World no. 2 Ding Liren was at his terrifying best as he beat Gukesh in Round 1 of the Tata Steel Masters. 18-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov scored the only other win, against Richard Rapport, while Magnus Carlsen, Anish Giri and Vincent Keymer missed chances. That was nothing, however, compared to the misses in the Challengers, where Abhimanyu Mishra and Max Warmerdam took the early lead.
Day 1 of Tata Steel Chess 2023 in Wijk aan Zee was notable for two things: 1) the return of amateur events and crowds after two pandemic-affected years, and 2) the complete absence of quick, “grandmasterly” draws in the 14 games on stage.
That’s not to say, of course, that there were no draws.
The most impressive performance of the day came from Ding Liren, whose form had been impossible to gauge, since he hadn’t played a single classical game since beating Hikaru Nakamura on July 4th last year. That Candidates Tournament win qualified the world no. 2 for a World Championship match, and it’s clear he’s been working hard, and not only on his chess. As he explained:
You have to prepare mentally, you have to imagine what will happen if you are in the centre of people and there will be only one game, and every eye will watch you.
This is likely to be his last classical event before the match, at least internationally, but he didn’t take the easy way out of deflecting pressure by claiming the tournament would just be a warm-up. He described it as, “just a normal one, not just preparation, not that I play some random openings — no!”.
His opponent in Round 1 was Indian prodigy Gukesh, who at 16 years old already has a 2725 classical rating. In this encounter, however, Ding was able to exploit that lack of experience by already getting his opponent thinking on move 7. Ding’s analysis again seemed spot on:
I think he was out of his comfort zone after the opening since he spent a lot of time to find a plan, but I think his play was not that strong, he did not give me enough pressure.
Move 16 was the moment Liren felt he really took over.
16…Nc5! was a little tactical trick, based on 17.dxc5 Bxc3 and the precise follow-up 18.Rc1 Qf6 19.Qc2 d4!
Ding later expanded boldly with g5 and f5, until in time trouble Gukesh allowed a brutal finish.
32…Rxe4! 33.Qxe4 (33.Rxe4 runs into the same reply) 33…Bd3!
34.Qxd3 is hit by 34…Bxf2+! 35.Kxf2 Rxd3, winning the queen, while in the game 34.Qe6 Qxe6 35.Rxe6 Bxf5 was no better, with the black pawns backed up by the bishop pair just too strong. Gukesh resigned before reaching the time control.
It took Ding nine games to score a win at the Madrid Candidates, so that his Round 1 success could be ominous for his rivals.
The only player to match Ding was 18-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov, who benefitted from Richard Rapport venturing the Vienna Game and staying true to its original character as a delayed King’s Gambit.
Nodirbek is hard to knock off balance, however, and the Uzbekistan grandmaster responded confidently. There were warning signs for Richard’s fans when he began to use significant time on the clock, and on move 15 he spent a whopping 37 minutes over 15.Nf4!?
That time had seemingly been spent on the extravagant plan of meeting 15…g5! with 16.Nxe6 Qxe6 17.Rb5!?, eyeing the d5-square, but 17…Nb8! was a strong and less than obvious response.
Soon Abdusattorov, who’s known for exceptional technique, was able to force a superior endgame where he could push for a win at no risk.
In the end it came down to rooks and pawns, and when Richard’s king went the wrong direction Nodirbek was so confident in his position that he didn’t need to worry about the time on his clock or how many moves he’d completed.
The shock was that from here Richard was dead lost in just three moves after 42.Kc5 b4 43.Rh8 b3 44.Rf8+?! Ke4. It might have prolonged the game to play 44.Rb8 instead, though objectively the position still appears to be lost.
As it was, Richard resigned after three more moves.
No-one else managed to pick up a full point. Magnus Carlsen went for the main line of the Catalan against his old rival Levon Aronian…
…and managed to make serious progress.
Levon here got creative with 17…c6 18.Qc3 Ra7!?, but he admitted that he’d underestimated that after all the tactics that followed he’d still be left with an unpleasant position, of which he commented, “it felt that humanly I should make a draw somehow, but there are many practical problems.”
It was a close shave, but Levon was always just in time.
32…Rxe2! 33.Rd8 Be4! was the only but sufficient defence, and soon it was Magnus who forced what was in fact the first draw of the day in the top groups.
Levon last played in Wijk aan Zee in 2017, and was happy to be back:
It feels amazing to be back after so many years of missing this tournament, I have to say my favourite tournament. It’s a joy and I look forward to continue.
It’s perhaps testimony to how fast the Indian teens are developing that Praggnanandhaa-Erigaisi was the one almost flawless draw, with Arjun playing what Peter Svidler noted was an important Grünfeld novelty. The tense struggle that followed never strayed far from dynamic equality.
Elsewhere mistakes were made. Jorden van Foreest, who said Wijk aan Zee “feels like a second home”, got that sinking feeling when he played 20.Be1?, running into Wesley So’s 20…Nf4!
Jorden confessed afterwards:
I just blundered this Nf4 completely. Immediately when I made my move I saw it, but it’s always like that. After that it was an uphill battle. Actually I was kind of fortunate not to lose on the spot, so I kind of tried to look at the positive side of things, but of course it was definitely a bit of a bummer.
Awakening Wesley’s killer instinct is seldom a good idea, but Jorden made no more mistakes as he held a draw.
Anish Giri noted that Fabiano Caruana misplayed their opening, gifting him a couple of tempi, but also added:
There were a lot of mistakes, but compared to last year’s game, as Fabi mentioned at the Opening Ceremony, this was God-level!
Giri had won that wild game, but this year, after correctly sacrificing a piece, he missed the best follow-up.
Here Anish went for 24…Bf6, pinning and ultimately winning the d4-knight, but when Fabi was able to win White’s queenside pawns the game fizzled out into a draw. Instead 24…a4! offered chances of more, though as the Dutch no. 1 explained:
I sort of saw the option, but I didn’t think it was anywhere near clear, and I didn’t even know if I’m better at all, to be honest, but the computer gives Black a very big advantage, I guess because computers now see the long-term potential. I think for a human you have to make a call there.
There were calls to be made in Maghsoodloo-Keymer as well. Parham was offered a place in the tournament at the last minute when Jan-Krzysztof Duda withdrew, and felt he couldn’t refuse, telling Fiona Steil-Antoni, “It was my dream from when I was 10”.
The only problem is that he says he wasn’t able to prepare too much for the white pieces, and it showed, as he ended up much worse against Vincent. Parham felt Vincent then mistakenly went for a tactical solution when he could have played positionally, but in fact he'd taken the only path to keep an advantage.
Where the young German did slip was in playing 25…exd3?! instead of 25…Rxd3!, allowing 26.Rxe6 fxe6.
The trick was 27.Nxd4! Qxd4 28.Bxc3 Qxc3 and 29.Rb3!, with that last move the one Vincent said he’d missed.
Suddenly it was Black somewhat scrambling to make a draw, though Vincent accomplished it with aplomb with a little trick of his own. He sacrificed his knight with 32…Nxf2! 33.Kxf2 and Parham offered a draw without waiting for 33…Bc5 at the end.
That means Ding Liren and Nodirbek Abdusattorov have the early lead, but there are no less than 12 rounds to go.
The Tata Steel Challengers made even that action look tame, though once again there were just two decisive games.
That hides the fact that Amin Tabatabaei, Javokhir Sindarov, Luis Supi, Mustafa Yilmaz and Thomas Beersdsen all spoiled winning positions.
In the end there was a convincing win for the youngest player, Abhimanyu Mishra, who defeated Eline Roebers, while the Game of the Day prize had to go to Max Warmerdam. He submitted his credentials early with 9.Ng5!?
9…hxg5 would be a very bad idea, with 10.Nf6+! the most flashy kill, since after 10…gxf6 11.hxg5 there’s no defence against Qh5 and a quick mate on h7 or h8.
After 9…Nxd5 things were much more interesting, however, and Jergus Pechac could still have drawn a wild game until he played 20…Qh6? (20…g6!), running into 21.Re7!
A beautiful move, though it’s clear very fast that after 21…Qxh5 22.Rxg7+ the very best Black can hope for is a draw by perpetual check. Max had higher ambitions, however, and in the end Jergus reminded us that he once won the FIDE Fair Play Prize by allowing the game to end in checkmate.
In Supi-Warmerdam and Yilmaz-Mishra the leaders in the Challengers both have Black in Sunday’s Round 2, while in the Masters they have White, with Abdusattorov-Caruana and Ding-Maghsoodloo. Keymer-Carlsen is another match-up to look forward to. How did Magnus prepare?
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