One of the crown jewels of the annual chess calendar is the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk Aan Zee, Netherlands. Held in January every year, this tournament has been called “the Wimbledon of Chess.”
Typically this has been one of largest chess tournaments in the world, with top level round robins accompanied by a large open section attracting thousands of players. Of course, this tournament, which is in its eighth decade, cannot operate like that due to the pandemic.
For the past two years, only the top section(s) played their round robins. Last year, it was only the Masters section, which was won by Dutch player Jorden van Foreest. This year we have both the Masters section and the Challengers section, each comprising fourteen players in a thirteen-round round robin that will continue until the end of January.
There are specific and general controversies that have led to some changes in tournament play and the expected lineup in the Masters section.
The controversial tiebreak system, widely used in FIDE events over the past while, only allowed the top two players tied for first place contest in playoff games. If three or more players were tied for first place, then only the top two players according to tiebreak scores would advance to playoffs.
While this system had the benefit of ensuring a fairly consistent timing to the end of a tournament, it did seem unfair. In last month’s FIDE Rapid and Blitz tournament, top players like Magnus Carlsen and Alireza Firouzja were eliminated from playoff rounds based on their tiebreak scores, and this raised many eyebrows.
The new standard is to have everyone tied for first place compete in blitz tiebreak games until a winner is decided through chess play. This is much more reasonable than having four people tied for first, and kicking two of them out just for having a slightly lower tiebreak score.
A notable absence in this year’s Tata Steel is Alireza Firouzja, but it stems from a terrible mishandling by organizers in the final round of play.
In the final round of last year’s Tata Steel, Firouzja was playing a very long game against Poland’s Radosław Wojtaszek. This was the only ongoing game in the final round, and it ran into the planned timing of a playoff round between Jorden van Foreest and Anish Giri. Dutch fans were thrilled to know that this venerable tournament would certainly be won by a Dutch player, but then…
The organizers, having set up the playoff blitz games only a few tables away from Firouzja’s game, made the inexcusable decision to interrupt the game and ask Firouzja and Wojtaszek to move further away so as not to be disturbed by the commotion that the playoff games would create. Firouzja, seventeen years old and just breaking into the world’s top ten, was understandably irritated, but regained his composure and defeated Wojtaszek to finish the round robin with a score of 8/13, just behind the leading 8.5/13.
This has led to the unfortunate situation that Firouzja, now the #2 player in the world, declined to attend this year’s tournament. This is a real shame, as many had hoped to be able to get a preview of a possible World Championship matchup between Firouzja and Magnus Carlsen. But despite apologies and negotiations, FIDE and Firouzja were unable to find common ground.
Also absent from this tournament are Teimour Radjabov and Ding Liren, both of whom have missed numerous live tournaments due to COVID concerns. Ding is expected to play in a live tournament next month.
The contenders for this year’s Masters section are Magnus Carlsen, Dutch GMs Jorden van Foreest and Anish Giri, Swedish GM Nils Grandelius, American GMs Fabiano Caruana and Sam Shankland, Indian GMs Santosh Vidit and young Praggnanandhaa, Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Hungary’s Richard Rapport and the Russian trio Andrey Esipenko, Sergey Karjakin, and Daniil Dubov.
Round one was lively, though there were many draws. One game that seemed to go back and forth a bit was the game between Duda and Rapport, which ended with Duda managing a win after a long struggle.