World Champion Magnus Carlsen starts 2020 as the top seed for the Tata Steel Masters that begins in Wijk aan Zee on Saturday. His rivals include world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana, local hero Anish Giri, who finished runner-up for the last two years, and 5-time champion Vishy Anand, but much of the attention will be on the new generation. 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja is the one everyone is talking about, but the likes of Vladislav Artemiev and Jeffery Xiong are also making their debut in the top event in Wijk aan Zee.
The calendar year may start on January 1st, but for decades now the real start of the chess year has been the opening day of the chess festival in Wijk aan Zee, so that the chess 2020s begin this Saturday! The dream team of Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson will be providing a free broadcast on all 13 rounds, with some innovations to follow.
There’s no question who’s the favourite to win the Tata Steel Masters, with Magnus Carlsen rated more than 100 points higher than everyone else in the tournament other than Fabiano Caruana:
13-year-old Magnus Carlsen’s 10.5/13 victory in the C Group in Wijk aan Zee in 2004 announced the arrival of a new phenomenon, encouraging Lubomir Kavalek to christen the Norwegian “the Mozart of chess” in the Washington Post. Since then Magnus has made the tournament his own, going on to win the top group in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.
It’s not just about the title, however! There’s also the business of Carlsen’s unbeaten streak, which has now lasted 107 classical games, or 105 if you don’t count the two games against much weaker opposition in the Norwegian League:
Although no-one has ever completed such a streak against such a level of opposition, Magnus still needs 4 (or 6) unbeaten games at the start of Wijk to surpass the 110-game unbeaten streak claimed by Sergei Tiviakov. That may mean that the World Champion will be at his most vulnerable early on while the record hangs in the balance, but, whatever happens, he’s already reached a level in chess that only one or two people in the history of the game have managed. In a new interview with Sean Ingle for The Guardian we read:
“Kasparov had 20 years uninterrupted as the world No 1”, he says. “And I would say for very few of those years was there any doubt that he was the best player. He must be considered as the best in history.”
Suddenly Carlsen starts to smile. “But I feel like time is on my side,” he continues. “I’m not 30 yet. If I were to be considered the best in history at 30 I would have had to start dominating at 10.”
As it is, Magnus has dominated Wijk for the last decade to the extent that the only other players to claim the title are Wesley So (2017), who plays this year, and Levon Aronian (2012, 2014 – plus 2007 and 2008) and Hikaru Nakamura (2011), who don’t. Life is good, with the interview including:
Another factor might be domestic happiness – his relationship with Elisabet Lorentzen Djønne, a 24-year-old criminology student, has been known about in chess circles for months but Carlsen made it public only last week with an Instagram post, saying: “Been a great year on and off the board, on to the next one!”
In case you missed it, here's that Instagram post - click the right arrow below to see the other photos:
The absence of former champions Levon Aronian and Hikaru Nakamura wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if they were playing in the other season opener in Gibraltar, but this year they’re skipping both events. It’s not clear why, since neither are in the Candidates Tournament, though Levon has been spotted in South Africa wearing an only slightly more outrageous than usual shirt!
In fact the world numbers 3-8 are all absent from Wijk aan Zee. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov are the top seeds for the Gibraltar Masters, while Ding Liren, Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi are all qualifiers for the Candidates Tournament in March that determines Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger. Nepo was a late withdrawal, with an official press release explaining:
The 29-year-old Russian has indicated that he is too tired after a long and heavy series of tournaments in 2019. He wants to take a break to prepare for the Candidates Tournament.
Nikita Vitiugov, who was planning to play in Gibraltar, joins the tournament as a replacement after being unable to turn down the first chance in his life to play in Wijk aan Zee.
World no. 2 Fabiano Caruana is the biggest challenge to Magnus on paper, but it’s worth recalling that in 2018, before the Berlin Candidates, he had a miserable 5 losses and 1 win performance – the only blot on what would go on to be an incredible year for the US star. Once again we can expect Fabiano to use the event as a training exercise, with the similar format to the Candidates – 13 instead of 14 rounds in Yekaterinburg – making it a comparable endurance test, even if the field in the Candidates differs by having no weak links (unless you consider Kirill Alekseenko to fall into that category).
Dutch star Anish Giri has been Carlsen’s strongest competitor in the last couple of years, forcing tiebreaks in 2018 (in previous years he would simply have been crowned the co-winner) and finishing just half a point back in 2019 with 5 wins and 1 loss. Anish has once again been involved in the promotional activities for the event, which sees the top group visit the PSV football stadium in Eindhoven for Round 5 on January 16th:
And here's the Instagram post!
Giri is sure to be highly-motivated again, though he’s another player who may be storing up weapons for the Candidates Tournament in March. That means you could make a case for 2017 champion Wesley So being the most likely challenger, though to win the event the US star may have to take a few more risks against weaker opposition that he usually does. And then there’s 5-time champion Vishy Anand, who has now turned 50 but has continued to show in recent years that at his best he’s still a match for anyone. If he did win it would be his first triumph since 2006.
Vishy Anand is 21 years older than Magnus Carlsen, but the remarkable thing about this year’s Tata Steel Masters is that every other player is younger than Magnus except late replacement Nikita Vitiugov! Apart from established elite player Yu Yangyi, the most likely to be ready to challenge for the top places are perhaps 21-year-olds Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who already has Wijk aan Zee experience, and 2019 Gibraltar Masters winner Vladislav Artemiev, who’s making his debut in Wijk. The Russian speaks English with the kind of accent that should be compulsory for all Russian players!
23-year-old Daniil Dubov will attempt to bring his own brand of creativity to Wijk aan Zee, while the biggest focus will be on the youngest players. 19-year-old Jeffery Xiong has experience of playing in the Challengers and will be one to watch, but all eyes will initially be on 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja, who starts the tournament rated a stunning 2723. Only the likes of Wei Yi and Magnus Carlsen have ever been rated so high so young, and Alireza, who is now playing under the FIDE rather than the Iranian flag, will have the chance to prove he belongs in such company. You might say he already did that in the World Rapid and Blitz, where he came within inches of beating Magnus Carlsen, but a classical supertournament is a whole different level of baptism by fire!
There’s no doubt Magnus will be hoping to maintain the status quo and put in the kind of performance he did against Alireza in his most recent Banter Blitz session:
Once again this year we have not one but two extremely varied line-ups in Wijk aan Zee, with the Tata Steel Challengers providing an intriguing mix of youngsters, experienced players and local talents:
A curiosity is that the first 7 players in the line-up are all playing (only Ganguly and Eljanov have been knocked out) in chess24’s Banter Blitz Cup, while the coach of top seed David Antón, David Martínez, will be commentating on the action live for chess24’s Spanish site.
Of particular interest will be the trio of 15-year-olds - Nihal Sarin from India, Nodirbek Abdusattorov from Uzbekistan and Vincent Keymer from Germany. They all have the chance to follow in the footsteps of Alireza Firouzja and make their Tata Steel Masters debut as 16-year-olds next year if they can win the Challengers!
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