THE BLOG
02/09/2017 09:36 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2018

Chess Triumphs, Stumbles and Embarrassments

Two American grandmasters won the first major chess events of 2017.
Wesley So triumphed in the traditional Dutch tournament in Wijk aan Zee and Hikaru Nakamura prevailed in Gibraltar. Their victories were almost upstaged by the Women's world champion Hou Yifan. She deliberately lost a last round game in five moves with the white pieces.

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Wesley So secured the first place at the Tata Steel Chess tournament by beating Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia in the last round, finishing a full point ahead of the world champion Magnus Carlsen. It was So's third consecutive tournament victory in a major event after winning the Grand Chess Tour in Saint Louis and London last year. He has not been beaten in the last 56 games.

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Four players had a chance to win the tournament before the last round, but only So was able to pull away with the help of his Russian opponent.

Nepomniachtchi, Ian - So, Wesley
79th Tata Steel Masters, Wijk aan Zee 2017

1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.dxc5 e6 5.e4 h6
Pushes the bishop away from the queenside.
6.Bh4
The trade 6.Bxf6 Qxf6 gives Black a bishop pair.
6...dxe4 7.Qe2!?
7.Nxe4 Qa5+! 8.Nd2 Nbd7 is no problem for Black.
7...Qa5
It seems Black has just prevented the long castle.
8.0-0-0?!
White thought for 25 minutes before going to La La Land. While he is joking on the queenside, his pieces on the other wing are in deep freeze.
8...Qxa2 Of course!
9.Qb5+? Nbd7 The computers are screaming that Black is already winning.
10.c6
Falling deeper into the abyss, but other moves are not helping either:
A. 10.Bxf6 Qa1+ 11.Nb1 a6 12.Qc4 gxf6 13.Qxe4 Nxc5 14.Qd4 Bd7-+;
B. 10.Nb3 a6 11.Qc4 Nxc5-+.
10...bxc6 11.Qxc6

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11...Bb7!
The sacrifice gives the attack a nice rhythm. The pace would be slower after 11...Rb8 12.Nb3 Nd5 13.Bb5 (13.Rxd5 exd5 14.Ne2 Bb7-+) 13...Ba3! 14.bxa3 0-0 still with a decisive attack.
12.Qxb7 Qa1+ 13.Nb1 Rb8 14.Qxb8+
There is not much else White can do, for example: 14.Qc6 Qxb2+ 15.Kd2 Bb4+ 16.Ke2 0-0 17.Rxd7 Nxd7 18.Qxd7 Qxc2+ 19.Nd2 g5 and Black wins.
14...Nxb8 15.Bb5+ Nfd7 16.Ne2 Be7 17.Bxe7 Kxe7 18.Nd4 Nc5!
Game over. The rest is silence. Trapping the queen, for example 18...Ne5 19.Nb3 Qa2 20.Nc3+- was White's last trick.
19.h4 Rd8 20.Rh3
Threatening 21.Ra3, but White's hopes are crushed immediately.
20...Nd3+! 21.Bxd3 Rxd4 22.Be2 Rxd1+ 23.Bxd1 Qa5 24.Nd2 f5 25.Rg3 Qe5 26.Ra3 Nc6 27.g3 Qd4 28.Re3 Nb4 White resigned.

One day after the tournament ended, the former world champion Boris Spassky turned 80. In 1967 he won this traditional event in Beverwijk before it moved to Wijk aan Zee next year. We played in a small Kennemer Theater (photo).

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Spassky played three 24-game world championship matches and believed that you needed a full year to recover from each of them. He had a point.

Last November Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin finished their 12-game world championship match and within a month went to play the Rapid and Blitz world championsips in Doha, Qatar. Afterwards they hopped over to Wijk aan Zee and they must have been tired. How else to explain Magnus Carlsen's miss:

Carlsen, Magnus - Giri, Anish
79th Tata Steel Masters, Wijk aan Zee 2017

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56.Rc8+
Carlsen played 56.Bf7+ Kh8 57.Rh5+ Kg7 58.Bxe6+ Kf6 59.Rh6+ Ke5 60.Bh3 Qd2+ 61.Bg2 Qxh6 62.Rxc6 and the game was drawn after 123 moves.
56...Kh7 [56...Re8 57.Rxe8+ simply wins.] 57.Rf7+ Kh6 58.Rh8 mate.

The long game extracted its toll the next day and Magnus lost to Richard Rapport. Even after he falters and does not play to his liking, Carlsen always hovers around the top. We used to say that 50 percent is a good score when a bad form hits.

Hikaru Nakamura won the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters for the fourth time (three times in a row). This year he shared the first place with a 8/10 score, but won the playoff matches. When the tempo of the game quickens, Hikaru becomes a tiger. He had to eliminate a dangerous Chinese opponent first.

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Nakamura, Hikaru - Yu, Yangyi
Gibraltar Masters 2017

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The position against Yu reminded me of the lessons Ludek Pachman was giving to the best Czech juniors more than 50 years ago. At one point the veteran grandmaster asked us: "How do we best cut the king from a pawn?"
"With a saw," a joker suggested, and the lessons were soon cancelled.
But we learned something about horizontal and vertical cuts.
Hikaru could have prevented the black king from crossing the sixth rank.

63.Rb5?
This move only draws. Any rook move along the c-file wins the game, but the most precise way is to cut the black king along the sixth rank: 63.Rc6! Kf4 64.Kd3 and the black king cannot cross to e5: 64...Ke5 (64...Rh5 65.c5+-) 65.Rc5+ Ke6 66.Rxf5 Kxf5 67.Kd4 wins.
63...Kf4 64.Kd3 Rxb5 65.cxb5 Ke5 Draw.

Nakamura won a decisive game in the final against the young Spanish grandmaster
David Anton Guijarro, 21, by shifting his pieces to the kingside.

Nakamura, Hikaru - Anton Guijarro, David
Gibraltar Masters 2017

The black rooks are like two clumsy giants, hard to move and no help on the kingside. Nakamura brings his heavy pieces in for the final attack.

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38.Rg1 Ra6 39.Qf1!
Pinning down the rook on a6 and threatening to swing his own rook to h3.
39...R6a7 40.Rh3 Qf4 41.Qe2?!
In the winning line 41.Qg2! Qg5 Nakamura didn't see 42.Rg3 and White wins.
41...Rg8
Loses a piece, but 41...f5 42.exf5 was not enjoyable either.
42.Rxh7+ Kxh7 43.Qh5+ Qh6 44.Qxh6+ Kxh6 45.Rxg8
White is a piece up and it took him 10 more moves to convert his advantage to a victory.
45...Ra6 46.Kg2 Rb6 47.Nc6 Ra6 48.Ne7 Ra4 49.Nf5+ Kh5 50.h4 Rxb4 51.Kh3 Rc4 52.Rh8+ Kg6 53.h5+ Kg5 54.Ng3 Rc3 55.Rg8+ Black resigned.

Nakamura will move to the sixth spot on the next FIDE rating list. Fabiano Caruana lost some rating points in Gibraltar and should slide to the third place behind So. The United States will have three grandmasters among the top six. They are ambitious: So, Caruana and Nakamura would like to become world champions, but the top ranked Carlsen has something to say about it.

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The Chinese Ju Wenjun won the women's top prize, scoring 7/10. We noticed her five years ago playing the sharp Chinese Donner variation . That was unusual. She must have been under the spell of her coaches. In Gibraltar, she celebrated her 26th birthday by defeating the current Women's world champion Hou Yifan.

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Hou, Yifan - Ju, Wenjun
Gibraltar Masters 2017

The white king is vulnerable to back-rank mating threats and Ju opens more lines.

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32...d3!
A nice deflection, bringing the knight closer to the king.
33.Qxd3 Nb4! 34.Qe4
After 34.Qe3 Nxa2+ 35.Kd1 Qb1+ 36.Ke2 Qxc2+ 37.Kf3 Qxf5+ 38.Kg2 c2 wins.
34...Qg1+ 35.Qe1 Qg2 36.Qe4
36.Qe2 Qh1+ 37.Qe1 Qb7! 38.Re3 (38.Re7 Nd3+! wins.) 38...Nxa2+ 39.Kd1 Qb1+ 40.Ke2 Qxc2+ 41.Kf1 Qxf5+ 42.Kg2 c2 wins.
36...Qd2+ After 37.Kb1 Qd1 mates.
White resigned.

Some players were not happy with the pairings throughout the tournament. Hou Yifan played against seven women in 10 games and she didn't like it. In the last round, she was 25 minutes late, played five moves with the white pieces and resigned in protest.

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Hou, Yifan- Lalith, Babu M R
Gibraltar Masters 2017

1.g4 d5 2.f3 e5 3.d3 Qh4+ 4.Kd2 h5 5.h3 hxg4 White resigned

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This was unfortunate for the organizers and for her personally. The game will follow her for the rest of her life. The organizers denied any pairing manipulation. "It was done by computers," they said.

Instead of the thrown game, we should have been talking about Hou's masterpiece that could have been a nice addition to the previous column. She sacrificed her queen for two minor pieces at move 16, continued positionally and 28 moves later reached this position:
Ider, Borya - Hou, Yifan
Gibraltar Masters 2017

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44...Bf3+! 45.Kg1
After 45.Kxh2 Bf4+! 46.Kg1 (46.Kxh3 Rxe5-+) 46...h2 mates.
45...Nxf1!!
A cool move, allowing a discovered check and White's invasion.
46.Rxe7+
Black wins after 46.Kxf1 h2! 47.Rxe7+ (47.Rxg5+ Kh7 48.Rg1 hxg1Q+ 49.Kxg1 Rxe4-+) 47...Kh6 48.Qg7+ Kh5 49.Qh7+ Bh6 50.Re5+ g5-+;
or after 46.Rxg5+ Kh7-+.
46...Kh6 47.Qg7+ Kh5 48.Qh7+ Kg4
48...Bh6 49.Re5+ g5 also wins comfortably.
49.Re8
After 49.Rxc7 h2+ 50.Kxf1 Bh4! 51.Qxg6+ Kh3 52.Qe6+ Bg4 53.Qb3+ Rf3 the checks stop and Black wins.
White dies on the back rank after 49.Kxf1 Rb8! -+

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The game ended:

49...Rxe8 50.Qd7+ Kh4 51.Kxf1 Rd8 52.Qh7+ Kg4 White resigned.

Note that in the replay windows below you can click either on the arrows under the diagram or on the notation to follow the game. Select games from the dropdown menu below the board.

Images by Alina Ami from Wijk aan Zee and Sophie Triay and John Saunders from Gibraltar