The World Champion captured his record-tying fifth title, while Baskaran Adhiban of India won the Challengers section on tie-break and will play in the top section next year.

Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion from Norway, has won the Tata Steel Chess tournament for a fifth time, tying Viswanathan Anand of India for the most victories at the elite tournament. Though he started the tournament with a few draws, he reminded everyone that he is still the best player in the world.

Going into the last round, there was some chance that Carlsen would not win the title. His lead was half a point over Fabiano Caruana of the United States and a point over Ding Liren of China, who he was playing. If Ding, who had Black, could beat Carlsen and Caruana won, then Caruana would have taken first place.

Not only did neither of those things happen, the final round was not as exciting as I had anticipated. Given the tournament standings, I thought both Ding and Carlsen had to fight hard for a win and take lots of risks. Ding’s main opening against 1. d4 is the double-edged King’s Indian Defense, and I thought this would lead to exactly the kind of positions that both sides needed.

It was not to be.

Carlsen played 1. e4, and Ding replied with the Open Ruy Lopez, a line with lots of dry or drawish possibilities for White. Carlsen chose one of the quietest continations, forcing an endgame that has seemingly been drawn every time. While he got some chances at some point and ended up in rook and bishop against rook endgame, Ding easily defended and they drew after 99 moves.

This could have set up a thrilling finale if Caruana beat his final-round opponent, Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia. But Caruana’s game was almost over before it started.

Caruana, who had Black, was clearly caught unprepared in the opening. In the above position, he thought for 24 minutes before playing 9. … 0-0. There followed 10. Bd3, and Caruana erred with 10. … d5?! The point was that after 11. 0-0 cxd4? (dxc4 was preferable but White would still have had an edge), White did not have to recapture the pawn but instead played 12. Nb5!, at which point the bishop on a5 was in danger of being trapped. Black’s position is already close to lost.

Tomeshevsky played true to his style, eschewing several complicated lines that were crushing and that could have ended the game sooner, and simply took some material and converted his advantage in a long endgame. While he was not as incisive as he could have been, he also never gave Caruana any chance to even dream about climbing back into the game. The way Tomashevky played reminded me of a quote in Boris Gelfand’s recent book that I will paraphrase: “It does not matter how quickly you win, it only matters how certain the win will ultimately be.”

If Caruana had played 10. … cxd4!, White could not have responded with Nb5 because of the pin. The game might have gone 11. exd4 Bxc3+ 12. bxc3 d5, and Black would have a pretty typical structure in the Nimzo-Indian Defense with the variation 4. e3. He would have had a good enough position and could have looked forward to a long battle with chances for both sides.

Caruana’s loss was not catastrophic as he tied for second with Ding and had the better tie-breakers. 

The other decisive game of the round was the victory of Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine over David Navara of the Czech Republic. Early in the game, the players made some unusual decisions, deviating from the best-known paths. In particular, Navara, who was Black, made some suspicious looking moves.

In the above position, Black is fine.  I would think something calm and simple like 10. … c5 will quickly lead to a bunch of exchanges, a symmetrical position, and an easy draw. Instead, Navara mixed things up with 10. … Qa5+, to which Eljanov responded energetically with 11. Nd2!, paying no heed to the g2 pawn. Indeed, 11. … Bxg2 looked too risky because of 12. Rg1 with a kingside attack. So Navara chose 11. … Bb4, but after 12. a3 Bxd2+ 13. Qxd2 Qh5 14. f3, White had the bishop pair and a nice pawn center and had given up nothing to achieve it. Navara went down surprisingly quickly from that point, reaching a clearly inferior position by move 18, and resigned on move 36.

There was almost a third decisive game between Anish Giri of the Netherlands and Hou Yifan of China. While Hou is the strongest woman player in the world, she is nowhere near as good as Giri, who has had a rating over 2800 and been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world. But sometimes two opponents have styles that just favor one over the other. Indeed, in the past Hou has been a huge problem for Giri and she has an impressive undefeated score of plus 2 against him. She nearly made it plus 3 in Round 13, but Giri escaped after Hou blundered away the win.

Hou, who was Black, had been either clearly better or completely winning all game long, but finally had a chance to end it once and for all in the above position if she had just played 70. … Ke4! White’s rook could no longer leave the sixth rank because it has to protect the pawn on a6, and his king is too slow to free the rook with 71. Kb5 because then the f pawn will not be stopped after 71. … f3 72. Rf6 Ra2! 

Instead Hou chose 70. … Ke3, which was not as clear, and after 71. Kb5!, the game may objectively be a draw as it seems impossible to stop the White king from reaching b7 to free the White rook. The game was ultimately drawn after 95 moves.

Like the top section, the Challengers group was undecided coming into the last round as two players were tied for first and another was only a half point behind. The leaders, Baskaran Adhiban of India and Alexey Dreev of Russia, drew their games (not with each other) and the third player, Eltaj Safarli of Azerbaijan, won, creating a three-way tie for first — all with 9 points. Adhiban earned promotion to the top group for next year based on having better tie-breakers than Dreev or Safarli.

I thought justice was really served in Safarli’s game because his opponent, Nino Batsiashvili of Georgia,was clearly playing for a draw from the beginning, though she had White. I think anyone who does that deserves to lose.

Facing the French Defense, White had played the exchange variation with 4. Bd3 — the driest of the dry options against this opening. Black will have a very hard time making imbalances, but Safarli did just that with 4. … c5. Batsiashvili probably just wanted to make a draw with White and go home, and she was clearly not ready for a fight because her next moves were pretty lame: 5. Qe2+ Be7 6. Bb5+ Nc6. White has wasted time and Black has developed.

There followed 7. Bg5 Be6 8. Bxe7 Ngxe7 and Black was now two tempo ahead in development on move 8. After 9. Nf3 0-0 10. dxc5 Bg4!, White was already in big trouble.

Things only got worse after 11. Nbd2 Nd4! 12. Qd3 Nxf3+! and White could not even recapture 13. Nxf3 because of 13. … Bxf3 14. gxf3 a6, winning the bishop (15. Ba4 Qa5+).

White played 13. gxf3, but after 13. … Bf5 14. Qc3 d4! 15. Qb3 Rc8!, Black was clearly better and went on to win a fine game.

Safarli played very well in the tournament, and despite never leading until the final round, he absolutely deserved to tie for first. 


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.