John Henderson
By John Henderson

As Magnus Carlsen’s unbeaten streak continues – now at 113-games and counting – at the Tata Steel Masters with a sixth successive draw, this time against the US world #2 and former title-rival Fabiano Caruana, there’s another very intriguing story unfolding in the fabled Dutch super-tournament: the dramatic rise of a newer generational star widely tipped as a future title challenger for the Norwegian to worry about.

Sixteen-year-old Iranian exile Alirezja Firouzja is on the verge of making a breakthrough into the elite-circle with a standout performance that is eerily similar to that of the young teenage Carlsen at 17. After losing a sore ending to tournament leader Wesley So in Round 4, Firouzja showed he had a remarkable ability to bounce right back with a big endgame win in Round 5 over Anish Giri to again move into the co-lead with the US #2, as the tournament gets set to reach its second weekend midpoint.

Late last year, Firouzja made the brave move to renounce his citizenship over government and religious pressures being placed on Iranian athletes to boycott matches against Israelis. Currently living in Paris after fleeing Iran with his father, Firouzja indicated to the president of Iran’s Chess Federation that he is seeking to play under the French or US flag. Because of this, he had to play under the neutral FIDE flag at the year-ending World Rapid and Blitz Championships; and similarly, at the Tata Steel Masters, he is again playing under the FIDE flag.

Bobby Fischer’s favourite chess author was the late, great Aussia writer and editor Cecil J. Purdy (the first world correspondence champion) who once famously observed that “Pawn endings are to chess what putting is to golf.” What a wonderful analogy; and so true! A little bit of additional wisdom and knowledge in the “short game” of pawn endings can make all the difference between losing and saving a game.

And although the Dutch can lay spurious 17th-century claims to being one of the earliest inventors of golf that predates the game in Scotland, it does not have a great Dutch tradition – but chess certainly has, and that wonderful Purdy golfing analogy became something of a truism in the battle between Firouzja and Giri, as the latter sleepwalked from a drawing to a lost ending.

1-2. W. So (USA), A. Firouzja (FIDE) 4/6; 3-5. J. van Foreest (Netherlands), F. Caruana (USA), D. Dubov (Russia) 3½; 6-11. V. Anand (India), M. Carlsen (Norway), A. Giri (Netherlands), V. Artemiev (Russia), J. Xiong (USA), J-K. Duda (Poland) 3; 12. M. Vitiukov (Russia) 2½; 13. Yu Yangyi (China) 2; 14. V. Kovalev (Belorussia) 1.

Photo: Will Wijk prove to be new teenage sensation Alireza Firouzja’s big breakthrough? | © Alina l’Ami / Tata Steel Masters

GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Anish Giri
Tata Steel Masters, (5)
Queen’s Gambit Exchange, Charousek/Petrosian variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 The Charousek/Petrosian variation is a subtle way to play against the Queen’s Gambit, as this avoids some of the more dangerous lines of the Exchange Variation. 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bf4 c6 6.Qc2 Nf6 7.e3 Nh5 8.Be5 Nd7 9.Be2 Nxe5 10.dxe5 g6 11.Bxh5 gxh5 It’s an interesting tussle we have in store, with the two bishops against the two knights. Generally speaking this should favour the bishops, but White has compensation with Black’s kingside pawns being shattered. 12.Nge2 f6 13.exf6 Bxf6 14.Rd1 0-0 15.0-0 Kh8 16.e4 d4 17.Nf4 Be5?! It was wiser to make a weapon out of the doubled h-pawns as quickly as possible by pushing it up the board. The game would have been more ‘balanced’ after 17…h4 as now, if 18.h3 as in the game, then 18…Be5 19.Nd3 Bc7! and Black has a dangerous attack looming, as witness 20.Ne2 Bxh3! and the attack is crashing through. 18.Nd3 Bg7 This time 18…Bc7 is not as effective as in the previous note. After 19.Ne2 h4 20.f3 there’s no h3 target to hit – and if 20…Qd6 21.e5 suddenly White has a dangerous initiative with the e- and f-pawns running up the board. 19.Ne2 h4! Better late than never I suppose! 20.h3 Qe7 21.e5 Rd8 The only sensible move. If 21…Bxe5 22.Nxe5 Qxe5 23.Rxd4 Bf5 24.Qc3! Black can’t take the Ne2 as the discovered check with Rg4+ wins on the spot, and meanwhile there no stopping White playing Rxh4 simultaneously winning the h4-pawn and forcing the trade of queens. 22.f4 Bf5 23.Kh2 Not just defending against the potential threat of a …Bxh3, but also, in certain lines, if the queens are traded, then g3 and Kxg3 will be needed to defend f4. 23…Qe6 24.Ng1?! Better was 24.Qb3 offering to trade queens, as 24…Qg6 25.g4!? hxg3+ 26.Nxg3 Bh6 27.Nxf5 Qxf5 28.Qxb7 Qe4! 29.Qb4 Qe2+ 30.Kh1 Qe4+ looks to end in a draw by repetition. 24…Bh6 25.Nf3 The bishops look to be setting the agenda, but the game takes a somewhat strange twist. 25…Qe7? Puzzling, to say the least! I can’t fathom what Giri was thinking here, as he had the simple plan of 25…Bxd3 26.Qxd3 Bxf4+ 27.Kh1 Rd5 with the somewhat better of an equal position. I can only assume that Giri had a sudden rush of blood to the head and thought his bishops were winning. 26.Kh1 Bxf4 27.Qc5! With the Bf4 hanging, this forces the trade of queens – and with it, any thought Giri might have had of a winning attack went right out the window. 27…Qxc5 28.Nxc5 Bc2 29.Rxd4 Rxd4 By now, Giri was probably regretting the error of his ways with 25…Qe7? 30.Nxd4 Be3 Those two bishops are still tricky, but Firouzja soon brings his own knights into the game. 31.Nce6 Bg6 32.Rf3 Bh6? There’s not much in the position, but Giri makes a little error that allows the knights to dominate the bishops that forces a trade. Better was 32…Bc1! 33.Rb3 (If 33.b3 Re8 and Black is better.) 33…b6! 34.Nxc6 If White doesn’t capture on c6, then Black will be playing …c5 and the bishop-pair will come into their own. 34…Bf7 35.Ncd8 Bxe6 36.Nxe6 Re8 37.Nd4 Rxe5 where, if anything, Black retains a little advantage due to the better rook and bishop, plus White will have to remain vigilant to back-rank mating threats after …Bf4. 33.Nf5 Bxf5 Giri has allowed the knights to dominate the bishops, and with it, he’s left with an awkward endgame to defend that only become the more difficult with each trade of pieces. With that in mind, it was not too late to play the better 33…Bc1! 34.Nxh4 Bxb2 35.Nxg6+ hxg6 36.Nf4 Kg7 37.e6 Be5! 38.Nd3 Bf6 where the e-pawn – while looking dangerous – is not really a big issue as it is well-covered b y the rook, bishop and king. 34.Rxf5 Be3 35.Rf3 Re8 36.Rxe3 Rxe6 A rook and pawn ending is always a good way to look for a draw in an ending, and kudos to Giri for reaching it – but trying to save the game by now going into a pawn ending is not recommended! 37.Kg1 Kg7 38.Kf2 Kg6 39.Re4 Re7? Wrong! Best was 39…h5! so that 40.Kf3 (If 40.Ke3 now 40…Kf5! as 41.Rxh4 Rxe5+ and that crucial check makes all the difference between drawing and losing the ending.) 40…Kg5 The difference is that the h5-pawn stops Rg4+, and any win is not so clear to achieve now. If 41.Ke3 Kf5 42.Kd4 Rg6! 43.e6 now 43…Rxe6! and the K+P is a draw, and 44.Rxh4 Kg5 45.Re4 Rd6+ is also a drawn R+P ending. 40.Kf3 Kf5 Still worth a punt is 40…h5 but now 41.e6! Kf6 42.Rxh4 and both h-pawns are set to fall, and with those two passed kingside pawns set to march up the board. 41.Rxh4 Kxe5 42.Re4+ Kf6 43.Rxe7 Kxe7 44.Kf4 [see diagram] The pawns maybe equal, but Firouzja has the more active king and a 2 to 1 kingside pawn majority – and this makes for a perfect decoy to allow the White king to cross over to the queenside to win the pawns on that wing of the board. 44…Kf6 Firouzja totally dominates the K+P ending, and there’s nothing Giri can do about it. If 44…Kd6 45.h4 b5 46.h5 c5 47.Ke4 Ke6 48.h6! a5 (48…Kf6 49.Kd5 and, as in the game, White nips over to the queenside to capture all Black’s pawns and promotes first) 49.b3! (Zugzwang, any pawn move is fatal and if 49…Kf6 50.Kd5 or 49…Kd6 50.g4) 49…a4 50.bxa4 bxa4 51.a3 Kd6 52.Kd3 Kd5 53.Kc3 c4 54.g4 winning. 45.g4 a5 46.a4 h6 47.h4 Ke6 48.g5 hxg5+ 49.Kxg5 Black’s king has a long route to get to the h-pawn – and when it goes for it to stop it, the White king quickly crosses over to the queenside. 49…Kf7 50.Kf5 White has no intentions of pushing the h-pawn any further up the board – to stop it, Black’s king will have to take the long road round to h4. 50…b5 51.Ke5! 1-0 Giri resigns, as he can’t both stop Firouzja’s king marching over to d6 to capture the queenside pawns, nor the h-pawn running up the board.


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