Fabiano Caruana lost to David Navara, while the World Champion drew in Round 8. He now leads Caruana by half a point.

Sergey Karjakin of Russia held Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the World Champion, to a draw in Round 8, putting a halt to his three-game winning streak. But a loss by Fabiano Caruana of the United States allowed Carlsen to take over sole lead of the top section of the Tata Steel Chess tournament. 

In my last report on the tournament after round 3, I wrote that Carlsen was playing solidly and I thought that he would start to win some games. At that point, Caruana was the sole leader, but I thought that Caruana’s form was not so good as his score indicated.  It seems that those impressions were true, though Caruana’s win over Ding Liren of China in Round 7 was an extremely well played game. 

The game that surprised me the most was between David Navara of the Czech Republic and Caruana. 

In the above position, Navara, who had White, played 25. fxe5?!, which was a dubious idea but not a terrible one. Caruana responded with the obvious 25. … Bg4, skewering Navara’s rooks. The game continued 26. e6+ Kg6 27. Be4+, and here Caruana played 27. … f5? after thinking for less than a minute.

I was very puzzled by this. Any great player knows you should only be playing the board and not worrying about who is sitting across from you, but did Caruana really expect Navara to just blunder an exchange in one move to a simple tactic and have no idea to follow up? This strikes me as naive. If Caruana had spent a bit more time he may well have found 27. … Kh6!, which does win the exchange and leaves White fighting for a draw (which he would have good chances to achieve).

After 27. … f5?, Navara revealed his idea: 28. e7! Now Caruana started thinking, and undoubtedly realized that simple rook moves would fail. For instance, 28. … Rfe8 would be met with 29. Rd6+! Kh5 30. Bd3! and the rook on e2 cannot be captured due to the threat of checkmate.

Caruana found the best continuation with 28. … Bxe2, but Navara replied with accurate move: 29. Rd6+!, taking advantage of the fact that 29. … Rf6 was unsatisfactory because of 30. Rd8, queening the pawn. Caruana had to settle for 29. .. Kg5, but then was left with a very unpleasant endgame after 30. exf8/Q Rxf8 31. Bd5 Rf6 32. Rd7. Navara went on to win in fine style, knocking Caruana out of the shared lead.

The other decisive game of the round was the first victory of the tournament for Loek van Wely of the Netherlands. It came at the expense of the next lowest player, Hou Yifan of China, who had handled herself very well so far in the tournament. In Round 8, she had an off day, and van Wely was quick to capitalize. The first critical moment came in the following position:

The opening had been a Najdorf Sicilian and Hou, who was White, had played 6. Be3. That system can lead to complicated positions and, in this game, the board was a bit of a mess. Van Wely is clearly under pressure, but with several accurate moves in a row he found a way to a clear advantage. He began with 14. … Nexg4! Hou could not play 15. Bxg5? because of 15. … b4 16. Nb1 Qa5. Hou should have tried 15. e5!, which would have led to a complicated position that the computer calls equal, although I think a draw is the least likely result. Instead, she was a bit too tentative with 15. Bd4, and after 15. … Bb7 I could not see much compensation for the pawn.

After 16. Ne1 b4! 17. Bxg4 bxc3 18. Bxc3, van Wely made another decision I really liked with 18. … Rc8!?, eschewing the pawn on e4 for active piece play. White had to be very worried about a possible exchange sacrifice by Rxc3, so Hou correctly chose to take on f6. But after 19. … Qxf6, Black was able to put a bishop on g7, and I know from my days playing the Dragon Sicilian when I was younger that if Black can get an unopposed dark-squared bishop on the a1-h8 diagonal, it’s bad news for White.

It did not take long for van Wely to build up a large advantage and in the following position, Hou had another critical decision to make:

White’s position is extremely difficult. Not only is it objectively bad, but her moves are very hard to find, while Black’s are quite simple. Hou could have made a fight out of it with the surprising 27. Bxe6! fxe6 28. Rg6!, with the threat of Qh7, but this is basically impossible for a human to find, and even then White would still be worse.

After the sedate 27. Rh5 Ba6, White was blown off the board after 28. Qd2 Bc3 29. Qc1 Bd4 30. Qd2 Bxd3! 31. cxd3 Rc3!, at which point Black’s conquest of the dark squares was complete and the White king was a sitting duck on b1. Hou played another dozen moves, but the result was no longer in doubt and she eventually resigned.

There should have been a third decisive game, but Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine suffered an incredible meltdown in an endgame against Michael Adams of England. 

Eljanov, who had Black, had taken some risks early in the game.

Here, black can make a draw very easily with something like 30. … Rf8 31. Kf3 Rg8+, forcing a repetition. But, Eljanov was in a more combative mood and tried 30. … Kd6!?, completely ignoring White’s dangerous passed h pawn and running his king straight for a3. He ended up collecting all three of the White queenside pawns and arrived at an endgame which a player of his class should have no trouble winning. 

In the above position, the simplest win would be 58. … Rh7 59 Rh7 Kc2, when White simply cannot stop all of Black’s pawns supported by his bishop and king. Instead, Eljanov played 58. … b3, which still should have been enough to win. 

The endgame became a comedy of errors, with both players making mistakes, but Eljanov finally squandered his advantage and Adams was able to draw. If failing to win that endgame does not give Eljanov nightmares, nothing will. 

The Challengers group had a quiet day by their standards, with only two decisive games. Still, one was absolutely brutal. 

In the above position, Nino Batsiashvili of Georgia had Black against Anne Haast of the Netherlands. Batsiashvili probably confused or forgot her preparation. The only playable move is 9. … c5, when, in my opinion, White has a slight advantage.

Instead, Batsiashvili immediately played 9. … Nc4?, which basically loses the game.  I can’t imagine this was what she intended, but it’s a good reminder to always take at least a few seconds to check things before moving.

After 10. Bc3 Bxc3+ 11. Nxc3 Nxb2 12. Qd4 0-0 13. Bb3, the knight on b2 was just about trapped. Batsiashvili tried 13. … c5, but it didn’t help much after 14. Qd2 c4 15. Qxb2 cxb3 16. d6! Nc6 17. Nd5!, with textbook domination. Black only lasted 3 more moves before resigning.

Monday is a rest day, so the tournament resumes with Round 9 on Tuesday, when the most critical games will be Carlsen against Adams and Caruana facing Karjakin.

————————————————————————-

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 at GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.