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Lessons to be learned from Tata Steel Chess (Part 1)

Jan 24, 2017
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Do you think grandmasters’ games are too difficult to follow for beginners? Let’s have a look at what the chess players have been doing during the first six rounds of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2017. There are a some important things to pick up for your own games.

Tata Steel Masters

The tournament has two groups in which (grand)masters compete. In the first group, called Tata Steel Masters, the best chess players of the world participate. No less than five top-ten players are present in Wijk aan Zee, amongst whom world champion Magnus Carlsen. However, after four rounds, it was the world number fourteen, Ukranian Pavel Eljanov, who had first place. His fairytale ended in round 5, when he lost to Levon Aronian: 

Eljanov, Pavel – Aronian, Levon


White has moved his rook to an unfortunate square (green arrow). Now, Black can move his knight to White’s half of the board. That creates a nasty threat:

No matter what White does, the knight is on its way to follow the green arrow. White cannot stop it. In Black’s next move, the knight will attack at least two pieces at once. White gave up. 

Because of Eljanov’s loss, American Wesley So secured the lead. But things would have looked differently if his opponent in round 3, Richard Rapport, had cashed in on his changes. 

So, Wesley – Rapport, Richard

Black moved his bishop accross the board, surprising Wesley So, the world number four.

This is Black’s idea: if White’s queen takes the bishop, Black can create a double attack with the knight:

Of course, White didn’t capture, but Wesley So wasn’t happy with the black bishop in his camp. Black kept pushing, but failed to finish the game. As happens often in these kind of situations, the opponent smelled blood and managed to win. 

Twenty moves later, this was the position on the board:

White moves his knight away from the black king and attacks the queen. But that is not all! White’s knight has also made room for the white rook! White now threatens both checkmate and a queen capture. Black’s queen can escape by giving check, but checkmate is still hanging above Black’s head. After a while, Black has used up all safe check options:

Round six was a round full of draws, after which Wesley So was still the tournament leader with 4,5 points. Pavel Eljanov and Magnus Carlen shared second place. Exciting things happened in the following rounds. You’ll read more about that in Part 2 of this Tata Steel Chess blog, due next week.

Giri, Anish – Nepomniachtchi, Ian

White has a passed pawn that is nearly at the other side of the board. But Black will take it in his next move, or won’t he? Giri comes up with a plan. He puts his rook behind the passed pawn.

If Black takes the pawn (Rxd6), the rook will be opposite the white bishop and rook.

In chess, this formation is called a battery. See the lesson about discovered checks (Knight level) to find out how this works. But this games gives you a nice demonstration as well. White moves the bishop away and checks the king:

White attacks the king and the rook at the same time. It is important to give check. Without check, Black could take the rook. But not now. Black has to get out of check first. Next, White takes the rook and wins points!

Black moves his king one square to the left. On his next move, he will be able to take the pawn and White cannot give check.

However, White had a surprise for his opponent! He takes a pawn that is protected by the black bishop!

White’s idea is to lure away this black bishop. Black seems to have two option (see the green arrows). If Black takes the bishop, the white pawn will move up:

The other option is to move the bishop down to stop the passed pawn (instead of taking the bishop). But that’s no use either:

White wins material by means of a skewer.

In the game, something else happened and Black resigned in the next move.


Tata Steel Challengers

In the other grandmaster group, the Tata Steel Challengers, the ratings of the players are less close. As a result, there are fewer draws in this group. Sometimes, the players make mistakes. But don’t underestimate them! The highest ranked player, Markus Ragger from Austria, is still one of the world’s top-50 players. The winner of this group qualifies for next year’s Tata Steel Masters, so there is a lot at stake!

After four rounds, the afore mentioned Ragger was in first position. Here’s a fragment of the first round, in which he played against a 16-year old (!) American grandmaster:


Ragger, Markus – Xiong, Jeffery

White would like to checkmate the king by moving the rook (see red arrow), but he can’t! The rook is pinned to the king. White first needs to get rid of Black’s queen. Here’s his trick: he moves up his passed pawn.

And Black resigned! Had he moved his rook one step to the right, White would have had a double attack:

Had Black moved his rook all the way to the upper right corner,

White creates an absolute skewer:

And should Black have taken the pawn, White could have moved his rook to check the king!

If the black king moves out of check, checkmate will follow in the next move:

In round 5, Ragger drew and in round 6 it was British Gawain Jones who treated him to a loss:


Jones, Gawain – Ragger, Markus

Black has just moved up his king, but that was not a good move. White has a smart trick! He pushes his pawn and give check, thus creating space for his knight.

If Black takes the pawn, White’s rook will give check. And again, Black will have a problem.

If the king moves to any of the squares behind him, the White knight will put him in check. At the same time, it attacks the rook. White wins a rook by a double attack:

If the king moves one square to the front, White’s knight immediately moves into Black’s position:

Double attack on rook and mating square!

Even if the king moves a step back, the knight will attack the rook again:

If the rook moves away, the knight will check the king and the rook will move to the first row:

After the check, Black can still interpose his bishop, but that will be captured by the rook: checkmate!

Black had no other choice that to move back to the square it had just left, cramping his pieces:

White managed to take the kingside pawn and won.


General themes

We are looking at the world’s best chess players, but as you have seen, things happen in their games that you may recognize from your own games! Below are some game fragments with themes from Chessity’s Pawn and Knight Level. 

Lawn Mower mate

One of the most basic mates to know is the lawn mower mate (or ‘ladder mate’)

The rooks take turns in checking the king to chase the king to the edge of the board. In the end, Black is checkmated:

Two examples in which this mating pattern plays an important part:

Harikrishna, Pentala – Adhiban, Baskaran

White’s rook checks the king, giving up its protection of the knight. The idea is to lure the black king to the edge. Of course, Black in not obliged to take the knight. However, if the king moves one step, the other white knight would give check, forcing the king to take the knight at the edge anyway.

There are only two safe squares for the black king, both on the same file. By giving check on that file, White steals squares from the king. White must take care to move the right rook to the file:

This way, White takes control of both files! Black appears to be checkmated already, but he can still escape the checkmate by moving his bishop between the rook and the king. No problem for White. White can attack the pinned bishop:

In the next move, White’s rook (right hand bottom corner) will capture the bishop: checkmate!


Bok, Benjamin – Dobrov, Vladimir

White has an extra pawn advantage and this pawn is nearing promotion! However, White’s king is trapped. Black goes looking for the checkmate and finds it!

The rook has made room for the pawn (Black threatens checkmate!) and is now at a better position.

If White pins the pawn, Black has mate in two:


First, the king is lured to the edge. Next, the other rook checkmates the king:

A familiar mating pattern!

In the game, White moved the rook to the side, but Black did the same trick:

White resigned. In the next move, his rook would have been captured: checkmate!


Bok, Benjamin – Lei, Tingjie 1-0

Two rounds earlier, Bok was at the good side of the board. It is not quite lawn mower mate, but it is very similar:

Black’s king is trapped, but it is not checkmate, yet. White’s knight could check the king, but then the king can escape to the left, since the knight no longer attacks that square. But White has an idea. He moves his rook towards the black king, taking away important squares:

Black can only prevend checkmate by moving his knight backwards. Only to be captured by one of the white rooks. Black resigned. 

Eliminating the defense: luring away + mate

Another theme I encountered was eliminating the defense with the intention of checkmate. Twice, Jones is our main protagonist:

Jones, Gawain – Guramishvili, Sopiko

White would like to attack Black’s king with a rook or the queen, because it is almost checkmate. However, Black appears to be able to keep the door closed. But appearances are deceptive. Jones manages to find a way to the 8the rank. He sacrifices his rook and thus lures away the defending bishop.

Once the rook is taken, it becomes clear why this sacrifice was such a smart trick. Now, the queen can move to the 8th rank. Black can move out of check, but in the next move, the queen checkmates the king from nearby. Game over for Black!

You can (learn how to) do this too! Do you know the lesson Checkmate from close by (Pawn Level)? This is the same!


Smirin, Ilia – Jones, Gawain

In the previous round (above), Jones checkmated his opponent. But now, he is himself the victim of a mating combination on the 8th rank. Black still has one defender. If that could only disappear… White sacrifices his queen for the rook! After recapturing, it becomes clear why removing this defender was a good idea: now the rook can attack the king and take away the king’s two last flight squares.



Conclusion: keep practicing with Chessity! You’ll learn many things that you can use in your own games. Even at top level, you need basic chess skills.

In Part 2, I will look back at the rest of the tournament. See you then!

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