01 Feb

Not Just for the Masters

The annual Tata Steel Tournament in the quaint Dutch hamlet of Wijk aan Zee is not only one of the world’s very strongest events but also one of the best loved.  On a technical level, the tournament is always impeccably run by Jeroen van den Berg and his highly experienced organising team, with excellent playing conditions inside the De Moriaan Sports Centre - and there is a real camaraderie inside the playing hall, born out of a huge mass of chess players all fighting together under the one roof. 

After 23.Nxf7!

But in contrast to many of its rivals, Wijk bucks the trend by not just comprising of a single A-list cast of  super-grandmaster playing in the one tournament, but a whole raft of other events taking place, going down to sections for club players but touching the top group in the “Challengers”, a very strong international tournament in its own right, from which the winner gets a coveted automatic invitation to the following year’s Masters tournament.

This is in part a showcase for tomorrow’s stars, and at the same time part egalitarian in nature, because we have to remember that World Champion Magnus Carlsen worked his own way through the ranks by first winning the ‘C group’ in 2004. Therefore there’s the added lure of promotion to the Masters and playing in the glare of the media spotlight alongside Carlsen and this year’s American winner, Wesley So.

And with this in mind, yet again the Challengers produced an enthralling fight to the finish - and one that almost witnessed another American victory.  England’s Gawain Jones and Markus Ragger of Austria tied for first with 9 points apiece.  But there has to be one winner, and Jones had the better tiebreak score as he’d beaten Ragger’s, so the Englishman - in one of the biggest results of his career - qualifies for next year's Masters Group. But just half a point behind was the rapidly-rising reigning US World Junior Champion, Jeffery Xiong - and had he won what proved to be a very tough last round game against local Dutch star Benjamin Bok, then he would have been the one being the leading contender for the coveted qualifiers spot, as he'd beaten Jones in round nine. 

Photo © Alina l'Almi for Tata Steel Chess


But the 16-year-old from Texas didn’t go home empty-handed though, as his efforts were rightly rewarded by winning the Professor Van Hulst Young Talent Award, and he received his prize from the sponsor himself, 106-year-old Johan van Hulst.

GM Jeffrey Xiong - GM Gawain Jones
79th Tata Steel Group. B, (9)
King’sIndian Defence, Yugoslav Attack
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.g3 0-0 5.Bg2 d6 6.Nf3 c5 The Yugoslav variation is not as popular as the Classical line with 6...Nbd7 and ...e5 - but it is a very direct complex with Black's play on the queenside more resembling a Benoni/Benko Attack set-up. 7.d5 e6 8.0-0 exd5 9.cxd5 Re8 10.Re1 Ne4 The idea is to get this in now to try and thwart White from playing e4. 11.Nxe4 Rxe4 12.Qc2 Bf5 13.Bh3! If it wasn't for this move, undermining the rook on e4, Black would stand better. 13...Na6?!? If you play the King's Indian Defence, then you have to play it with a 'spirit of adventure', willing to sacrifice material to activate your pieces. And no one has this 'spirit of adventure' more than Gawain Jones, who is an expert at making the most of his pieces in double-edged positions. Alternatively, the direct exchange sacrifice with 13...Rg4 falters with accurate play, after 14.Qd2 Rxg3+ 15.hxg3 Bxh3 16.Qf4! threatening g4 trapping the bishop and also potentially hitting d6. 14.Bxf5 gxf5 15.Ng5! Xiong cleverly mobilises his pieces before Jones can make use of his pieces. 15...Re5 16.Bf4 Nb4 17.Qb3 a5 Typical for Jones, he'd much rather sacrifice material to seek further complications rather than being forced onto his back-foot for an awkward defence with 17...Re7 18.Nf3 where White has an obvious advantage. 18.a3 a4 19.Qc4 b5 It looks dangerous and threatening, but the bottom line is that, with accurate play, White will have a material advantage. 20.Qxb5 Nc2 21.Bxe5 dxe5 If 21...Bxe5 22.Qd3! Qxg5 23.Qxc2 f4 24.e3! stops any ideas Black might have of exchanging on g3 and then playing ...Bxg3 for a potential perpetual, as White will have a winning Qg2 waiting. 22.Qb7! Xiong is clearly winning now, as Jones can't defend all his weaknesses. 22...Qe8 23.Nxf7! Taking full advantage of the loose rook after ...Qxf7. 23...Rb8 24.Qc7 Rc8 25.Qb7 Rb8 26.Qc7 Rc8 Xiong doesn't want a draw here; all he's doing is repeating the position a couple of times in order to get closer to the time control - this is a good tip players of all levels should be wary of. 27.Nd6! When the dust finally settles, Xiong will emerge with a technically won rook ending. 27...Rxc7 28.Nxe8 Rd7 29.Nxg7 Kxg7 30.Kf1! The king comes across for the ending to cover Black from activating his rook by capturing on e2, which would go a long way to securing the draw. 30...Nxa1 31.Rxa1 Rxd5 32.Rc1! Black's pawns are vulnerable to being easily picked off, while White's kingside pawns will be a safe unit for the long-term win. 32...Rd2 33.Rxc5 Kf6 34.Rc6+ Kg5 35.Rb6 Rc2 36.f3 f4 37.h4+ The final twist. After this accurate move, Black will be left in dire straits trying to defend three weak isolated pawns. 37...Kh5 38.gxf4 exf4 39.Rb4 Kxh4 40.Rxf4+ Kg3 41.Rg4+! First stopping any unexpected back-rank mates! The rest of the game is now easy for White to convert the win with his active rook and passed pawns. 41...Kh3 42.Rxa4 Rxb2 43.Kf2 h5 44.Ra8 h4 45.a4 Kh2 Black catches no breaks whatsoever, as his king is in the way of pushing his h-pawn up the board. 46.a5 Rb7 47.Rh8 h3 48.Rh4! A good rule of thumb for winning any rook and pawn ending (when you are a pawn ahead) is to put your rook behind a passed pawn to push it up the board - and coincidently, this same same rule applies trying to draw such endings when you are a pawn down, as putting your rook behind an opponent's passed pawn is also one of the best ways to secure a draw. 48...Rb1 49.Ra4 Stopping Black from playing ...Ra1 which would complicate the win. Now, apart from being wary to any possible stalemate traps with Black's king stuck in the corner of the board, White will win by pushing the a-pawn up the board. 49...Kh1 50.a6 h2 Setting a possible stalemate trap - despite being lost, Jones sets an example as he continues to force Xiong to be vigilant in the position. 51.a7 Rf1+ 52.Ke3 Not falling for the obvious trick of 52.Kxf1?? and stalemate! Xiong easily avoids this - but it just shows that such stalemate traps can easily be found in endgame scenarios which can often salvage hopelessly lost positions. 52...Kg2 53.Rg4+ Forcing Black back into the hole on h1, as ...Kh3 will allow a quick mate with a1(Q) followed by Qh1 mate. 53...Kh1 54.a8Q Rxf3+ As the old chess adage goes, you never achieve anything by resigning - and here, Jones plays for one more slim hope that his opponent will falter with 55.exf3 and another stalemate. But Xiong is ever-alert to this. 55.Qxf3# 1-0

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