Magnus Carlsen is the 2018 Tata Steel Masters Champion after finishing tied on 9/13 with Anish Giri and going on to win the blitz tiebreak 1.5:0.5. That was a record 6th triumph in the top event in Wijk aan Zee for the World Champion, putting him ahead of Vishy Anand, who has five wins. A last round win saw Vladimir Kramnik share 3rd place with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. In the Challengers it was Vidit who qualified to play in the 2019 Masters after drawing his game with Jorden van Foreest while Anton Korobov eventually lost his must-win game. We draw 13 conclusions from the tournament.
Replay all the action from the 2018 Tata Steel Masters using the game selector below. Click on a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results:
Let’s get straight to the conclusions!
It’s always hard to talk about the “slump” of a player who never ceased to be world no. 1 or World Champion, but Magnus Carlsen came dangerously close to losing his title in 2016, last won a classical round-robin in Bilbao in July 2016 and had gone through periods in 2017 when rivals were a win or two away from snatching the no. 1 spot he’s held since July 2011. Magnus himself lamented his form, particularly after Altibox Norway Chess last year, when he finished second last and stunned viewers by commenting, “Basically I know that I can play, but I’m not so convinced about my ability to win games”.
Since then there were promising signs as he dominated the Grand Chess Tour rapid and blitz events, won a classical open on the Isle of Man and starred in the World Rapid and Blitz Championship at the turn of the year, but still a classical round-robin victory had eluded him… until now!
And it wasn’t just a victory, but a historic achievement that saw him move ahead of Vishy Anand with six wins in Wijk aan Zee:
It’s huge for me, obviously. This is one of the top tournaments not just right now but of all time, so having the record here, especially after such a bad spell that I’ve had, it’s amazing.
His unbeaten +5 in Wijk aan Zee included what used to be his bread and butter but had become increasingly rare – brilliant technical games where he squeezed blood from a stone to beat Wesley So and Maxim Matlakov in opposite-coloured bishop endings. Almost his only significant mistake was a big one – blundering a whole piece against Gawain Jones – but he turned it into a showcase of his talent as he played the remainder of the game flawlessly and, with some help from his opponent, went on to win the most memorable game of the event.
The 2885 rating performance saw him gain 9 points to open up a gap of almost 30 points over 2nd placed Mamedyarov and over 40 points over 3rd placed Kramnik.
A World Championship match year has begun with absolutely no question over who remains the world’s best chess player. Arguably the greatest male and female players of all time chimed in:
It’s a shame, though, that the introduction of tiebreaks in Wijk aan Zee prevented Anish Giri from winning his first ever traditional supertournament, one which would have been doubly sweet, since it was on home soil. He silenced the jokes about draws by matching Magnus’s five wins, including two against in-form and dangerous players, Vladimir Kramnik and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. A 24.7 rating gain also took him back into the Top 10 where he belongs. Magnus led the praise:
I would like to congratulate him on a wonderful tournament. He’s played as well as anybody. He’s barely been in danger at all, and when he’s been in danger he’s defended very well. He’s done wonderfully and he would have deserved to win as well.
After Carlsen drew with Karjakin in the final round that left a gap open for Anish to take the title if he could beat Wei Yi. As Magnus put it:
If Anish wins, then well done. You cannot expect to beat +6 every time!
Although Giri ultimately ended up slightly better with Black against Wei Yi, he saw no prospects of winning a position where both players had four pawns on one wing, and a draw was agreed on move 21.
That meant tiebreaks, and not since the Life of Brian has a doomed man approached his demise in better spirits! Anish commented:
If I win I’ll probably write something incredibly nasty on Twitter, so he’s probably completely terrified of that possibility! But obviously my chances are not very good. He’s playing blitz day and night, I’m preparing instead… It’s too late. I should have prepared all my life. Instead I’ve been working on chess, he’s been preparing for the tiebreaks, so there’s nothing to be done anymore!
There was plenty you could say against the introduction of tiebreaks in Wijk aan Zee, with two blitz games perhaps a strange way to decide a tournament fought out over 13 long rounds. In terms of tradition Vishy Anand pointed out that for three of his titles he’d been tied for first, so that he was giving Carlsen the record regardless of the outcome of the tiebreaks. Magnus didn’t mind either system, as long as mathematical tiebreaks alone weren’t used (as, it seems, they will be again in the Candidates):
The only thing I’m not a fan of is deciding things away from the board with some kind of tiebreak system that is not a playoff. I think that shared win is fine, and also a playoff is fine, because even though it’s a different format it’s still decided over the board. I think that should be the main principle, and I also like playing chess, so I like tiebreaks, obviously!
The clearest opponent of tiebreaks was Vladimir Kramnik, who commented of Anish and Magnus, “for me they’re both winners of the tournament”, which was a common sentiment, but his other phrase, “it’s just a lottery,” is much harder to defend. Giri was right about Carlsen being a heavy favourite, and there’s a reason why the world no. 1 has won all his tiebreaks for over a decade, and why he’s always fighting for first in rapid and blitz events.
The first tiebreak game was quintessential Magnus – a slender endgame advantage nursed to a full point with it hard to pinpoint exactly where his opponent went wrong. Magnus was critical of the speed at which he played, but he was never low on time and his longest think of the game, 45 seconds, produced a good move, 40.Bc5:
If Black takes the bishop the pawn ending is lost. After 40…Kd7, Carlsen correctly avoided 41.Bxd6 (and this time the pawn ending is drawn!) with 41.h5! and gradually went on to win a pawn before Giri resigned when White had methodically managed to make the exchange of bishops unavoidable.
That meant Giri had to win on demand with White to force Armageddon, and to his great credit he came close.
Here he played 24.Qxf4!, sacrificing the f5-knight, though in practical terms it was an excellent decision from Magnus to return the material immediately with 24...gxf5 25.gxf5 Qg7!? 26.fxe6 Rxe6, when Black is a pawn down but has good chances of whipping up counterplay against the white king. So it proved, with Giri very short on time and unable to consolidate, so that the final position is close to lost for White:
White might have some drawing chances in an opposite-coloured bishop ending, even against Magnus, but since that wouldn’t change the outcome of the tournament the players shook hands here. Carlsen was the 2018 Tata Steel Chess Champion.
You can rewatch the tiebreak games (and the whole final day show) below:
We mentioned in a previous report how Anish Giri had abandoned his “tweet less, win more” resolution for 2017, but it’s done him no harm whatsoever. In fact the two players who have been most active on Twitter had the best results. Let’s hope that inspires more of the top stars to get involved on social media and in trash-talk and banter in general, since it adds a bit of spice to the proceedings of these gruelling top-level events!
But realistically, how long could it last?
And if the chess doesn't work out...
In physical terms especially the 13-round Tata Steel Masters is an excellent warm-up for the 14-round Candidates Tournament, but before it began it was hard to know what effect the looming battle to choose Carlsen’s next challenger would have. We could expect some players to conserve both energy and opening ideas, and that was perhaps what we saw from Sergey Karjakin and Wesley So, who were relatively anonymous for most of the event.
They both had plenty to be happy with, though, since Wesley, with a little good fortune at times, managed to win four games and was only kept to a +3 score by a tough loss to the World Champion. Sergey, meanwhile, was the only player other than Carlsen and Giri not to lose a game, and also managed to beat two of his Candidates rivals, Vladimir Kramnik and Fabiano Caruana.
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s exotic opening choices, especially at the start, may have been motivated by hiding preparation, but they worked to perfection as he racked up a 5.5/7 start that not only put him on course to win the tournament but put the world no. 1 spot within dreaming distance. Shak compared his first ever tournament in the top group in Wijk aan Zee: “I got 4.5 points after 13 games, and here I got 4.5 points after 6 games!”
Things fell apart somewhat with a loss to Anish Giri, and Mamedyarov’s overall reputation may have been a bit tarnished by trying to put the blame for a 12-move draw in the penultimate round on Gawain Jones, but his chess reputation was enhanced once again. Mamedyarov had consolidated a position as world no. 2 that will see him enter the Candidates tournament as the favourite, at least on paper.
Vladimir Kramnik, like all the other Candidates, is aiming to peak for the main event, but commented, “considering that I was not supposed to be in my top shape here I think my play was pretty decent”. He lost two games but won six, more than anyone else, as at the age of 42 he’s reinvented himself as the most aggressive player at the top of the game. His wins over Anand and Caruana stood out, and after he ultimately failed to qualify for the Candidates by rating, needing a wild card, it’s fitting that he’s now world no. 3 again, above Caruana and So.
Fabiano Caruana, though, is the player with the most obvious work to do before the Candidates. He lost four games with the black pieces, got just one win against Hou Yifan (in a game where he felt he was getting mated at one point) and failed to win any of his white games. No-one would be surprised to see Fabi bounce straight back in the Candidates, but this is an experience he’ll want to forget in a hurry – especially as he lost to three of his rivals to play Magnus.
One interesting detail is that at least Mamedyarov and Kramnik are planning to play in a Tal Memorial rapid tournament in Moscow in the run-up to the Candidates. Shak in particular noted, “I just want to play chess and not only to sit at home and prepare the Candidates.” He said it wasn’t the tournament of his life, though of course if he won it then it might turn out to be just that!
Vishy Anand didn’t sound like a 48-year-old when he summed up his satisfaction with the tournament in a way any teenager would approve of:
Well, meh! It’s neither terrible… +3 is not a bad result, but given that practically everyone has +3 or more, you shouldn’t get too impressed either.
Vishy finished in a tie for 5th place with So after scoring four wins but losing one painful game with the white pieces to his lifetime rival Vladimir Kramnik. Perhaps he was a bit disappointed not to keep up the pace at which he started, which stood out not only for two wins in four games but for the beautiful end to Anand-Caruana:
The final standings are neatly split with the top 7 all performing above 2800 and gaining rating points. There’s then a 1.5 point gap to Peter Svidler and the rest, who all, with the exception of Gawain Jones, performed below expectations.
The Russian contingent was split between the halves, with Svidler and Maxim Matlakov not exactly having terrible events, but having little to be satisfied with either:
We wondered before the tournament began if Wei Yi could get back on the career trajectory that had seen him reach 2700 earlier than Magnus. Instead it’s looking almost impossible that he could climb to 2800 at the same age as the World Champion, after a disappointing event. The young Chinese grandmaster scored a single win, against Gawain Jones, but suffered three defeats, with bad time management a factor in many of the games.
That was most evident against Wesley So, when Wei Yi found himself down to a minute or so on the clock at the crucial moment. He missed a winning move he would have found with more time and fell to defeat, with his title as the world’s no. 1 junior currently at risk from 19-year-old Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
Last year Adhiban was the revelation of the Masters group, and if Gawain didn’t quite rise to those dizzy heights he acquitted himself excellently as the lowest-rated player, sticking to his aggressive repertoire with Black and playing intelligently with White, so that the stars would have to take some risks if they wanted to beat him - Mamedyarov really only had himself to blame in the penultimate round for not being prepared for that.
Gawain picked up a win over Adhiban and will have only one real regret from the tournament… the failure to take the scalp of the World Champion after Magnus blundered a piece. On the other hand, he didn't go away entirely empty-handed...
The 13 rounds and over two weeks on the Dutch coast in winter must seem like an incredible ordeal when things start to go badly, and with such monsters at the top of the field the event is always going to go badly for someone. Ivan Sokolov scored 3/13 in 2013, Baadur Jobava scored 3 points as well in 2015, Loek van Wely had 3.5 in 2017, while this year it was Hou Yifan’s turn to suffer. The women’s no. 1 had already shown in the past that she wasn’t out of place in Wijk, scoring 5.5, 5 and 5 on her previous three appearances, but this year you had to look back to Jan Timman in 2003 for someone else who scored a miserable 8 losses and 5 draws for just 2.5/13. There were of course near misses - she was close to drawing Giri and Carlsen and beating Caruana - but as in Caruana's case, it's hard to put a positive spin on losing over 25 rating points.
Hou Yifan in a way spared Adhiban’s blushes, after the Indian grandmaster went from 7.5/13 (with 4 wins) and third place in 2017, to 3.5/13, winless and second last in 2018. There was no longer any element of surprise, and perhaps his event was summed up in the final round, when Kramnik said the noon start was “a bit too early” for him and admitted to various blunders. Vladimir was only fighting for a draw, until what Karjakin called the move of the tournament…
“He just went mad” was how Vladimir described Adhiban’s exchange sac 35.Rxa5?, with Kramnik going on to pick up “half a point for free”.
Adhiban’s chances of an invite in 2019 look slim, but we’ll have at least one Indian grandmaster, after 23-year-old Vidit justified his top seeding to qualify from the Challengers.
Vishy Anand was impressed:
I thought he was completely professional in how he qualified for the A, so my congrats to him for that. He’s what, +5 in the end, and he looked comfortable the whole tournament.
Vidit agreed with his mentor, though he’d been made to sweat a little in the final round after taking a draw:
Ukraine’s Anton Korobov would have been a wonderful addition to the top event, with some entertaining interviews guaranteed, while it would also have been interesting from a chess point of view. Alexander Grischuk once named Korobov as a player he’d like to see get some supertournament invitations. In the end the final table shows a full point gap:
It was much closer than that, though, with Anton only losing in the final round after he was forced to take huge risks to play for a win with Black. If he’d beaten Dmitry Gordievsky he might have finished top on tiebreaks (there would be no playoff), but instead he can look back on an event where he somewhat ran out of steam after starting with 5.5/6.
We couldn’t have asked for more from the jubilee edition of the Tata Steel Chess Festival. The line-up was mouth-watering, but that didn’t lead to an excess of draws, with decisive action every day and around 40% of games won overall. There was a battle right to the end, with the World Champion and the local hero the perfect players to ensure maximum interest.
The live commentators led by Robin van Kampen and Eric Hansen did a great job, as did interviewers Fiona Steil-Antoni and Tom Bottema and photographer Alina l'Ami, while the video production was top notch as always.
Eric's boe tie just for the playoff deserves to be immortalised...
The good news is the event is back in 2019, on 11-27 January. For now, though, the attention will switch to the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters, which is entering the finishing straight!