John Henderson
By John Henderson

The build-up to the eagerly-anticipated Tata Steel Masters showdown in Wijk aan Zee between Magnus Carlsen and the exciting new young pretender to his throne, Alireza Firoujza, was hyped by the pundits to be “a future World Championship Match-in-the-making”, as the newer generational star – who looked to be making a sensational breakthrough performance by making all the early running in his first super-tournament – faced the Norwegian World Champion for the first time in a classical game.

It proved to be a true baptism of fire for the 16-year-old Iranian exile, as Carlsen crushed his hopes and dreams of beating the World Champion in their first meeting, as he finally showed his true class in the first major of the year with a very smooth performance for a second straight win, as he systematically outplayed his new teen rival to now ominously move to within half a point of leader and old foe Fabiano Caruana, his American former title-challenger.

And in an act of respect, after what must have been a hard lesson for Firouzja, the teenager was at least gracious in defeat as he quickly congratulated Carlsen on social media for “playing like a World Champion.” He also consoled himself with the philosophical thought that “Everyone falls the first jump,” and indicated he was ready to move “on to Round 10 against US’ finest Fabiano Caruana.”

But not ‘everyone falls the first jump’, as Norwegian journalist Tarjei J. Svensen was quick to point out on social media. The keeper of all metrics Carlsen-wise noted a striking parallel between Carlsen and Firouzja meeting, with both facing the World Champion of the day for the first time on the same date and in the same tournament, though separated by a gap of 13-years. Back in 2007 at Wijk aan Zee, on the same date, Carlsen – though six months younger than Firouzja, at 16-years and 1 month – played Vladimir Kramnik for the first time, only he managed to draw.

And the reality check of playing in his first super-tournament soon hit home for Firouzja. After being pummelled by Carlsen, the teenager was hit by the double whammy of similarly being destroyed by Caruana in Round 10. The result, coupled with Carlsen now on a tear with a third successive win – against the hapless back-marker, Vladislav Kovalev – means that the natural order of things has now been firmly restored at the top, with the ‘old guard’ peeling away from the chasing pack going down the home stretch.

1. F. Caruana (USA) 7/10; 2. M. Carlsen (Norway) 6½; 3-4. W. So (USA), J. van Foreest (Netherlands) 6; 5-6. J-K. Duda (Poland), A. Firouzja (FIDE) 5½; 7-8. A. Giri (Netherlands), D. Dubov (Russia) 5; 9-11. V. Anand (India), J. Xiong (USA), V. Artemiev (Russia) 4½; 12-13. N. Vitiugov (Russia), Yu Yangyi (China) 3½; 14. V. Kovalev (Belorussia) 3.

Video opposite: Not yet, kid, as Magnus Carlsen brings new teenage sensation Alireza Firouzja back to reality.

GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Magnus Carlsen
Tata Steel Masters, (9)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 The Berlin Defence came as something of a surprise, as Carlsen hadn’t been playing this lately. And in an amusing side anecdote to the game, commentator Peter Svidler said he couldn’t remember when he last saw Carlsen playing this against an opponent, so he quickly consulted his database…only to discover that it was a certain Peter Svidler himself (at Biel in 2018)! 4.d3 The so-called ‘Berlin Wall’ endgame after 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 is considered the most testing line – but Carlsen himself shrewdly guessed that his young opponent would eschew this for the solid but more timid 4.d3, so he was more than ready for this reply. 4…d6 5.c3 a6 6.Ba4 Be7 7.0-0 0-0 8.Re1 Re8 9.Nbd2 Bf8 10.h3 b5 11.Bc2 Bb7 12.d4 g6 13.a3 Nb8 The switch to the Berlin Defence has worked out well for Carlsen, who with this regrouping of his knight has transposed into a slightly more favourable Breyer Defence set-up he likes to play. 14.d5 Firouzja’s inexperience is showing, as the central advance is wrong and plays right into Carlsen’s hands. The old main line runs 14.b4 Nbd7 15.Bb2 Bg7 16.Qb1 Rc8 which is fine for Black. The best try to make something out of the opening for White is 14.dxe5 – but the closing of the centre with 14.d5 only helps Black’s game. 14…c6 15.c4?! White is in a quandary, realising that Carlsen has no problems here after 15.dxc6 Bxc6 16.Nf1 Nbd7 with full equality and well-ahead in development, so looks instead for some complications, which quickly backfire on him..] 15…Nbd7 16.a4 [If 16.b4 Nb6 and already Black is undermining the queenside. 16…Qc7 17.b3 Rec8 18.Ra2 bxc4 19.bxc4 a5! Black quickly fixes White’s a-pawn, and Firouzja misses a critical line. 20.Nf1? It’s the typical Lopez knight move, but Firouzja simply had to play 20.Nb1! with the idea of coming to a3 and into b5 that indirectly defends the a4-pawn once Black releases the tension with cxd5. 20…Ba6 21.Ne3 Nc5 22.Nd2 cxd5 23.cxd5 Rab8 With little or no effort, Carlsen suddenly has a big advantage as he takes total control of the board – and with it, his better co-ordinated pieces get ready to strike. 24.Ba3 Qd8 A subtle retreat, as the Black queen might well switch now to the kingside via g5 or h4 to strike at the White king. It was around this stage you realised that the young 16-year-old new chess sensation still had a lot of work to do at school before he could graduate to the next level. 25.Qf3 h5! Gaining more space on the kingside and bringing his last piece into the game with the threat of …Bh6. 26.Raa1 White’s position is on the verge of collapse, with the over-worked Bc2 the only piece holding it all together – but for how long? 26…Bh6 27.Rab1 With no easy solutions, Firouzja at least knows what to do in a crisis, as he looks to trade some pieces in an effort to ease the strain on his position. 27…Rxb1 28.Rxb1 Kg7! The king defends the knight, and now the Black queen gets ready to take part in the final breakthrough. 29.Nef1 h4 30.Ne3 Bf4 31.Nef1 Firouzja is in dire straights, unable to find a plan to get back in the game. And realising his opponent is starting to flounder, Carlsen wisely avoids rushing into the attack, and instead simply finds the best square for his queen. 31…Qc7 32.g3?!? Desperation more than anything else. If 32.Ne3 Nd3 33.Bxd3 Bxd3 34.Rc1 (Alternatively 34.Re1 Qc3! wins on the spot.; And if 34.Rb3 Bc2 35.Rb2 Bxe3 36.Qxe3 Bxe4! 37.Nxe4 Qc1+ 38.Kh2 Qxe3 39.fxe3 Nxe4 40.Rb6 Rc4 leaves White with a hopelessly lost ending.) 34…Qxc1+ 35.Bxc1 Rxc1+ 36.Ndf1 (If 36.Nef1 there comes yet another subtle retreat with 36…Ba6! that leaves White paralysed and unable to defend both the knights.) 36…Bxe3 37.Qxe3 Rxf1+ 38.Kh2 Nxe4!! crashes through to win, as 39.Qxd3 Rh1+! leads to a winning knight-fork after 40.Kxh1 Nxf2+ and resignation now looming. 32…hxg3 33.fxg3 Bh6 34.h4 Qd7 [see diagram] Also good and winning was the engine ‘first choice’ of 34…Qa7 but 34…Qd7 – eyeing up the a4-pawn and also threatening the kingside-probing …Qh3 – looked like the more ‘typical’ Carlsen move. 35.Kg2 Nxa4 This leaves Firouzja on the brink of total collapse. 36.Bxa4 Qxa4 37.Bxd6 Qd4 Nicely centralising the queen on a dominant outpost. And with it, the worst-case scenario for Black, if White somehow manages to survive, is the a-pawn running quickly up the board. 38.Qf2 Qxf2+ 39.Kxf2 Bxf1! 0-1 Firouzja resigns, as recapturing the piece with 40.Nxf1 only losses another piece to the knight fork with 40…Nxe4+


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