. 1 Fabiano Caruana top a 14-grandmaster field at the 83rd Tata Steel Chess Tournament now underway in the chess-mad Dutch seaside city of Wijk aan Zee. There have been some COVID-19 concessions: The event’s lower-level invitationals have been scrubbed, as have a host of popular open satellite events. A couple of entrants had to drop out over health or travel concerns.
Still, it’s a start, and Carlsen and Caruana have treated us to a couple of fine games right out of the box.
Carlsen was channeling his inner Tal in the very first round against rising Iranian superstar GM Alireza Firouzja, launching a highly speculative attack that paid off when Black couldn’t find his way through the tactical thickets. Play is about equal in this Queen’s Gambit Declined after 12. 0-0 cxd4 13. cxd4, with White having a strong center and more space but Black enjoying a 2-1 queenside pawn majority.
But Carlsen is clearly trying to sharpen the play, offering two pawns to open lines with 23. d5!? exd5 24. e5 Ne4 25. Qd4 Rdc8 26. Raa1 a5 27. Rab1 Bc6 28. e6!? (interesting was 28. Rb6!? — threatening 29. Rxc6! Rxc6 30. Qxd5 Rac8 31. Rxe4, winning — Bd7 29. Qxd5 Nc5! 30. g3 Be6 31. Qxa8 Rxa8 32. gxf4 Nxd3, with chances for both sides) fxe6 29. Ne5, with strong pressure on the Black position.
As in so many Tal games, Black here defends coolly right up to the point where he doesn’t: 33. Ng4 Qd8 34. Rxe6 Nxe6 35. Qxe6+ Bf7?? (finally missing a must move; mandatory here was 35…Kh8!, when Black meets the scary 36. Qf5 with 36…Qb6+! 37. Kh1 Bg6! 38. Qxg6 Qxg6 39. Bxg6 a3 40. Ra1 a2 41. Ne5 Ra5, and it’s White who faces problems) 36. Nxh6+!, tearing up Black’s defensive shield.
There’s no place to hide after 36…gxh6 37. Qxh6 (threatening 38. Bh7+ Kh8 39. Bg6+ and mate in a few) Qc7 38. Qh7+ Kf8 39. Qh8+ Bg8 40. Qh6+, and Firouzja resigned, not needing to see 40…Kf7 41. Bg6+ Kf6 42. Be8+ Kf5 43. g4 mate.
Caruana displayed some fine attacking chops a round later against German GM Alexander Donchenko, in a classic Slav QGD battle in which Black uses White’s pawn sacrifices against him to whip up a winning counterattack.
Like Carlsen, Donchenko sacrifices a pawn with 20. e6!? to open attacking lines, but unlike Firouzja, Caruana has no interest in passive defense: 20…Qd5! 21. exf7+ Kf8! (the pawn on f7 actually hinders White’s attack; now. 22. Qxg6 is met by 22…Rh6 23. Qb1 c4 24. Rhf1 c3, breaching the castle walls) 22. h4 Qxa2 23. Qxg6 b3 24. Be1 c4! 25. Rxd4 (Qxb6?? Qa1+ 26. Kd2 Qxb2 mate) Na4 26. Qb1 (see diagram), when White appears a move away from consolidating; e.g. 26…Rh6?! 27. Rxc4 Nb6 28. Bc3! Nxc4 29. Bxc4, with at least equality.
But Black is just warming up: 26…Ba3!! 27. Qxa2 (bxa3 b2+ 28. Kc2 Qb3+ 29. Kd2 Qc3+ 30. Kd1 Qxd4+ 31. Bd2 Rd8 cleans up) bxa2 28. Kc2 Rb8! (much more incisive than 28…a1=Q? 29. Bb4+ Bxb4 30. Rxa1 Nb6 31. Bxc4 and White has hope) 29. Rd8+ (Bc3 Nxc3 30. bxc3 Rb2+ 31. Kd1 a1=Q mate) Rxd8 30. bxa3 c3! — accurate to the end, as, again, 30…a1=Q?? lets White off the hook with 31. Bb4+ Kxf7 32. Bxc4+ Kf6 33. Rxa1.
It’s over after 31. Bg3 (Bxc3 Rc8 32. Kb3 Nxc3 wins) Rd2+ 32. Kb3 Nc5+, and Donchenko resigns as after 33. Kc4 Ne4 he faces major material losses.
Carlsen-Firouzja, 83rd Tata Steel Chess, Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, January 2021
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 O-O 11. Bd3 c5 12. O-O cxd4 13. cxd4 b6 14. a4 Bb7 15. a5 bxa5 16. Rxa5 Nf6 17. Re1 Rfd8 18. Qa1 Qc7 19. h3 a6 20. Rc5 Qf4 21. Re5 Nd7 22. Ra5 Nf6 23. d5 exd5 24. e5 Ne4 25. Qd4 Rdc8 26. Raa1 a5 27. Rab1 Bc6 28. e6 fxe6 29. Ne5 Qf6 30. f3 Ng5 31. Rb6 Be8 32. Qe3 a4 33. Ng4 Qd8 34. Rxe6 Nxe6 35. Qxe6+ Bf7 36. Nxh6+ gxh6 37. Qxh6 Qc7 38. Qh7+ Kf8 39. Qh8+ Bg8 40. Qh6+ Black resigns.
Donchenko-Caruana, 83rd Tata Steel Chess, Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, January 2021
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bf5 5. Nc3 e6 6. Nh4 Be4 7. f3 Bg6 8. Bd2 Be7 9. Nxg6 hxg6 10. Qc2 Nbd7 11. O-O-O a6 12. g4 dxc4 13. Bxc4 b5 14. Be2 c5 15. d5 Nxd5 16. Nxd5 exd5 17. f4 b4 18. e4 d4 19. e5 Nb6 20. e6 Qd5 21. exf7+ Kf8 22. h4 Qxa2 23. Qxg6 b3 24. Be1 c4 25. Rxd4 Na4 26. Qb1 Ba3 27. Qxa2 bxa2 28. Kc2 Rb8 29. Rd8+ Rxd8 30. bxa3 c3 31. Bg3 Rd2+ 32. Kb3 Nc5+ White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.