The leader, Magnus Carlsen, drew in Round 12 while his two closest rivals both won. Carlsen’s lead is only half a point so the title will be decided in the final round on Sunday.

The 2016 Tata Steel Chess tournament will be decided in the last round on Sunday. 

Magnus Carlsen led the tournament by a full point before the penultimate round on Saturday and, playing Black, he easily drew against Wesley So of the United States. At the same time, his two closest competitors, Fabiano Caruana of the United States and Ding Liren of China both won. Carlsen now leads Caruana by half a point and Ding by a point.

In Round 12, Caruana demolished Loek van Wely of the Netherlands. Van Wely has been a long-time practitioner of the Najdorf Sicilian, and he won a very nice game against Hou Yifan of China earlier in the event. But against Caruana, he clearly seemed ill-versed in some modern theory of the opening, and got completely crushed.

In the above position, the only good move is 13. … Nc5, after which there could follow 14. a3 Nxa4 15. axb4 Qc7 16. bxa4 and now both 16. … d5 and 16. … Nd7 give Black good play.

Instead, van Wely chose the mysterious 13. … Be7?, which seems to me to just be a waste of time — the bishop is not doing anything that it would not do on f8, and with g5 coming, I can’t imagine Black wants to castle kingside. Caruana reacted energetically with 14. Rh3! Nc5 15. a3!, with a similar position to the main line except that White is able to play g5 a move faster.

Van Wely tried the tricky 15. … Rc8, but Caruana had no trouble with that and after 16. axb4 Nxb3+ 17. Nxb3 Qxa4 18. Kb2! (threatening Ra1) d5 19. Bc5!, White was in command.

The game continued until van Wely, already in a difficult position, made a bad mistake. In the following position, he played 29. … Rc4:

Caruana crashed through with 30. f6+! and after 30. … gxf6 31. exf6+, because va Wely could not take the pawn without getting his king into a mating net, he had to play 31. … Kd6, leaving Caruana with powerful advanced passed pawns. The rest was not difficult for Caruana and he won to pull within half a point of Carlsen.

Ding also emerged with a big advantage early on in his game against Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine. 

Eljanov, who was Black, is one of the world’s leading experts on the Catalan, but he clearly was a little surprised by Ding’s play. The White plan of Rac1, Rfd1 and Ne1 plan is basically unknown, but was not a bad practical try. In the above position, Black can continue with the thematic advance 12. … c5!, and I think he should be absolutely fine. One possible continuation would be 13. cxd5 cxd4 14. d6 Bxd6 15. Bxb7 Nc5!, an important move, which equalizes immediately. It’s possible that Eljanov missed this resource.

Instead, he chose 12. … dxc4 13. Qxc4 b5, looking for direct play in another way. But after 14. Qb3 Qb6 15. Bg5 h6 16. Bxf6 Nxf6 17. e3, Black faced a bit of a dilemma.

In one or two moves, White might be able to clamp down on the c5 square and prevent the all-important c6-c5 advance, leaving the b7 bishop extremely passive. Eljanov instead pitched a pawn with 17. … c5, but after 18. Bxb7 Qxb7 19. Qxb5, Black really had no compensation for his material deficit and Ding’s play the rest of the way was excellent as he reeled in the win in 38 moves.

Carlsen will have White against Ding in the last round while Caruana has Black against Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia. 

Oddly, Ding’s chances of tying for first improved because of Caruana’s win in Round 12. If Carlsen and Ding draw, it is possible for Caruana to catch Carlsen by winning his game against Tomashevsky. As Carlsen does not like to leave his fate in the hands of others, he might try to go after Ding and play riskier in order to have better winning chances. Of course, that would increase his losing chances as well, thereby also giving the young Chinese star a better chance to win and tie for first (assuming that Caruana does not win). 

It is a situation somewhat similar to the final round of the 2013 Candidates tournament. In that tournament, Carlsen, who was tied for first with Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, felt he had to win and took too many risks in his game against Peter Svidler of Russia and lost. Fortunately for him, Kramnik also lost (to Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine) and Carlsen won based on having better tie-breakers. 

I still think Carlsen is the favorite to win the Tata Steel tournament, but the event is not over and there could be a very exciting finish. 

The same is definitely true for the Challengers group.

Going into Round 12, Baskaran Adhiban of India and Alexey Dreev of Russia were tied for first. Early in the round, it looked to me like Dreev might clinch a share of first with a round to spare because he was a pawn up against Nijat Abasov of Azerbaijan, while Adhiban was absolutely dead, dead lost against Nino Batsiashvili of Georgia. But somehow games ended in draws!

Of course, the more remarkable result was Adhiban’s draw against Batsiashvili.

In the position above, Adhiban, playing White, is down an exchange for absolutely nothing and Black has extremely active pieces. The computer gives an evaluation of -4, or the equivalent of Black being up four pawns. Even after Batsiashvili played the suboptimal sequence 37. … Rb3 38. Qxf6+ Kxf6 39. Nf1 Rxf3 40. gxf3 Rxf2+ 41. Nd2, Black was still completely winning, and she had also made the first time control.

She could have continued 41. … Bh5, which would have been a rather easy win as Black simply collects the pawn on f3, remains at least one pawn ahead (and a dangerous passed g pawn at that), has more active pieces, and the White pawns on light squares are ripe for plucking at some point.

Instead, Batsiashvili chose 41. … Rxf3?, and after 42. Nxf3 Bxf3+ 43. Kd2 Bxf3 44. Ke3, the White king was very well placed to deal with the advancing Black kingside pawns.

This was the second day in a row that Adhiban escaped by the skin of his teeth, but it’s hard to win a tournament without some lucky breaks.

Dreev, who was playing White, missed his chance in the following position, but it was not as clear as what happened in Adhiban’s game.

White has a solid extra pawn, and though it is doubled, I think it really is a good pawn, plus the Black queenside structure is not ideal. However, Dreev played the strategic blunder 30. g3? The problem with the move is that it took away the best square for his king to hide, condemning it to a lifetime of harassment of Black could figure out how to break through. Abasov did with 30. … c5! 31. Qc3 Qb6 32. Kg2 Rb3 33. Qc1 Qb5, and already it was clear that White had lost control of the game. In the end, he had to play precisely not to lose.

Instead of 30. g3, I would recommend 30. Rc2, which improves the White rook, targets the weak c6 pawn, prevents c5, and leaves g3 available for the king.

Eltaj Safarli, another Azeri, who had trailed Adhiban and Dreev by half a point prior to Round 12, also drew. So the last round is a repeat of the situation before Round 12, with Adhiban and Dreev tied for first and Safarli half a point back. Clearly nobody can be content with a final round draw if they want to win, and all three players will have Black, so some fun things could happen.


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.