Features Jan 10, 2015 | 12:39 PMby chess24 staff

Tkachiev on Tata Steel: Preview

A show of unity at the opening ceremony. It's unlikely to last, though, as Anish Giri has the white pieces against Magnus Carlsen in Round 1! | photo: Alina l'Ami, official website

How will Carlsen cope with the young(er) generation? What’s actually financially at stake in Wijk aan Zee? What’s the venue like for the players and fans? Who should we bet on? Vlad Tkachiev’s preview of the 2015 Tata Steel Chess Tournament gives us a first-hand account of one of the chess world’s most famous events. As he comments, “if the chess world has a real “Hall of Fame”, it’s here”.  

The following article has been translated with permission from the Russian original at Vlad Tkachiev’s blog, ChEsSay:

Everything you always wanted to know about Wijk aan Zee…*

*…but were afraid to ask!

Who’s going to win the main tournament?

A question that’s of course of interest to everyone: the organisers, journalists, spectators – those placing bets and the rest – and the players themselves, their girlfriends and friends as well. Here’s some food for thought on the basis of the previous encounters between the players in the tournament:

  • Magnus Carlsen

    Click on the "+" icon on the bottom right to expand the image. Alternatively you'll find a more interactive version of these charts - where you can also click on names - on Vlad's blog.

  • Fabiano Caruana

  • Levon Aronian

  • Anish Giri

  • Wesley So

  • Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

  • Radoslaw Wojtaszek

  • Teimour Radjabov

  • Liren Ding

  • Baadur Jobava

  • Vassily Ivanchuk

  • Hou Yifan

  • Loek van Wely

  • Ivan Saric

Of course the analysis isn’t always entirely relevant – some of the games were played by the participants in their early youth, while Carlsen’s convincing +21 was scored mainly against three players – Aronian, Radjabov and Ivanchuk (+17, no less!!!). Nevertheless, it’s capable of giving us some idea of the spectacle that awaits, as well as provoking our interest in the details. I’ll try to cover them – as far as that’s possible within the scope of the format I’ve chosen. But let’s take things one at a time…

What are they competing for?

A question that’s often passed over in shameful silence. I didn’t manage to discover anything on the tournament website, so I had to turn to unofficial sources. It’s well-known that supertournaments can be divided into three categories: the “winner takes it all” system, where all the money goes into the prize fund (St. Louis, Stavanger, Linares in its last years of existence and the FIDE Grand Prix), “old school events” – in which the lion’s share of resources goes on the players’ fees (Dortmund, Zurich…) and those in which both approaches are combined (the Tal Memorial, Tashir). It’s no surprise that Wijk aan Zee, which is marking its 77th anniversary this year, is true to the long-standing tradition and makes up for only a symbolic first prize with impressive fees for the top players: they vary from 15,000 to 50,000 Euro. However, that applies to far from all the players, with the debutants and rating outsiders usually grateful for the chance to prove themselves for a few thousand. It’s all very differentiated. This system – with underwater and above-water parts of the iceberg – is believed to have been established in the early 1970s, when Soviet players were forced to give the country’s sporting authorities part of the prizes won. The fees made it possible to get around those rules. And they stuck.

The legendary tournament in Wijk aan Zee – what is it, exactly? (18+)

A relevant question, since not everyone has been there. In general, it’s a big festival, since apart from the main round-robin tournament there’s also the “Challengers” – also with 14 players – and an amateur open. Previously there was also a third round-robin a level lower, but it seems that fell victim to the crisis. Everyone plays in a huge hall, with the professionals split off from the spectators by a cleverly constructed barrier. Resting against it you can conveniently observe what’s going on while sipping a draught beer sold right there in the venue. Long live tradition! 

Smoking players, however, have the misfortune to encounter a novelty that I’ve only seen there: those wanting to calm their nerves with a dose of nicotine have to go out onto the street in the presence of an arbiter – so no-one can pass them moves. Breaking that rule = a loss, a danger you’re not warned about on the cigarette pack. So to all the other worries suffered by players poisoning their health another has been added: rousing an arbiter from time to time and asking him to accompany you on a refreshing walk.  

Invited players usually stay in hotels scattered around the village (because Wijk aan Zee isn’t a town), and luckily there are enough – the area is popular with tourists deciding to take a weekend break by the sea. Four years ago the organisers housed Murtas Kazhgaleyev and me in a rented apartment where the heating system was switched off for a few days. I had to recall my Spartan youth in the Soviet Union and sleep in a coat, which is something you just can’t get by without in Wijk – each year a few players get seriously unwell during the tournament. Does Ding Liren know about that on his first visit here?

In the evenings the chess players, driven by a piercing wind, wander through the surrounding restaurants, in which the main rule is – under no circumstances discuss any secret opening variation – there’s such a concentration of grandmasters in the village that even if the walls don’t have ears the tables certainly do. So what do people talk about in general? The vicissitudes of the weather and the imminent arrival of Kasparov. And so it goes, from year to year. So what’s unique about Wijk?

If the chess world has a real “Hall of Fame”, it’s here. The tournament has been held since 1938, with no exceptions made even during the war years (except in 1945), and almost all of the top players of different eras have played here. A great number of them became famous right in this spot, and at the traditional closing banquet each of them tasted the same pea soup that dates from the hungry year of 1946.

What’s new in Wijk no. 77?

I can’t recall it ever having had such a young line-up – eight of the 14 players are under 25! That’s a fact that can be celebrated, but I don’t know what to think about the next: for the first time the main tournament doesn’t have a single Russian. Perhaps, distracted by the holidays, I missed something and a new wave of anti-Russian sanctions has been directed against players from the chess superpower? In their defence I can recall that Kramnik now lives in Switzerland, Svidler is a well-known anglophile and Karjakin recently got married. I didn’t forget about Grischuk – since 2011 he’s declared sanctions on Wijk himself – the January weather there doesn’t suit him. Let’s hope for global warming, in a political sense as well.

What excitement can we expect?

A lot! For me personally the most enticing plot elements are the following:

  • Will the World Champion be able to cope with the representatives of the new generation – those still not broken by him who, consequently, have far fewer complexes? Incidentally, he actually has a negative score against three of them!
  • How will Magnus’ games go against the pupils of Chuchelov, who he’s had systematic problems with in the past (Caruana and Giri)?
  • Will Caruana manage to repeat his outstanding play in St. Louis, at least in a limited version?
  • Is Levon Aronian capable of winning the tournament as he did before if Magnus Carlsen is playing? There are some doubts on that score…
  • Can Giri, So and Vachier-Lagrave prove that they belong among the elite? Simply a good result here won’t suffice!
  • I’m particularly eager, as always, to see the encounter between Ivanchuk and Aronian, as the history of their games is truly unique: 38 classical games, 16 draws and 22 decisive results. I don’t know of anything that can match that at this level!

Will the tournament be as spectacular as St. Louis or as uninteresting as the Grand Prix in Tashkent?

With seven games in each round something interesting almost always happens. Many – if not all – of the players have, one way or another, something to prove. The average age of the players beats all records for youth. All of that gives grounds for optimism, but we shouldn’t rush to delude ourselves: the young generation growing up now is extremely pragmatic and the most violent of the assembled players are the older ones. I think that how interesting the tournament becomes will largely depend on whether the ratings favourites manage to break clear at the start. If they do, then the majority of the remaining players will probably switch to battery-saving mode and compete among themselves for the lower places. If they don’t, then we can expect a thrilling spectacle with a photo finish at the end. Of course it’s important that the outsiders in the event (and, alas, there are some) don’t sink too far to the bottom in the very first games, although even in that case there could be surprises, since desperate players can become kamikaze – having lost the remnants of fear they throw themselves at each and every player. It’s enough to recall:

1. ♘f3 ♘f6 2. c4 g6 3. ♘c3 d5 4. cxd5 ♘xd5 5. ♕b3 ♘b6 6. d4 ♗g7 7. e4 ♗g4 8. ♗b5+ c6 9. ♘g5 O-O 10. ♗e2 ♗xe2 11. ♘xe2 ♘a6 12. ♗e3 ♕d6 13. O-O ♕b4 14. ♕xb4 ♘xb4 15. ♖fc1 e5 16. ♘f3 exd4 17. ♗xd4 ♖fe8 18. ♗xg7 ♔xg7 19. ♘g3 ♖ad8 20. ♘e1 ♖d2 21. a3 ♘d3 22. ♘xd3 ♖xd3 23. ♖ab1 ♖e5 24. ♖d1 ♖xd1+ 25. ♖xd1 ♖b5 26. b4 ♘c4 27. ♖d3 a5 28. bxa5 ♖xa5 29. f4 ♖xa3 30. ♖d7 b5 31. e5 b4 32. e6 b3 33. ♖xf7+ ♔h6 34. ♖b7 b2 35. ♔f2 ♖a7 36. ♖b8 ♖a8 37. ♖b7 ♖a2 38. ♘e2 ♘d6 39. e7 ♘xb7 40. e8Q b1Q 41. ♕f8+ ♔h5 42. ♕e7 ♕b6+ 43. ♔f3 ♕b3+ 44. ♔f2 ♖xe2+ 45. ♕xe2+ ♔h6 46. g4 ♘d8 47. ♕e7 ♘e6 48. ♕h4+ ♔g7 49. ♕e7+ ♔g8 50. ♕e8+ ♘f8 51. ♕xc6 ♕e6 52. ♕f3 ♘d7 53. h3 ♔f7 54. ♕c3 ♕d5 55. ♔g3 ♘c5 56. ♔h4 h6 57. ♕h8 g5+ 58. fxg5 hxg5+ 59. ♔h5 ♕e4 60. ♔xg5 ♘e6+


Who should I bet on?

It’s clear that the question automatically assumes the desire to win as much money as possible.

If that’s the case, then it’s advisable to pick a player who’s capable of pulling off a big surprise. You’d like him also to play as wildly as possible, maintaining the interest with outspoken interviews. In general, as you’ve no doubt already guessed, we’re talking above all about Jobava and Ivanchuk – in the depths of winter you need to pick warm-blooded, or even boiling-blooded players! I wouldn’t call it a particularly safe bet, but it’s bound to be fun to watch. Perhaps it’s not a great feat, but there is something heroic about it.

If you’re more inclined towards a safe alternative (but still, as before, with a real element of taking a gamble), then I recommend Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He can beat anyone, but he tries to do it without unfastening his seatbelt. And in general, it’s long been time for him to land a real surprise.

Meanwhile it’s time for me to prepare for an interview with Vladimir Chuchelov tomorrow…

GM Vlad Tkachiev

Vlad was born in Russia but grew up in Kazakhstan and now represents France. A Kazakh and French national champion and the winner of the 2007 European Championship, his first love has always been rapid chess, which he hopes will become the main form of the game. In recent years he set up the website WhyChess and now writes a blog, ChEsSay. | photo: Irina Stepaniuk

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