The challenger’s group at Tata Steel features some very strong players. It also offers a chance to advance to next year’s top section.

The main event at the Tata Steel Chess Tounarment is the Masters section, which has been well covered on World Chess by Sam Shankland. But there’s a second important tournament at Tata Steel: the Challengers group (which in past years has been referred to as the “B” group). It’s a very strong tournament in its own right, and the winner each year is promoted to next year’s masters group.

After five rounds, the leader is the top seed, Markus Ragger of Austria, His pre-tournament rating was just under 2700, and with 4½ points out of 5 he has surpassed that barrier and achieved the highest rating of his career.

In Round 1, Ragger defeated Jeffery Xiong, a 16-year-old American, who is the co-second seed, in an impressive; though not quite perfect game. (Xiong scored 3½ points in Rounds 2 to 5, so their first-round battle could prove critical to the final standings.)

After beating Xiong, Ragger defeated Lei Tingjie, a Chiinese woman’s grandmaster, with Black. He then beat Eric Hansen, a Canadian grandmaster, with White. And then he won with Black against Vladimir Dobrov, a Russian grandmaster. In Round 5, Ragger was probably winning at one point against Lu Shanglei, a Chinese grandmaster, but ended up drawing. Even with that lapse he leads the other co-second seed, Ilia Smirin, an Israeli grandmaster, by half a point.

I analyzed Ragger’s victory over Xiong earlier this week on my blog, but here it is again, along with his scorching victory over Hansen from Round 3.

Ragger, Markus vs. Xiong, Jeffery
79th Tata Steel GpB | Wijk aan Zee NED | Round 1.6 | 14 Jan 2017 | ECO: B90 | 1-0
1. e4 c5 Ah, youth. Give Xiong a few more years in elite company and he'll realize that 1...e5 is the way to go against other top players, especially against the top seed in the tournament when you're #2. (Except in a must-win situation.)
2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 Nf6 4. Nc3 cxd4 5. Nxd4 a6 6. h3 For now, this is White's main weapon against the Najdorf.
6... e5 7. Nde2 b5
7... h5 has been the top choice for years, and remained so even as recently as a couple of weeks ago in the World Rapid & Blitz Championships. But Xiong's move is also well-known and not a step into the unknown.  )
8. Ng3
8. g4 , not surprisingly, is the main move - there's a reason for all those 7...h5 games.  )
8... Qc7 9. Bd3 Be6 A novelty already.
9... g6 10. O-O Bg7 11. Bg5 Nbd7 12. Re1 O-O 13. Nf1 b4 14. Nb1 Bb7 was slightly better for Black in: Motylev,A (2663)-Sarana,A (2457) Tallinn 2016 (blitz) (0-1 (74)), but White had more than one improvement along the way.  )
10. O-O Nbd7 11. f4
11. Qf3  )
11... Be7 12. Qf3 O-O 13. Kh1 Qc6
13... exf4 followed by ...Ne5 is another traditional Najdorf plan, and it looks like a good choice here.
14. Bxf4 Ne5  )
14. f5 Bc4 15. Bg5 Rac8
15... b4  )
16. Nh5 b4 17. Bxf6 Nxf6
17... Bxf6 18. Bxc4 Qxc4 19. Nd5 Kh8 20. Nhxf6 Nxf6 21. Nb6 Qxe4 22. Nxc8 Rxc8 23. Qxe4 Nxe4 24. Kh2 h5 25. Rfe1 d5 26. Re2  )
18. Nxf6+ Bxf6 19. Bxc4 Qxc4 20. Nd5 White has achieved the positional anti-Najdorf player's dream: the beautiful steed on d5 against the semi-hapless dark-squared bishop. The game is by no means over, but White is going to have a lot more fun than Black is.
20... Qxc2 Forced, otherwise Black will suffer for nothing.
21. b3
21. Rf2  )
21... a5 22. Qe3 Kh8?
22... Rfe8 is better, giving the king the option of scampering towards the center.  )
23. Rac1 Qxa2 24. Nxf6 Rxc1 25. Rxc1 gxf6 26. Qh6 Kg8 27. Qxf6? A reprieve for Xiong.
27. Rf1! wins quickly:
27... Qxb3 28. Qxf6 Qg3 29. Rf3 Qg7 30. Qh4 a4 31. Rg3 b3 32. Kh2! Ra8 33. Rxg7+ Kxg7 34. Qg5+ Kh8 35. Qd2 a3 36. Qd5 and surprisingly, the White queen will eliminate both of Black's passers.  )
27... Qd2
27... Qb2?? 28. Qg5+ Kh8 29. f6 Rg8 30. Qxg8+ Kxg8 31. Rc8#  )
28. Rf1 Re8?
28... h5! 29. Rf3 Kh7! holds, as precarious as it seems.
30. Rg3 Qh6 31. Qe7 a4 32. bxa4 b3 33. Rxb3 Qc1+ 34. Kh2 Qf4+  )
29. Rf3 a4 30. Rg3+ Kf8 31. Qg7+ Ke7 32. f6+ Kd8
32... Ke6 was better, though still probably losing after
33. Qg4+ Kxf6 34. Qd7 Rf8 35. bxa4 b3 36. Rf3+! Kg7 37. Qe7! Qh6 38. Rxb3  )
33. Qxf7 a3 34. Qa7 Qc1+ 35. Kh2 Qf4 36. Qb8+ Kd7 37. Qb5+!
37. Qxb4? h5 and now there's no Qxd6.  )
37... Kd8 38. Qxb4 h5?! Desperation.
38... Re6 keeps fighting.  )
39. Qxd6+ Kc8 40. Qc6+ Kd8 41. f7! The most efficient move, though not the only way to win.
41. f7 Qxf7 42. Rd3+ Ke7 43. Qd6#  )
Ragger, Markus vs. Hansen, Eric
79th Tata Steel GpB | Wijk aan Zee NED | Round 3.5 | 16 Jan 2017 | ECO: C65 | 1-0
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 One of the three major anti-Berlin approaches.
4. O-O is the traditional main line, and after
4... Nxe4 White has a choice between the endgame arising after 5.d4 and the currently popular 5. Re1. The former move was almost automatic for a long time, but at the moment the trend is heavily in favor of 5.Re1.
5. Re1 Nd6 6. Nxe5 Be7 7. Bf1 looks a boring sort of Petroff, but White has found some nuances, and at least for now Black hasn't managed to prove that the position is completely equal after either 7... Nxe5 8.Rxe5 0-0 or 7...Nf5 8.Nf3 0-0.  )
4... d6 Now it's a sort of Steinitz Variation (3...d6), albeit a relatively favorable one because White has played d2-d3 rather than d2-d4.
4... Bc5 is much more popular at the super-GM level, and here White's fundamental choice is between taking on c6 and a slower, more patient approach with 5.c3.  )
5. c3
5. O-O immediately is more common at present, though transposition to the text is very possible.  )
5... Be7
5... g6 is another reasonable approach. Think of the Closed Ruy lines, like the Breyer, where Black first develops the bishop to e7, and then plays .. .Re8, ...Bf8, ...g6, and ...Bg7.  )
6. O-O O-O 7. Re1 a6 Not a new move, but varying from another game where Ragger had White.
7... Bd7 8. Nbd2 Re8 9. Nf1 Bf8 10. Ng3 h6 11. h3 a6 12. Ba4 Ne7 13. Bc2 Ng6 14. d4 c5 15. Be3 Rc8 16. Qd2 Qa5 17. dxc5 dxc5 18. Nh5! 1-0 (49) Ragger,M (2686)-Mastrovasilis,D (2603) Vienna 2016  )
8. Ba4 Nd7 A relatively uncommon choice, though this sort of maneuver is typical in many Ruy variations.
8... Re8 looks most popular at preset, chosen by none other than the world champion in a game last year.
9. Nbd2 Bf8 10. h3 Bd7 11. Nf1 Ne7 12. Bc2 c5 13. Ng3 Ng6 14. d4 cxd4 15. cxd4 exd4 16. Qxd4 Rc8 17. Bb3 Ne5 - (49) (49) Topalov,V (2761)-Carlsen,M (2855) Paris 2016 (blitz)  )
8... b5 9. Bc2 d5 is another important line, one Ragger himself has used with mixed success.
10. Nbd2 d4 11. h3 a5 Swiercz,D (2620)-Ragger,M (2698) Berlin 2015 (blitz) (1-0 (44)), and now White should play
...  12. cxd4 exd4 13. a4 with a pleasant edge.  )
9. d4 exd4
9... Bf6 is more popular but less successful.  )
10. cxd4 Nb6 11. Bb3
11. Bxc6 bxc6 hasn't fared well for White in its few outings, but it's too soon to chalk this up to problems with the exchange on c6 rather than the particular details of the relevant games.  )
11... Bg4 12. Nc3 Kh8 The idea of playing ...Kh8 and ...f5 in the Spanish and Italian is well known, though it's less common with such an open center (thanks to ... exd4).
12... Bf6 is thematic, pressuring d4.
13. Be3 g6 14. Qd3 Bxf3 15. gxf3 Bg7 16. Rad1 Kh8 17. f4 Qh4 18. Qe2 Ne7 19. Kh1 d5 20. e5 c6 21. Rg1 f6 22. Bc2 Rae8 23. Rg3 fxe5 24. fxe5 Nf5 25. Kg2 Nc4 26. Rh3 Qe7 27. Bc1 Kg8 28. Kh1 Qe6 29. Rf3 b5 30. b3 Nxd4 31. Rxf8+ Rxf8 32. Rxd4 Qxe5 33. Rd1 Qxe2 34. Nxe2 Rxf2 35. bxc4 Rxe2 36. Bd3 Rxa2 37. cxd5 cxd5 38. Bf1 Ra1 39. Bg2 d4 40. Bd5+ Kh8 41. Re1 Bh6 1/2-1/2 (41) Van Foreest, J (2548)-Short,N (2678) Douglas 2015  )
13. Be3 f5 14. exf5 Bf6?
14... Rxf5 looks scarier than it is:
15. Be6 Bxf3 16. gxf3 Qf8! 17. Bxf5 Qxf5 18. f4 d5 19. Qf3 /+/- Black's compensation for the exchange (mostly in the form of White's fractured kingside) is insufficient.  )
14... d5 was the best choice, keeping White's bishop out of e6. After
15. h3 Bxf5 16. Ne5 White's advantage is very slight.  )
15. Ne4 This also exploits Black's failure to play ...d5.
15. Be6! was stronger still.  )
15... Bxf3
15... d5 was still Black's best chance.
16. Nc5 Bxf5 17. Rc1 Bg4 18. Nxb7 Qc8 19. Rxc6 Qxb7 20. Rc1 Be7 21. Bf4!  )
16. Qxf3 Nxd4 17. Bxd4 Bxd4 Material is equal and Black's bishop looks nice. Nevertheless, he is lost. Black has one good piece, and White has four or five: the bishop, the knight, the queen, the f-pawn, the rook on e1 and in a moment the second rook will also join the action. Black's king needs defenders, but if he's not given time for ...Nd7-f6 he won't survive.
18. Rad1! c5
18... Bxb2 allows
19. Nc5! followed by Ne6.  )
19. Qh5 Threatening Ng5, of course, and Rd3 (with the trick Qxh7+ Kxh7 Rh3+ and mate next move) is another problem for Black.
19... h6 20. Qg6
20. f6! is even stronger, but the variations are more difficult.
20... Bxf6 21. Nxd6! Bd4 22. Re6! It's possible that Ragger missed this nice move, threatening mate in two starting with Rxh6+.
22... Qd7 23. Rxd4! cxd4 24. Qe5! Beautiful centralization.
24... Kh7 25. Qe4+ Kh8 26. Bc2 with inevitable mate.  )
20... d5!
20... Qe8 21. Qxd6 Qc6 was Black's "best", but his chances to survive the endgame after
22. Qxc6 bxc6 23. Be6 aren't fantastic.  )
20... Nd7 21. Nxd6 Nf6 22. Nf7+  )
21. f6! The only winning move!
21... Qc7! The best try; again, White has only one winning move.
21... dxe4?? 22. Qxg7#  )
21... gxf6? 22. Qxh6+ Kg8 23. Rd3  )
21... Bxf6 22. Nd6! Other knight moves are also strong, with the same clearance idea.
22... Qxd6 23. Bc2 Kg8 24. Qh7+ Kf7 25. Bg6#  )
21... Rxf6 22. Nxf6 Qxf6 23. Re8+ Rxe8 24. Qxe8+ Kh7 25. Rd2 leaves Black without any compensation for the material. Worse, his king still isn't safe, as White will play Re2, then Bc2+ g6 Re7+.  )
22. Ng5! gxf6
22... hxg5 23. Re7 Bxf2+ 24. Kh1 Qxe7 25. fxe7 Rfe8 26. Rxd5! c4 27. Bc2 Kg8 28. Qe6+ Kh8 29. Rxg5 mates in at most three more moves.  )
22... Bxf2+ 23. Kh1 hxg5 24. Re7 transposes to the last line.  )
23. Qxh6+ Kg8 24. Ne6
24. Ne6 Qh7 25. Qxh7+ Kxh7 26. Nxf8+ Rxf8 27. Re7+ is hopeless for Black.  )

—————————————————————-

Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.