Only one game in the top section ended decisively. Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, managed an easy draw.

The annual Tata Steel Chess Tournament got off to a relatively slow start on Saturday as all but one of the games in the top section ended in draws. Only Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine managed to win, beating Richard Rapport of Hungary after a rather strange opening. 

The Tata Steel tournament, which is held every year in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, and is named after the owner of the nearby steel factory, is in its 79th edition. It is not only one of the oldest tournaments in the world, it is also the longest as it features a field of 14 playing a round-robin, or 13 rounds.

The participants in this year’s top section include Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian World Champion; Sergey Karjakin of Russia, who Carlsen defeated late last year to retain the title; two other top players from Russia, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Dmitry Andreikin; Wesley So, a Filipino-born grandmaster who now plays for the United States (and with whom I won the team gold medal at last year’s Chess Olympiad); Levon Aronian of Armenia; Pentala Harikrishna and Adhiban Baskaran of India; Wei Yi of China; Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland; and Anish Giri and Loek van Wely, representing the host country.

Carlsen had an interesting pairing in Round 1 as he faced So. So has been the second-best player in the world for some months now, winning the Sinquefield Cup and the London Classic en route to clinching last year’s Grand Chess Tour. I think that So may be the biggest threat to dethrone Carlsen in the future, but this time the World Champion had no problems holding a draw with the Black pieces.

So, Wesley vs. Carlsen, Magnus
Tata Steel Masters | Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands | Round 1 | 14 Jan 2017 | 1/2-1/2
11. Bd2 Qxe5!?
11... e6 This is the more common move, after which Black is usually fine  )
12. Bc3 Not the most challenging choice.
12. Rc1  )
12. Be2 This move and Rc1 looked like they would have given Black more problems.  )
12... Qc7 13. Qxd5 White restores material equality, but after
13... e6 14. Qc4 Qxc4 15. Bxc4 Rc8 The position is symmetrical, dead even, and extremely boring. If there was no 30-move rule, I would expect the players to agree to a draw at this point. So Carlsen held a draw with Black rather easily against an opponent who might one-day challenge him for the crown.
16. Bb3 Be7 17. Ke2 Be4 18. Bxg7 Rg8 19. Be5 Rxg2 20. Rac1 Rxc1 21. Rxc1 Rg5 22. Bf4 Rc5 23. Rxc5 Bxc5 24. Bc4 b5 25. Bd3 Bxd3+ 26. Kxd3 f5 27. f3 Kd7 28. e4 Kc6 29. h3 h5 30. b3 Bb6 31. Be5 Bc5 32. Bf4 Bb6 33. Be5

Anyone who reads my articles on World Chess knows how fascinated I am by Rapport as he always manages to create interesting and original positions. His Round 1 game was no exception, but Eljanov navigated the complications better.

Eljanov, Pavel vs. Rapport, Richard
Tata Steel Masters | Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands | Round 1 | 14 Jan 2017 | 1-0
15. Nd5 An unusual opening lead to a bizarre and sharp middlegame. Rapport is the first to miss a chance.
15... d3? Releasing the tension and missing a great opportunity:
15... Ba6! 16. Nxe7+ Nxe7 17. Bxa8 Qxa8 18. exd4 Qc6! And Black would have an edge.  )
16. Qxd3 e4 17. Nxe7+ Nxe7 18. Qc2!?
18. Qxd6 There was nothing wrong with this move, but Eljanov clearly preferred to keep the position closed.
18... Qxd6 19. Rxd6 Be5 20. Rd2! Be6 21. Bf1 Rac8 22. Rc2 Black would have some compensation for his material deficit, but probably not enough for equality.  )
18... Ba6 I don't like this move, but Black is probably a little worse no matter what he does.
18... Nc6 19. c5!? bxc5 20. Nxc5 White has some pressure.  )
19. Nd4! Qd7 20. b3 Nc6 21. Bb2 Black is left with a loosened kingside and backward d6 pawn and has no compensation for these weaknesses.
21... Ne5 22. Ne2! Well played. Eljanov unblocks the bishop on b2 and reroutes the knight to the f4 square, which is ideal for it.
22... Nd3 23. Bxg7 Qxg7 24. Nd4 Now that the bishop on b2 has been traded, Eljanov returns the knight to d4 because the situation has changed and the knight is more effective there than on f4. back. The idea is simple and strong.
24... Rae8 25. Rxd3! The exchange sacrifice is a relatively easy decision to make in this position. Black's pawns are weak, his bishop is awful and his rooks have no open lines.
25... exd3 26. Qxd3 Bb7
26... Re5 27. Qc3 And White would have a clear edge.  )
27. Bxb7 Qxb7 28. Ne2! Simple and elegant. The pawn on d6 is the target and Black has absolutely no counterplay.
28... Rf6 29. Nf4 Qe4 30. Qd2 White has no interest in trading queens at this point.
30... Rc8 31. a4! Playing patiently. White prevents any eventual possibility of b5 by Black.
31... Rc5 32. Rd1 Qf3 33. Nd5 Rf7 34. Qc2 a6? A blunder but the position was hopeless anyway. Note how much better the knight on d5 is than either of Black's rooks.
35. Nxb6 Black's edge is more than sufficient now.
35. Rd4 This move was even better. The queen is trapped on f3 and will soon be lost after Rf4.  )
35... Qe4 36. Qc3 Qe5 37. Rd4 a5 38. Qd3 Rc6 39. Nd5 Kg7 40. Nc3 Rf6 41. Rd5 Black is about to lose more pawns and still has no counterplay, so he throws in the towel.

While the other games were drawn, there were still some interesting fights. Van Wely barely held on against Adhiban (the winner of last year’s challengers group) in a difficult position.

Adhiban, Baskaran vs. van Wely, Loek
Tata Steel Masters | Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands | Round 1 | 14 Jan 2017 | 1/2-1/2
Bb7 White has an artificially isolated, but passed, d-pawn. Is it a strength or a weakness?
15. Re1! An accurate move. White is preparing to play Ne5.
15. Ne5? White is not yet ready for this because of
15... Nf4  )
15... Nf6
15... Nf4 16. Be4 Bxe4 17. Rxe4 Nd5 18. c4 Nf6 19. Re3 The d-pawn looks very strong now.  )
15... g6! According to the engine, this was the only move that led to equality. The point is that after
16. Be4 Bxe4 17. Rxe4 Qd7! 18. Ne5 The knight on h5 is defended. This idea was very hard for a human to find.  )
16. Ne5 g6 17. Bb5! Black's pieces are seriously restricted in scope and the d-pawn is very dangerous.
17... Qc8 18. Qa4! a6 19. Bf1 b5 20. Qh4 Qd8 21. Rad1 Things have gone very well for White in the last few moves and the positioning of his pieces has improved significantly.
21... Kg7
21... Nd5 The engine offers this move, but after
22. Qh6! Qxd6 23. Rd3! The position is extremely dangerous for Black. White threatens Rh3, so the only way to try to survive is
23... Qc7 24. Rh3 f5! 25. c4! Even if Black makes it this far, he is still under a great deal of pressure.
...  bxc4 26. Bxc4  )
22. a4
22. c4 This move looked more natural to me.  )
22... c4 23. axb5 axb5 24. b3 cxb3 25. Bxb5 Nd5 26. Qd4 Qf6 27. c4?
27. Rb1! This move was simple and strong. The pawn on b3 will be captured, after which White's advantage would be overwhelming.  )
27... Nf4 28. Bc6 Bxc6 29. Nxc6 Qxd4 30. Nxd4 b2 Now Black has some counterplay.
31. g3 e5! 32. Nb5
32. Rxe5? Ra1 33. Ree1 Rfa8! And Black would be winning.  )
32. gxf4 exd4 33. Rxd4 Rfb8 34. Rb1 Ra1 35. Rdd1 Rxb1 36. Rxb1 Kf6 White has to play precisely to hold on.  )
32... Ne6 33. Rb1
33. Rxe5 Ra1 34. Ree1 Rfa8 Black's b-pawn once again gives him enough counterplay.  )
33... Rfc8!? This forces exchanges that will end in an endgame that is unpleasant for Black, but should end in a draw with precise play.
33... Nc5! This saves the pawn on b2 and keeps the tension in the position. The engine evaluates the chances as equal.  )
34. Rxb2 Rxc4 35. Rxe5 Ra1+ 36. Kg2 Rd1 White's extra pawn is firmly under control, and endgames with rooks are often drawn. Adhiban managed to get some pressure but was unable to break through in the rest of the game.
37. h4 h5 38. Ree2 Rc5 39. Rec2 Re5 40. Nc7 Ree1 41. Rd2 Nd8 42. Nd5 Nc6 43. Ne3 Rg1+ 44. Kf3 Rxd2 45. Rxd2 Kf6 46. Nd5+ Ke6 47. Nf4+ Kd7 48. Nd3 Nd8 49. Nc5+ Kc6 50. Ne4 Kd7 51. Nc5+ Kc6 52. Ne4 Kd7 53. Ra2 Nc6 54. Rb2 f5 55. Rb7+ Ke6 56. Ng5+ Kxd6 57. Kf4 Rf1 58. Nf7+ Ke6 59. Ng5+ Kd6 60. Nf7+ Ke6 61. Ng5+ Kd6

In Round 2 on Sunday, I have a funny feeling that the all-Indian matchup between Harikrishna and Adhiban will be a fun one.


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 4 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 was also a member of the team that won the gold medal at the 2016 Chess Olympiad. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.