The final day in Wijk aan Zee brought drama, chaos, and controversy. Three decisive results led to a tie atop the standings, created two new Super GMs, and showcased a possible preview of this year’s world championship match. And we still didn’t have a champion! After all the games… uh… almost all… were completed (we’ll double back to that later) there was a blitz playoff between the two players from the host nation, and only after the time scramble to end all time scrambles did Jorden van Foreest emerge as the shocking upset winner of the 2021 Tata Steel Masters.
Jorden started the day half a point behind the leader, Anish Giri, but won his game (bringing his rating above 2700 in the process) while Giri just drew. Two other players who started out tied with Jorden also only drew, failing to catch the leaders, leaving the playoff matchups set, but notable wins were scored by Andrey Esipenko (who also finishes rated over 2700 as a result) and by world champion Magnus Carlsen over a possible challenger for his title, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
All that set the stage for the playoffs where Jorden and Anish drew their first two games, resulting in a winner-take-all Armageddon matchup. Giri, needing a win with the white pieces, found himself ahead on the board but behind on the clock, and needed to reach move 60 to hit what passes for time control in this format – with three seconds added to the clock per move from that point on. The ensuing scramble was so chaotic, with pieces literally flying, that the official broadcast reported Giri had run out of time and lost on move 58. Only later did it become clear that in fact what gave out on the 58th move was not Giri’s time, but rather the electronic board’s ability to properly record the moves that were being made so quickly, and the actual finish came with Giri successfully reaching the key 60th move, but blundering a winning position into a losing one with that very move, and resigning two moves later.
Even a day and a half later that warrants a deep breath. So let us slow down, rewind, and review how we got here. If you followed our coverage throughout the event, you’ll know we were using a computer model to track each player’s chances of winning after each round. Our initial projections only gave four players better than a 5% chance of winning and gave the eventual champion only a 0.2% chance. He was later quoted by chess24.com as believing he had been a “1000:1 dog”; our model said 639:1 but we’ll accept rounding.
Ultimately nine different players saw their odds rise above 5% at some point in the event as fortunes ebbed and flowed, while amazingly no player ever saw their chances go higher than 65% at any point – not even after the final round! Our model didn’t use rating comparisons to predict what might happen in the chaos of blitz or Armageddon you see, so the two co-leaders in the final standings each saw their odds listed at 50% before the playoff began. Here is what the changing odds for those nine contenders looked like in graphical form:
We will take a look at all 14 players, compare their initial expectations per our model against their final results, highlight their best and worst moments, and offer a letter grade to each player’s performance. But first something else needs to be addressed.
Alireza Firouzja entered the final day tied with eventual champion Jorden van Foreest, and without accounting for tiebreaks our model offered him a 12.5% chance of winning the tournament – and much higher if he could win his last game. Later analysis revealed however that his Sonnenborn-Berger score, a mathematical tiebreak used to determine the playoff participants should more than two players tie for first, was lower than other contenders and his realistic odds were closer to 7% as he would not qualify for the playoff in almost any multi-way tie scenario. This became critical after Jorden won and Anish drew, because those results eliminated Firouzja’s hopes of reaching the playoff even as he held an over the board edge in his game. He and his opponent were the only players still competing, and a win could have added Firouzja to the tie for first place, but he would have ranked third in tiebreaks.
At this point the arbiters interrupted his game while it was still in progress. They were going to begin the tiebreak games while Firouzja was still playing his classical game – and they wanted to do so at the same table he was playing at. So Firouzja and his opponent were forced to move to a different table to continue their game – where Alireza quickly blundered away his advantage and settled for a draw.
This has been discussed in great detail already in many other places, and is largely outside the scope of the analytical nature of our coverage, but we want to emphasize our opinion here at Chess by the Numbers that interrupting a player’s game while it is in progress was an egregious and inappropriate violation of the players’ dignity. We are disappointed that this occurred and that it is what will be remembered about a tournament that by all accounts was run impeccably up until that point.
Working our way from the bottom of the standings upward, we will now take a look at every player’s individual performance, to wrap up our narrative of how this tournament proceeded.
Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 9.8
Results: 3.5 / 13 points; 14th place finish; 19 rating points lost; TPR 2554
Highlight: Competing. To say this tournament went badly for Donchenko is an understatement, but there is one major mitigating factor. He never expected to be here and had no chance to prepare. He was added to the field as a Covid-related replacement the day before the opening ceremonies. And he had already competed in another tournament earlier in the month (performing quite well) so he wasn’t even fresh. This is one of the greatest tournaments on the chess calendar, and this was Donchenko’s first opportunity to compete in it. The performance is one he’ll probably want to forget, but plenty of other players who have never competed here would take it in a heartbeat for the experience. We wish the 22-year-old Donchenko the opportunity to compete here again in the future under better circumstances with a chance to prepare properly.
Lowlight: Losing to Grandelius in round one. The first of six eventual losses (with no wins) came against one of the lower seeded players in the field, and set the tone for the event. Perhaps if he could have opened with even a draw, he could have gotten his footing and fared better, but losing right out of the gate was the beginning of the end.
We can’t bring ourselves to flunk someone put in such a difficult position so we’re arbitrarily identifying a failing grade as something we will only award to players who lost 20 or more rating points. Still this one was tough for Alexander and there’s no real way to spin that. As we said, we hope he gets another opportunity. He’s an excellent young player, and still ranked in the top 100 in the world (#84). We suspect he’ll be back.
Predictions: 8.3% chance to win; average finish 4.8
Results: 5 / 13 points; tied 11th-13th place finish; 26 rating points lost; TPR 2633
Highlight: Beating Donchenko in round 10. As hapless as Donchenko was in this event, it was Maxime’s only win and it helped keep him from truly finishing in last place. So nothing else can be identified as a significant positive.
Lowlight: Losing to Carlsen in round 13. By rating this was the most forgivable loss, and perhaps the round five loss to Grandelius – Maxime’s first in the event – was a lower point as it presaged the disaster to come. However Carlsen also was having a difficult tournament and there’s perhaps a 30% or higher chance that Maxime will face Magnus for the World Championship later this year. This game in the final round was a chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise dreadful event, and a chance to establish himself as a potential threat to the world’s best player. Instead he was blown off the board, and what was cemented was his fall from #5 in the world rankings to #15.
There’s no spinning this one. Adjusting for expectations, and without a mitigating factor, MVL had the worst performance in the field. Everything went wrong and he finished 7.2 places lower than projected. There is one point of possible comfort to be found though. In 2018 Fabiano Caruana scored an identical 5/13 here at Tata Steel, and then went on to win that year’s Candidate’s Tournament, so a bad performance here doesn’t have to mean bad results moving forward. MVL is currently tied for the lead in the half-completed Candidates Tournament, which will hopefully be played to completion this spring. Nothing can make his results in this event any better, but if he can follow Caruana’s path and bounce back to win that far more important event he’ll have to feel good about 2021 no matter what happened here.
Predictions: 0.9% chance to win; average finish 8.3
Results: 5 / 13 points; tied 11th-13th place finish; 11 rating points lost; TPR 2639
Highlight: Drawing Carlsen in round 12. When you don’t win a game, your best result must be a draw. Carlsen, despite his relative struggles here, is the best player in the world. It’s always satisfying to avoid being beaten in a game with Magnus.
Lowlight: Losing to Esipenko in round 7. After drawing his first six games, Wojtaszek still had some tentative paths to potentially coming back to win the tournament (in the 200:1 underdog range – better than Jorden’s chances when the event began) and was expected by our model to finish an average of 9th. This loss eliminated all hopes of first place and drove his expected finish down to 11th in one fell swoop, and at the time it was against a teenager who hadn’t won a game yet in the event (although he would notably win more afterward). Wojtaszek went on to lose two more games, but this first loss must have stung the most.
Far from the highest rated player in the tournament Wojtaszek was never a realistic contender to win the event, but he had to hope to at least win a game along the way given he had 13 tries. While this tournament added two new members to the 2700 club, it also lost one as Radoslaw’s rating fell below that mark with his struggles here, and he also dropped from #36 in the world rankings to #43.
David Anton Guijarro
Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 9.8
Results: 5 / 13 points; tied 11th-13th place finish; 6 rating points lost; TPR 2641
Highlight: Drawing Carlsen in round two. With the same logic as before, when you don’t win a game, drawing the best player in the world is as close to a highlight as it comes. Also this occurred after also drawing his first game, so this brought his projected finish to its peak of 9th, before falling off with his first loss and never recovering.
Lowlight: Losing to Van Foreest in round six. This was long before we knew how successful Jorden would ultimately be, and this – the second of Anton’s three losses – drove his projected finish down by 1.4 spots, the worst hit he took from any one result.
If we’re grading on a curve, the same result as the last player when measured against lower expectations must be a relatively better (or less bad) result. He only finished 2.2 places lower than projected. So we’ll offer Anton the ‘plus’ here, but in a 13 round event where you face five players lower rated than yourself, it’s undeniably disappointing to score zero wins.
Predictions: 2.7% chance to win; average finish 6.6
Results: 5.5 / 13 points; 10th place finish; 14 rating points lost; TPR 2666
Highlight: Drawing Carlsen in round six. Until we reach players who scored wins, this is going to be a theme. At the point of this game Duda had lost once but still had decent hopes of bouncing back. Seeded 6th, his projected finish after holding this draw had only fallen to just worse than 8th and things still had a chance to remain under control.
Lowlight: Losing to Grandelius in round two. This was the worst of Duda’s two losses, as it crippled him early on in the event. Entering the tournament ranked #18 in the world Duda was a valid longshot bet to win the whole thing, but that essentially ended with this loss. He never recovered, failing to win a single game, losing a second along the way, finishing 3.4 places worst than originally projected to, and falling to #22 in the world rankings.
Again grading on a curve against expectations, Duda underperformed just as much as the lower rated Wojtaszek despite losing one fewer games. Falling out of the world top 20 is a disappointment. Duda is only 22 years old though, so he will have plenty of chances to do better in the future. That won’t be reassuring in the immediate aftermath of this result though.
Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 10.3
Results: 6 / 13 points; tied 8th-9th place finish; 7 rating points gained; TPR 2700
Highlight: Beating Vachier-Lagrave in round five. Nils started the tournament with a bang winning two straight games, taking the sole lead, and briefly enjoying a position as the biggest story of the event early on. However our model looked at his rating (second lowest in the field) and the 11 rounds remaining, and did not give him quite so much credit at that point. Sure enough, he lost in round three, but that wasn’t the end of his story. When he bounced back and beat MVL in round five our model suddenly did believe, giving him better than a 4% chance of winning it all and projecting as good as a 6th place average finish. Those numbers improved slightly more with a draw against a top seed the following round, and those marks after rounds five and six were his high water points for the event.
Lowlight: Losing in round seven to Giri. This is where the dream ended for good. Unfortunately Grandelius managed to combine his three wins with four losses and finish below a 50% score. This was the second of those losses and the point from which he never bounced back. In rounds 7 through 13 he looked like the player our model initially projected, never capitalizing on his early success.
With seven decisive games, early hopes of a Cinderella run, and a starring role on the wrong end of Jorden’s critical last-round win, Nils was certainly the most exciting player over the course of the event. He did manage to outperform his expected finish by 1.8 places, and gain rating points, so ultimately it counts as a success. His incredibly hot start left hopes of so much more, though, and falling off as the tournament wore on, while perhaps not surprising, is unfortunate and takes the luster off of what at one point looked like a truly sensational breakout performance.
Predictions: 0.0% chance to win; average finish 12.0
Results: 6 / 13 points; tied 8th-9th; 14 rating points gained; TPR 2703
Highlight: Beating Esipenko in round 11. If you had predicted Esipenko would score 50% against his two Norwegian opponents nobody would have batted an eye initially. Once he upset Carlsen though, it seemed a lot less likely. Amazingly though, Tari (the lowest rated player in the field) accomplished what nobody else could in the tournament – he scored a win over the 18-year-old. It was Tari’s only win, but it was the moment our model realized that Tari really truly wasn’t going to finish at the bottom of the standings. His projected finish improved from 11.0 to 9.4 with that win, and he did in fact manage to end the event 3.5 places higher than originally projected.
Lowlight: Losing to Van Foreest in round seven. Of course Tari wasn’t the only player to suffer against Jorden, but given Tari overperformed rather dramatically with just two losses (to the two players who tied for first place), one of them has to be the lowlight. This one hurt his projected results the most, although as we saw he recovered from it nicely!
Expectations are key here. While we can’t give an A to a player who finished in the bottom half of the standings, we would be remiss not to recognize how well Tari played. He wasn’t just the lowest rated player in the field, he was lowest by a large margin. Expected to serve as the punching bag, he punched back. He ultimately made it impossible to finish in first place without beating him. This was an excellent performance against such a strong field.
Predictions: 2.1% chance to win; average finish 6.9
Results: 6.5 / 13 points; 7th place finish; 2 rating points lost; TPR 2724
Highlight: Beating Grandelius in round three. Just when Nils was flying high with sole possession of first place, it was Harikrishna who brought him back to earth. This was definitely the best of Harikrishna’s two wins, and it put him in position to rise as high as 8% to win the event with an average finish of 5th place after he followed it with two draws against high rated opponents. Unfortunately those were his high water marks, he surrendered his +1 score, and never found himself in serious contention again.
Lowlight: Losing to Firouzja in round 8. The first of his two losses, this game brought him back to an even score and effectively ended his hopes of winning the event. He had scored a win and six draws before this, including draws against the four highest seeded opponents, and had hopes of beating up on the lower half of the bracket and making a run… until those hopes were dashed by the 17-year-old wunderkind’s third straight win.
Expected to finish 7th he finished… 7th. His tournament performance rating was within six points of his actual rating, which remained practically unchanged. His world ranking of #21 was in fact unchanged. He won twice and lost twice. It would hardly be possible to have a more average performance, exactly meeting expectations.
Predictions: 50.6% chance to win; average finish 2.1
Results: 7.5 / 13 points; 6th place finish; 15 rating points lost; TPR 2771
Highlight: Beating Firouzja in round one. The tournament opened right off the bat with perhaps the most anticipated game of the entire event, as Carlsen faced off against the youngster who bears expectations of being “the next Magnus” on his shoulders. And Carlsen got the better of him. Coming off a disappointing result in a major online tournament before this, opening with a big win looked promising for the champ. After this opening win our model pegged him at a 64% likelihood to win the event. If the world #1 shows up in form and jumps out to an early lead, how could he not simply run away with things?
Lowlight: Losing to Esipenko in round eight. Spoiler alert, Magnus did not simply run away with things. After beating Firouzja he began drawing game after game, despite growing expectations that he must win one eventually. By the end of round seven – his sixth straight draw – his odds of winning the tournament had fallen to 21.5% and he was no longer the favorite as he had been passed in the standings by four players. So he entered his game against Esipenko desperately needing a win. Instead things went horribly wrong. This loss ended realistic discussion of winning the tournament, and instead turned the whispers of “what’s wrong with Magnus” into a cacophony. Is one loss really such a disaster? Well that’s the danger of the expectations game; when you’re as good as Magnus the answer is yes. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Let us remember that Carlsen won three games, finished in sixth place, and had a performance rating that would fall 8th in the world rankings if it were a player’s true rating. Wins in rounds nine and 13 really did help salvage this, and while certainly disappointing it was not entirely the disaster it was billed as. Carlsen called his performance “shameful” but we would contend he’s perhaps being overdramatic to do so. It wasn’t good, he finished 3.9 places lower than expected, he’s still ranked #1 in the world, it will be okay.
Predictions: 3.3% chance to win; average finish 6.3
Results: 8 / 13 points; tied 3rd-5th; 10 rating points gained; TPR 2810
Highlight: Winning three straight games from rounds six through eight. This run, over Donchenko, Duda, and Harikrishna, catapulted Firouzja to sole possession of first place and a 38% chance to win the tournament. As we’ve mentioned he bears the weight of tremendous expectations, and at this point it looked like he very well might meet them. Carlsen famously won this tournament for the first time at age 17, and Firouzja looked at this point like he might do the same. It was a remarkable achievement at the time to bounce back from a painful loss in round one and climb to these heights so quickly.
Lowlight: Losing to Carlsen in round one. Perhaps this is a surprising pick considering the massive frustration surrounding his controversial final-round draw. But the reason his tiebreaks were weaker in the first place, which allowed the controversy to occur, is that he lost to Magnus way back in the first round. The tiebreaks used give the most weight to results against players who finish highest in the standings, so losing to Magnus who finished sixth was costly. Imagine briefly an alternate universe where Firouzja drew in round one, and then everything else proceeded identically (ignoring the inevitable butterfly effects). The arbiters certainly wouldn’t have interrupted his game to begin a playoff that might have proven unnecessary as winning against Wojtaszek in that scenario would have won the tournament outright for himself.
Now we want to be clear we’re not blaming Firouzja for the egregious behavior of the arbiters. You don’t play round one with tiebreak implications in mind and a game should never be interrupted the way it was. We’re simply noting that with all said and done, the single result that ended up hurting Firouzja the most was his first. He recovered from it very well, but it still managed to come back to bite him in the end.
Despite the bitter ending, this was a fantastic event for Firouzja. His performance rating was over 2800, and he climbed from #17 to #13 in the world rankings. At just 17 years old, we expect him to crack the top ten sooner than later and to stay there for a long time. Is he a future world champion? Can he live up to such extraordinary expectations? There are questions that it’s okay not to answer today. Sure to get there he’ll have to beat Magnus someday, but there’s plenty of time for that. He finished 2.3 places higher than projected here, won four games, showed grit competing right to the end. Hopefully he can swallow the bitter pill of an unfair finish, and ultimately remember the tournament in that manner, eventually looking back on it as a positive experience and a stepping stone to even greater heights.
Predictions: 25.2% chance to win; average finish 3.1
Results: 8 / 13 points; tied 3rd-5th; 3 rating points lost; TPR 2804
Highlight: Beating Wojtaszek in round nine. This was the third of Fabi’s three wins, and put him at his highest point in our projections. With this win he was the tournament favorite with a 43.6% chance to win it all, and an average finish of 2.2 – he just needed to find a way to win one more game to maintain those heights and ultimately join the tie for first place.
Lowlight: Drawing Tari in round 13. Unfortunately he couldn’t quite put the bow on things. Despite a wonderfully consistent tournament, with no lost games, he found himself going into the final round almost certainly needing a win to join any possible tie atop the leaderboard. And the opportunity looked promising against the lowest rated player in the field. Our model rated him the second most likely winner after round 12, just like he had been after every other round of the tournament (except seven and nine which each temporarily had him as the favorite). Unfortunately he couldn’t break through, drew his fourth straight game, and finished half a point behind the leaders.
We can’t possibly give any lower grade to a fourth place finish, but there’s an argument we should as the expectations game comes into play again. He finished lower than projected and lost rating points. After winning this event in dominating fashion last year, he never really managed to pull away from the field this time around and was eventually surpassed. By the grading standards we set for others, that’s arguably C+ material, but he was only half a point off the lead, never lost a game, and was in serious contention from the beginning to the end. No matter how high expectations are for the #2 ranked player in the world, those results have to count as better than average, even if they do fall slightly short of our projections.
Predictions: 0.3% chance to win; average finish 9.6
Results: 8 / 13 points;tied 3rd-5th place; 24 rating points gained; TPR 2815
Highlight: Beating Magnus Carlsen in round eight. This was an extraordinary tournament all around for Andrey but of course this is the highlight. His win over the world champion was simply shocking, and the interviews afterward showed the absolute purest joy. It was truly a wonderful moment (except of course for Magnus).
Lowlight: Losing to Tari in round 11. Unfortunately for Esipenko he wasn’t able to beat his second Norwegian opponent, even though on paper this was the far easier opportunity. This loss proved costly, as before it occurred Esipenko was emerging not only as the player to beat Magnus, but as a legitimate contender to win the event. If he had won, or even drawn this game, he would have been in a great position to do something so extraordinary that beating Magnus wouldn’t have even ended up as his top highlight. Unfortunately, instead, he lost his only game of the tournament instead and those hopes all came crashing down and ultimately he finished half a point out of first place.
Not only was beating Carlsen a magnificent moment, but it was also one of four wins in a tournament that saw Esipenko climb from a #60 world ranking all the way to #37. The tremendous rating gain saw him cross the 2700 threshold, earning the unofficial “Super GM” title, making him the second teenager in the world rated over 2700 along with Firouzja. The third best teenager is just 2627, so it’s quite a gap. This was so much better of a result than Esipenko could ever have hoped for, exceeding his projected finish by 5.6 places. The only thing keeping it from being a perfect A+ is the unfortunate loss to Tari keeping him from reaching first place when it was realistically within reach.
Predictions: 5.9% chance to win; average finish 5.3
Results: 8.5 / 13 points; tied 1st-2nd; 12 rating points gained; TPR 2832
Highlight: Beating Wojtaszek in round 10. Giri hung in the wings for the first half of the tournament, but then surged to the forefront by winning three games in four rounds from round seven through 10. This was the culmination of that surge and pushed Anish into sole possession of first place. His odds of winning the event actually rose much further with draws over the next two rounds, but that was because of other players failing to catch him; winning here to take the lead all to himself was the lynchpin that put him in such great position.
Lowlight: Drawing Firouzja in round 12. This draw left Giri half a point ahead of the field and vulnerable to being caught – which is exactly what happened. A win in this game could have nearly clinched sole first place in the tournament, and it looked nearly guaranteed. We carefully avoid analyzing games on this site, playing instead to our strengths, but suffice it to say that everyone who does analyze games agrees that Giri was winning in this one, and that Firouzja managed a rather shocking escape to salvage the draw. That escape ultimately cost Giri the championship in the event. Yes, blundering on move 60 of Armageddon may have cost him the championship even more directly, but that was a chaotic time scramble that never had to happen if Giri had converted this earlier game with the benefit of classical time controls.
Giri tied for first with four wins and no losses, and had great chances to win the tournament, either by converting one more classical game somewhere along the line or by finding a better 60th move in Armageddon during the playoffs. His rating gain moved him back into the top ten of the world rankings. It all went quite well overall, but when the win is so close and then slips through your fingertips, it’s hard to focus on the positive. Giri was almost the first Dutch winner of Wijk aan Zee since 1985, but instead that ended up being someone else.
Jorden van Foreest
Predictions: 0.2% chance to win; average finish 10.2
Results: 8.5 / 13 points; tied 1st-2nd; 30 rating points gained; TPR 2839
Highlight: Winning the tournament. Jorden van Foreest is the first Dutch winner of Wijk aan Zee since the legendary Jan Timman took first place in 1985. We could pick a specific game, perhaps the round 13 win over Grandelius that earned him a spot in the playoffs, or of course the Armageddon win that clinched the title, but really trying to identify one single highlight is too narrow, the big picture is that the third lowest rated player in the field won the whole thing.
Lowlight: Truly there is none. Although our model never really thought Jorden had significant chances of actually pulling off the victory until the very end, there’s no moment we can point to where anything went wrong. To win a tournament as a 1000:1 (or 639:1) underdog, you can’t afford to have anything go wrong. And nothing did for Jorden.
Of course. In addition to winning the tournament, Jorden also gained an astounding 30 rating points and cracked the 2700 club, climbing from 67th place in the world rankings all the way to 36th. And Jorden is only 21 years old. In our event preview we said he was not “a realistic contender for first place” but quite frankly he made it a joy to be proven wrong. Watching him pull this off was deeply enjoyable. We sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of a career worth of major successes at the highest level. Congratulations Jorden!
And that wraps up our tournament coverage of the 2021 Tata Steel Masters. We hope you enjoyed this event as much as we did. It’s wonderful to have classical chess being played once again, and we look forward to the next major tournament we’ll have the opportunity to cover. Right now that looks most likely to be the conclusion of the Candidates Tournament, perhaps in April. This event certainly lived up to its billing with drama that built slowly over the first few rounds and then just kept coming. Over the course of the event four different players were the favorite at some point before the end – and none of them ended up winning! We couldn’t have asked for more from an event to showcase exactly how our model can be more than just numbers, and capture the narrative ups and downs of a long tournament, highlighting and hopefully deepening the most dramatic moments. Thank you for joining us for this ride. We’ll see you for the next one!