Reports Jan 22, 2021 | 9:08 AMby Colin McGourty

Tata Steel 5: Grandelius beats MVL to regain sole lead

Nils Grandelius beat world no. 5 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the famous Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf Sicilian to regain the sole lead after Round 5 of the 2021 Tata Steel Masters. All the other games were drawn, though David Anton was completely winning against Aryan Tari before the Norwegian missed an amazing chance to claim victory at the end. Magnus Carlsen was again frustrated by an opponent he outrated by around 200 points, with Alexander Donchenko the latest underdog to put up impressive defence.

Nils Grandelius shrugged off a missed win in the previous round to take down Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

You can reply all the games from the 2021 Tata Steel Masters using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko, Tania Sachdev and Jan Gustafsson.

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Nils Grandelius does it again

We're used to seeing Nils happy regardless of the result, but he has more reason than usual to be in good spirits! | photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

“Chesswise it’s definitely the most important,” commented Swedish no. 1 and world no. 78 Nils Grandelius when asked if this had been the most exciting week of his life so far. He’s now won three games in five rounds, and on Thursday picked up his biggest scalp yet – that of French no. 1, world no. 5 and Candidates Tournament leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Even more impressively, he did it by beating Maxime in his opponent's beloved Najdorf.

Check out Jan Gustafsson’s in-depth analysis of the game.

The line played was the Poisoned Pawn Variation once championed by Bobby Fischer, with Nils following Fabiano Caruana’s win against MVL in Norway Chess 2019 until varying with 13.Bb3 instead of 13.Bc4. Maxime began to take time over his moves while Nils continued to blitz, until the critical moment arose after 19.Rf4.


The computer’s only move here is 19…Nh5!, when the rook has to move along the f-file (20.Rg4? 0-0! and Black is better). Black’s only real option is then to come back against with 20…Nf6, when White could repeat the position for a draw with 21.Rf4. Nils revealed afterwards, however, that that wasn’t his plan. 

I was not going to repeat – without saying too much, I did not intend to repeat the moves. But yes, it’s clear that this is the way that Black should play, and although I have some ideas it’s of course fine for Black, the position is balanced, but it’s still possible to ask some questions for Black. This is what I was going to do, and if he finds a couple more only moves then he is just fine, or it’s just a draw.

Maxime instead played 19…Qe6?, allowing 20.Rxb7. He explained his choice to Nils afterwards:

He spotted the move Nh5, but he just said that he felt it looked so incredibly dangerous because his king is shut in the centre and he’s wasting two moves going back and forth with the knight. The problem is, of course, after Qe6 that I’m just a pawn up, so he probably should have tried to make Nh5 work for even longer – not trust his instinct but calculate even more. And then I’m a pawn up, but it’s a pawn, no more, no less, so I still have to win the game, and I’m not super happy with my conversion, but I think it was sort of fine.

Watch Nils’ interview in full.

What Nils wasn’t happy with was his time management, since he spent 16 minutes on deciding to take the b7-pawn (provoking echoes of his missed win the round before when he failed to grab a pawn on b2) and another 37 minutes on his next move. He told Jan he was afraid of repeating a failure to convert an extra pawn against Maxime in the 2018 German League, but in the end the conversion couldn’t have gone much better. Nils ended with a flourish.


31.Qh4! Bf8 (31…gxf5 32.exf5 and White threatens both Ne7+ and Qxh6) 32.Rf6! Qe8 33.Rxf8+! Qxf8 34.Ne7+ (finally this blow can’t be stopped) 34…Kf7 35.Nxc8. Black resigned, since White simply emerges a few pawns up with a trivially won position.

Carlsen and Caruana among the co-leaders thwarted

The public's response to a sudden draw by Giri in an exciting position was predictable, but given the position on the board it may have been a well-timed offer | photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

That victory proved sufficient for Nils to regain the sole lead (he was also out in front after Round 2) since none of his four co-leaders managed to win. Two of them were playing each other, with Harikrishna-Giri a fierce battle that saw both players burn up time until they were under a minute a move at the crucial moment.

Anish had been worried after the opening but was then doing well after a pawn sacrifice, before he lost his balance when Hari played 23…d3.


The Dutchman replied 24.Rad1, which is the first move suggested by the computer, at least at low depth, but instantly regretted it.

I made my move and then afterwards I realised that I missed a huge opportunity, and then it was very annoying to sit there, and after his move I made another move which I was unhappy with, so finally I decided just to send out a draw offer before I made another move which I’ll regret.

The move Anish wished he’d made was 24.Nd2, playing around the d3-pawn rather than attacking it, while after 24…Rd8 he did play an objectively bad move, 25.Bc3?. He’d thought it was winning an exchange, but in fact it just gave up all the advantage after 25…Nc4! Instead 25.Re3! first, when 25…Nc4? would run into 26.Rexd3, looks to be very strong, while 25.Nd2, as Anish mentioned, was still possible. 

Instead he made that knight move only a move later and accompanied it with a draw offer, which was accepted. An abrupt end to a hard-fought game!

18-year-old Esipenko continues to hold his own | photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

Caruana-Esipenko for 9 moves followed the hyper-sharp Caruana-Aronian from Round 1 of the 2019 Superbet Rapid & Blitz, a game Levon won before going on to win the whole tournament. Fabiano Caruana this time varied with 10.Ne3 instead of 10.Be3, a turn of events his 18-year-old opponent Andrey Esipenko was ready for. The Russian found it progressively harder to recall his analysis, however, until he spent almost an hour on his 19th move.

It was ultimately time well-spent, since after blitzing out 20.Rf1 in reply Fabiano also then spent 55 minutes on his next two moves before the game eventually fizzled out into a draw on move 40. At first glance it looks like an almost perfectly played game.

Not again! | photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

The same can be said about Carlsen-Donchenko, a Najdorf where, for the fourth game in a row, World Champion Magnus Carlsen got a small endgame edge against a 2600-rated opponent but was unable to squeeze out a victory.

22-year-old Alexander Donchenko was down to under a minute on the clock before the time control, but found precise moves to stay afloat. He then calculated a scary path to a draw.


Our commentators here feared for Alexander, with the white king coming to d5 and mating threats against the black king, but it turns out the only move 51…Rxh3! was sufficient to hold a draw. Magnus was able to use the d-pawn to win an exchange, but the black pawns and bishop gave more than enough compensation.

“I made life a little harder than necessary for myself, but in the end it worked out,” said Alexander, adding that his choice of drawing line (47…Ra2+ instead of 47…e4!?) was “quite dangerous” – “it looked like if something goes wrong here it goes wrong forever!”

Drama in Anton-Tari

Of the remaining games only the clash between the Polish no. 1 Jan-Krzysztof Duda and no. 2 Radek Wojtaszek was uneventful, with a draw by repetition reached on move 27.

Firouzja-Van Foreest was intense, but neither player was ever clearly winning | photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021 

Firouzja-Van Foreest was a tense 53-move contest that reached uncharted waters by move 6, while by move 9 Alireza had some tempting options.


9.Qb5!? was a rare chance to attack three undefended black pawns so early in the opening, though after 13 minutes Alireza opted simply to capture on c4 instead.

Aryan Tari was thrilled to make a draw... until he was told what he'd missed! | photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

The most eventful draw of the day was Anton-Tari, in which Spanish Champion David Anton completely outplayed his opponent in the Berlin Endgame and then seemed to do everything right until just before the time control, when 39.Rb5? b3 40.Rxc5 left Black with a path to survival.


40…Rxe5! 41.Rxe5 a3! and White ultimately had to give up his rook when the b-pawn queened. With three connected passed pawns for Black’s bishop it was still David who was playing for a win, but with 52.Kf4? his sense of danger failed him, and after 52…c3! Black was in fact winning.

That lasted only a couple of moves until 53.g5+ Kf7 54.Ke3:


The win is beautiful. Black plays 54…Bb5! and now any remaining legal move for the white king allows the c-pawn to queen. White therefore has to push pawns, but Black’s bishop stays on the f1-a6 diagonal to stop the a-pawn, while the seemingly powerful white kingside pawns will simply be picked off one by one as they advance. When the pawn moves run out, White will have to move his king and Black wins.

It would have been incredibly cruel on Anton to have pushed for a win for 5.5 hours only to walk into that, so Peter Leko was relieved when Tari played 54…c2?.

Aryan was delighted to make a draw, and only learned of his miss after the game was over.

I’m still in shock! The whole game I was worse and begging for a draw, so it was insane that I had Bb5, that’s just a huge shock for me…

You’re not looking for a chance there with Black, because you’re basically trying to make a draw against the four pawns. It’s incredible this chance. I should have seen it, of course, but it has to be said that before that I think I was dead lost also, so after the game I was very happy to make a draw, but now you told me Bb5 was winning.

So five rounds in Nils Grandelius is the sole leader, but with 8 rounds still to go no-one is out of contention yet.


In Round 6 Nils faces the other Candidates leader, Caruana, while Carlsen may be almost relieved to face a 2700-player again after four rounds - Duda. On the other hand, the last time Jan-Krzysztof had White against Magnus he ended the World Champion’s 125-game unbeaten streak! Elsewhere Maxime will want to build on his previous score against Tari to bounce back immediately.


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