Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, attempts to break an alarming sequence of setbacks in classical elite tournaments when the 14 grandmasters at Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee push their first pawns on Saturday afternoon (12.30pm start, live and free for internet viewers). The annual event in the windswept Dutch North Sea village is the Wimbledon of chess, the most illustrious annual contest on the calendar.
The top first-round pairing is Carlsen v Fabiano Caruana – the world No1 against the world No2. Gawain Jones, the British champion, plays Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, the 2016 world title challenger.
Carlsen’s current drought seemed unlikely back in 2016 when he won Wijk, Stavanger and Bilbao in the first seven months of the year. But in 2017, although he was supreme in speed chess, he failed to capture first prize at classical all-play-alls in Wijk, Stuttgart, Stavanger, St Louis or London. He was only ninth of 10 on home ground in Stavanger.
At 27 the Norwegian should be at the height of his powers and he will be conscious that a poor 2017 has tarnished his historic legend in comparison with Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Victory at Wijk, where six of the global top 11 are competing, would be a boost.
It will be interesting to see if Hou Yifan, the No1 woman, can continue her steady improvement in elite events. The 23-year-old from Beijing aims to reach a new playing peak this year before she starts her Rhodes scholarship education degree at Oxford in October.
Jones, 30, is another for whom Wijk could be a make-or-break event. He has faced elite GMs before in the London Classic but 13 rounds where he is the lowest rated competitor is something else and Carlsen & Co will regard their game against him as a must-win. Jones, for his part, has prepared in depth and sees Wijk as the opportunity of his life.
When Carlsen defeated Hikaru Nakamura 18-9 in their chess.com speed final, the significant statistic was that the No1 won 7.5-2.5, including a run of…