Tata Steel Masters, Rounds 1-5

Wijk aan Zee is a small village which hosts the first major “super tournament” of the year. It’s normally held in January and overlaps briefly with the strong open, The Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival. Closed tournaments for 2650 Grandmasters are hard to come by, so when you get such an opportunity you really want to grab it. At the opening ceremony Gawain was last to be picked but the last two numbers were both early numbers, so the arbiter pointed out to Ga that no matter what he would get 7 Whites and 6 Blacks. Colours may not seem so important but at top level it makes quite a difference. Win with White and draw with Black is the “Russian” way of playing but not so easy to replicate. This tournament is the strongest that Gawain has played in, being a Category XX (2750 average) and having 6 of the Top 10 players in the world. The village itself is fairly small but with quite a few restaurants and a Spar Supermarket to stock up on supplies. This year we won’t have exactly the same dinner crew as GM Nils Grandelius heads to the Rock and GM Eric Hansen isn’t here yet, but we have our good friend Bill Forster, the NZ Chess Editor, arriving tomorrow.

In Round 1, Gawain faced GM Sergey Karjakin, who has apparently been quoted saying that Gawain’s books on The Dragon are very good. It’s difficult in a tournament like this to not be picked apart as the lowest rated (but by no means weak) player. You have to conserve your energy and make smart moves at the board as well as choosing when to “battle” and when to “accept the draw”. In this game, he did follow a “drawish” line but you can see his thoughts on the game in the video below.

In Round 2 the sun was out and shining, it was also Gawain’s first Black and he faced world number 2 Fabiano Caruana. Last October in the Isle of Man, Gawain was crushed in the opening with Black so had something to prove. He played a line recommend by GM Peter Svidler but without a supercomputer to check and there were some holes in Peter’s analysis. If only we had access to a supercomputer or Alpha Go (with the correct hardware). In Wijk, Gawain played his KID and had a very long game with both players getting into time trouble. He defended very well and held the draw. Interestingly this position leads to a tablebase draw. Easy to see but probably very difficult to play and definitely not a position you want to walk yourself into without the knowledge that it is a draw.

In Round 3, the weather turned for the worse with the rain and wind coming out in full force.

The diverse weather in Wijk.
The diverse weather in Wijk. That was only a day apart.

Gawain also won his game against Adhiban Baskiran, the player who came 3rd= in last year’s tournament. It’s always good to have a win in such an event like this. Gawain has played Adhiban once before in the Millionaire Tournament when Adhiban erred in a drawn endgame (which he had been pressing).

During the tournament you can see and feel the difference when there are other players in the playing hall as well as spectators. I wouldn’t know myself how it’s like to play on a stage but I guess it might be similar to when Rugby players play somewhere like Twickenham for one game with a roaring crowd behind them before they go back to their “local” rugby ground. It might be a strange feeling when you have all these cameras and people watching you and then at some stage you go back to playing in that small room.

Round 4 was an unfortunate day at the office but when playing in such a strong and long tournament you expect blunders to happen. Gawain was playing the strong Chinese Grandmaster Wei Yi when in an equalish position he erred and all of a sudden his position was lost. Again it was a h3 KID which seems to be the topical line at the moment.

Round 5 was the first travel day (of two) and we headed to Hilversum which is about an hour’s drive from Wijk. It was a forced change in schedule and the disruption to your routine is a challenge for most players. The players had to meet for the bus at 11.30am which might not seem so early but if you compared it to previous days where I rarely saw players at breakfast before 10.30am, it really affects the amount of time you have for prep. There’s also the general waiting time, as extra time is added on for general lateness and traffic.

On the journey to Hilversum the bus was eerily silent – why? I guess everyone had things to think about, theory to remember and some even took a power nap. Certain players had an extra privilege of going by car (which we got to use on the way back – Jaguar has nice seat warmers) but most of us were on the bus. Once we had arrived the players had to do a photo op with some Sesame St characters – I guess it was because we were where most of the Dutch film and media industry is based. After this, the players headed towards the drinks/snacks area near where they were playing. They were given a quick tour of the venue and then there was about 45 minutes to kill. We ended going for a very quick walk around the building, mainly to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. Once back in the playing venue, Ga got himself settled to play Anish Giri. I waited for the opening moves before I had plans to head into the town centre. Once the opening was played and I wasn’t sure what was going on, I ventured towards the Chess24 commentary with Tex de Wit and GM Robin van Kampen.  Luckily, I was spotted by GM Yasser Seriwan who kindly introduced me to his niece and nephew and lovely wife Yvette and I hung around to chat and relax. I was lucky enough to get a delicious hot chocolate and before I knew it, it was 4pm! I decided it was best to head out before it got dark and before Gawain finished his game. Once I reached the town center, I turned around as I saw Gawain had drawn his game!

Before Round 5
Before Round 5

Now it’s time for a much needed rest day but I’m not sure what the exact plans are. It’s meant to be exceptionally windy so we will see what we get up to.



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