Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion continues to lead, but Fabiano Caruana won to pull to within a half point. With three rounds to go, it seems to be a two-player race for the title.

Nothing is settled yet at the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands. A very lively Round 10 produced several decisive games and also shrank the lead of Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the World Champion.

Carlsen did not lose — playing Black, he easily held Anish Giri of the Netherlands to a draw. Since he was a full point ahead of the field before the round, he kept the lead, but his closest chaser, Fabiano Caruana of the United States narrowed the gap to half a point by winning his own game.

Caruana beat Wei Yi of China. As I wrote after Round 9, nobody had really tried to challenge Wei in the opening when playing White, but I thought that Caruana would likely be the first to do so. That turned out to be correct as Caruana tried a somewhat unusual idea in the Open Spanish in the following position:

Caruana played 9. c3!?, instead of the much more common 9. Nbd2. The point of 9. Nbd2 is to prevent Black’s bishop from developing to c5. Wei spent a few minutes before developing the bishop to e7 anyway. Instead of transposing to the main line with 10. Nbd2, Caruana played 10. Bc2!?, a move I had not seen before. It’s quite clever though, since 10. Nbd2 is best met with 10. … Nc5. Caruana’s move order negated that option for Black. Black could try castling, but then 11. Nbd2 should lead to an edge for White, which is what happened in a recent game I played against Gregory Kaidanov (through the move order was different).

Wei pretty quickly continued 10. … Bg4, suggesting he was still in his pre-game preparation, but Caruana kept moving rapidly, too. After 11. h3 Bh5 12. g4! Bg6 13. Nd4!, Caruana’s f pawn was ready to enter the fray. With a pleasant position and more time on the clock, Caruana seemed to have a big edge.

Wei defended well for a while, but as resilient as his defense was, he finally erred in the position above by playing 20. … Qxd1? instead of 20. … Qxc6, though White would have been better in that case as well.  After 21. Nxd1, Black was unable to round up the c6 pawn.

White reorganized his pieces very nicely after 21. … Rfd8 22. Rc1! Rd3 23. Bc5! With the clock ticking down and a difficult position on the board to defend, Wei made more errors and resigned on move 32. The win gave Caruana a plus 3 score for the tournament, while Wei fell back to even.

Michael Adams of England had really been struggling this tournament, but in Round 10 he rolled over Sergey Karjakin of Russia, who had White. While Adams played well, I thought Karjakin handled the early middlegame poorly. A critical moment came early on:

Adams had clearly done his homework on the London System and knew exactly how to approach it. In this position, he played the strong regrouping maneuver 12. … Be7!, aiming to reroute the f5 knight to d6, clog up White’s position by playing Nfe4, and then start expanding on the queenside. I actually had this exact position just last week against Alejandro Ramirez, and I included 12. … cxd4 13. exd4 first before playing the same 13. … Be7!

After 12. … Be7, Karjakin was a bit careless (or maybe just too ambitious) in my opinion with 13. g4?!, after which Black was able to execute his plan. Adams later broke through on the queenside with b5-b4-b3, where Karjakin was also foolish enough to castle. The game quickly became a rout and Karjakin resigned after only 31 moves. It was Adams’ first win of the tournament which was a nice reprieve after he struggled in many previous rounds.

If Karjakin had sensed the strategic danger to his position, he might have found the very modest but still correct move 13. Ng4!, forcing an exchange of knights in order to prevent Black from clamping down on the e4 square. I would still prefer Black’s position, but any immediate disaster would be avoided. Unfortunately for me in my game with Ramirez, he did find this resource and our game ended in a draw. 

Hou Yifan of China continued to tumble, losing with White to Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine. She has now scored only half a point in the last four rounds. 

Her game with Eljanov was up and down, with both players having chances. But Hou made a critical mistake as they approached the first time control in the following position:

White looks fine, but Eljanov found the pretty tactic 32. … Ne2+!, winning an exchange on d3. Still, White would be fine after 33. Rxe2 Rxd3 34. Qxf5! Rxf5 35. cxb5! after which 35. … axb5 would leave White with a very dangerous passed a pawn. So Black would have had to return the exchange by playing 35. … Rxb5, allowing 36. Re8+ Kh7 37. Be2. Hou did not find this resource and she slipped into a lost position after 34. Qe8+ Kg7 35. Be4 Rd1+ 36. Kh2 Qf4+ 37. g3 Qd6. Eljanov made some errors later on that prolonged the game and made his life more difficult than it had to be, but he ultimately won.

In the Challengers group, the critical match between the leaders after Round 9 was definitely the one to watch. Baskaran Adhiban of India had suffered a crushing defeat in Round 9 that allowed Eltaj Safarli of Azerbaijan to catch him. But, as luck would have it, they played each other in Round 10 in a game that could ultimately decide first place.

Adhiban, who had White, did not take too many risks, and it looked like Safarli would hold a draw until he blundered just before time control.

Black must lose material because of the threat of 39. Nxb5. However, Safarli could have played 39. … Ke5!, abandoning his kingside pawns to try to run his king into e4 and d3 for very real counterplay. The computer calls this position equal but both sides would have their chances in the ensuing mess.

Instead Safarli gave up an exchange with 39. … Rxd4?, banking on his protected passed pawn on c4. But the White king was simply too close for it to matter and Adhiban converted his extra exchange. He is now once again in clear first, but he is only half a point ahead of Alexey Dreev of Russia (who also won in Round 10), so his ticket to group A next year is certainly not punched yet.

Thursday is a rest day — the final one before the last three rounds and the stretch run to the finish line. While Carlsen leads, he also still has some work to do if he is to win his fifth Tata Steel championship and tie Viswanathan Anand for the record for the most tournament victories. 


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.