General Jan 12, 2018 | 11:42 PMby Colin McGourty

7 questions before the 80th Tata Steel Masters

Magnus Carlsen takes on Fabiano Caruana in Saturday’s first round of the Tata Steel Masters as he aims for a record 6th title, but it’s not going to be easy! Fellow 5-time Champion Vishy Anand plays for the first time since 2013, former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik plays for the first time since 2011, and in fact six of the world’s Top 10 play in the strongest Wijk aan Zee in many years after the organisers pulled out all the stops for the 80th edition! We take a look at seven questions before the tournament begins.

5-time Wijk aan Zee winners Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand are back for the 80th edition | photo: official website

The full pairings are out for this year’s Tata Steel Masters, and you can check them out below – hover over a player’s name to see all his or her games:

Let’s get straight to the questions:

 1. Can Carlsen or Anand make it six?

This is a historic 80th edition of the tournament that, under various names, has been held in or around Wijk aan Zee since 1938. For a quick history check out the intro video:

Anatoly Karpov and Nigel Short are among those to win it twice…

…Garry Kasparov was one of those to win it three times, Max Euwe, Viktor Korchnoi, Lajos Portisch and Levon Aronian have won it four times, but the only players to win it five are Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen.

Can one of them make it six? Well, both received a boost in the run-up after Vishy won the World Rapid Championship and Magnus took the World Blitz in Riyadh, both have the advantage of seven games with the White pieces (alongside So, Kramnik, Svidler, Giri and Jones) and neither has the distraction of the Candidates Tournament.   

The favourite, as always, though, is World Champion and world no. 1 Magnus Carlsen. Wijk is like chess home to him and he’s won it for three of the last five years, while he has the added motivation of wanting to reset the statistic that he hasn’t won a classical round-robin since Bilbao in July 2016.

Vishy, meanwhile, last finished first alongside Veselin Topalov in 2006 and hasn’t played since 2013, but on his day he’s proven again and again that he has what it takes to win elite tournaments.

2. Or can Wesley So defend his title?

It’s strange how perceptions change in chess. The second half of 2016 belonged to Wesley So, who won the Sinquefield Cup, London Chess Classic, Grand Chess Tour and then managed to keep that momentum going by winning the Tata Steel Masters as well, proving he could also finish top when Magnus wasn’t busy with World Championship matches. He added the US Championship title and could make a reasonable claim to have been the world’s best chess player at that moment in time – or at least the clear world no. 2. After that, though, he sank back, finally losing a game in Shamkir Chess, drawing all his games in Norway and eventually starting 2018 as world no. 6. It seems as though he’s suffered a slump, but when you look closer the only outright bad classical tournament he played in 2017 was the Sinquefield Cup, where he lost four games and finished joint last.

Wesley So makes a friend | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

3. Will this be the perfect Candidates warm-up?

One factor which may work against Wesley, though, is that all his focus is likely to be on the Candidates Tournament in March. For those purposes Wijk aan Zee is a great practice ground, since it’s the only supertournament to have retained so many players. If you can withstand 13 rounds by the North Sea in January you stand a fighting chance of surviving 14 rounds in Berlin in March!

Wesley is by no means alone, with Fabiano Caruana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Vladimir Kramnik and Sergey Karjakin all in the same boat. Traditionally you’d expect them to withhold their most serious opening preparation and experiment with things they want to work on, even if nowadays it’s almost a mantra that if you find an opening idea you may as well use it immediately before someone else gets the chance. To conclude, the looming behemoth of the Candidates Tournament probably reduces the chances of these five players winning in Wijk aan Zee, but who knows – perhaps the attempt to hit peak form in March might backfire with their peak coming a couple of months earlier!

4. Can Wei Yi keep pace with Magnus?

Unlucky for some, but famously lucky for one former World Champion! | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

18-year-old Wei Yi is still the world’s top junior, but the Chinese prodigy hasn’t quite managed to maintain the “future World Champion” trajectory he was showing a few years ago. In the three years since he hit 2737 in 2015 he’s only added a handful of rating points, while he didn’t manage to win Wijk aan Zee as a 17-year-old like Magnus. Beating Carlsen to 2800 is also looking highly unlikely:

On the other hand, Wei Yi remains a ferocious attacking player who has so far finished 7th and 5th in Wijk. He seems to be coming into the event after something of a break, so don’t rule out this being his coming of age event.  

5. Is it the Russian year in Wijk aan Zee?

This year Russia boasts four players in the Tata Steel Masters: Vladimir Kramnik, Peter Svidler, Sergey Karjakin and Maxim Matlakov. The last time that happened was in 2005, when Kramnik and Svidler were joined by Alexander Grischuk and Alexander Morozevich. Since then the number of players from the world’s leading chess superpower has varied from 0 (in 2015) to 3, though the most common number was one.

It’s perhaps curious, since Russian winters aren’t famed for their mildness, but Wijk has taken something of a bashing from Russian players. 

At least Sergey, who celebrated his 28th birthday on the eve of the tournament, came to the Netherlands well-prepared!

Alexander Grischuk recently commented during the last round of the European Team Championship that he’d “lifetime banned” himself from the tournament, citing the weather as well as the fact the tournament has stuck to the older model of paying players for turning up rather than putting significant money into prizes. Grischuk had also commented in the past about the time advantage he gave his opponents because of the long trek to get outside and smoke and back. Another smoker, Vladimir Kramnik, told Vlad Tkachiev six years ago in a WhyChess interview:

For me winter is a difficult period. For example, I always play in Wijk aan Zee, and it always goes badly, while correspondingly I play well in Dortmund. In winter I simply don’t get enough daylight. I go to sleep and get up very late, and at Wijk aan Zee I have the impression I don’t see daylight at all. So there are perfectly rational reasons to explain it.

Kramnik can’t get up too late in Wijk since the rounds start at 13:30, while it’s not entirely true that he’s always done badly - he once won the event and has finished near the top on multiple occasions.

Maxim Matlakov is the new kid on the block | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

This year Peter Svidler also plays for the first time in 11 years, ruining our commentary plans but giving chess24 fans someone to cheer for! Peter goes into the event after becoming an 8-time Russian Champion, and was able to bring a second… or rather, his long-term second Maxim Matlakov is also playing. Maxim qualified through the ACP Tour, but in any case his breakout year in 2017 deserved to be capped with a supertournament invitation. Now all that remains is to survive swimming with the sharks!

6. Who will be this year’s Loek van Wely?

This is a somewhat unfair question, but talking of sharks, Loek chose to decline his invitation to take on Magnus and co. this year, even though playing a single round would have seen him move ahead of Johannes Donner to hold the record as the player to have played the most games in the tournament (299). In 2016 and 2017, though, he finished last, and in 2018, with so few weak links, the pressure on the lowest rated players is going to be higher than ever.

On paper the likely punching bag is English Grandmaster Gawain Jones, who picked up the poisoned chalice by winning the Challengers in 2017. The reigning British Champion may warm to the role of underdog, though, and is certainly capable of throwing some punches. 

The same of course applies to India’s Adhiban, who landed some huge blows on the way to finishing 3rd in 2017, proving you could play risky openings against the world’s best and live to tell the tale. The women’s no. 1, Hou Yifan, meanwhile, has plenty of experience in Wijk aan Zee and will this year get her wish to start the year playing against the top men. If she’s going to shoot for 2700 she may need to be fast, since later this year she starts a scholarship at Oxford University, and is likely to find herself very busy with her studies.

Is it a sign? | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

Of course with such a powerful field almost anyone could end up towards the bottom if things start to go wrong. We haven’t mentioned Anish Giri, who is the right nationality to take over from his Dutch colleague, though his sights will be set much higher and he clearly has the potential to win the event, especially without the distraction of the Candidates. Not that anyone would rule out a mid-table finish...

7. Who’s missing and why?

With such an embarrassment of riches it’s perhaps strange to even ask this, but the simple answer is that while six of the world’s Top 10 are playing in Wijk aan Zee, three of the remaining four will play in Gibraltar. The surprise is perhaps that 4-time Wijk winner Levon Aronian has chosen warmer climes, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura are Gibraltar regulars, with Hikaru the winner for the last three years. 

The only Top 10 player to miss both events is Ding Liren. We’re not sure why, but perhaps the Chinese Chess Federation has plans for his Candidates Tournament preparation.

That’s not all in Wijk aan Zee, of course, since (not to mention amateur events) there’s also another 14-player tournament – the Challengers. Once again that’s a potent brew of young talents, veterans, top female players, local players and even brothers…

There’s no time to go into more detail, but here are the full pairings:

You can watch all the games live from 13:30 CET on Saturday, with live commentary and the best broadcast system around: Masters | Challengers

See also:

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