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There was a fear earlier this week that the outbreak of the new coronavirus, which causes the illness recently named by the World Health Organization as Covid-19, that has infected more than 76,000 people in 27 countries and led to more than 2,200 deaths since late December, might have impacted the upcoming 2020 Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia, due to start in mid-March.

It came after Russia announced a sweeping blanket ban for all Chinese citizens entering the country that came into effect on Thursday at midnight. It was imposed due to the worsening epidemiological situation in China. In a statement, Russia’s foreign ministry clarified that the ban would be temporary and only applies to visitors with tourist, private, student and work visas.

Initially, the fear was that Ding Liren and Wang Hao, who both qualified for the eight-player tournament that ultimately will decide Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger – in a $2m world title match scheduled for November, and widely expected to be held as part of the Expo 2020 in Dubai – might not be allowed to compete.

Fide, the governing global body of chess, was quick to react to the potential threat by issuing a statement clarifying from the Russian authorities that both Ding Liren – the world #3, and second favourite behind Fabiano Caruana of the USA – and Wang Hao would be granted special “humanitarian visas”, which are being designated for travel to Russia for sport, cultural or scientific purposes.

The Chinese delegation had originally planned to arrive in Russia on 1 March, but now it is expected they will arrive as early as next Monday to allow for added precautionary safety measures ahead of the candidates. It’s been reported Fide is also providing them on arrival with a country house near Moscow, with full medical assistance available, so that they can continue to Ekaterinburg even if restrictions continue to further tighten.

The coronavirus did, however, hit the ongoing 2nd Prague Masters being held in the Czech Republic. China’s #3, Wei Yi, now 20, was originally named in the line-up as the second seed in the 10-player field, but he was forced into a late withdrawal after China imposed a nation-wide travel ban in an attempt to control the spread of the outbreak, making it impossible for him to make the journey.

But as one former teen prodigy was forced out by unforeseen global circumstances, in comes an exciting new teenage rising star.  Despite the late call-off and no time to prepare, the 16-year-old Iranian exile Alireza Firouzja – now stateless, and playing under the Fide flag – stepped into the breach as Wei Wi’s last-minute replacement in the tournament.

But making all the early running has been India’s Santosh Vidit, who with a Round 5 demolition of Firouzja, moved into the outright lead on an unbeaten score of 4/5, a half point ahead of a three-strong chasing pack, as the tournament reached its midpoint.

Photo: © Vladimir Jagr / Prague Chess Festival

GM Santosh Vidit – GM Alireza Firouzja
Prague Masters, (5)
Slav Exchange
1.d4 d5 After his brutal loss to Fabiano Caruana last month at Wijk aan Zee, Firouzja looks to have abandoned the King’s Indian Defence for now, in preference for a symmetrical d4 opening – but if this game is anything to go by, then the solid Slav doesn’t look to suit his active style of play. 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.cxd5 A good call from Vidit, as the Exchange Slav immediately takes the sting out of the position, dramatically reducing any fighting chances for a dynamic player such as Firouzja. 4…cxd5 5.Nc3 Nc6 The best try in the Exchange Slav, if Matthew Sadler’s still relevant and highly-recommended first book, The Slav is anything to go by. There are a few other alternatives, but the trouble is that – with little or no effort – all of them lead to a typical small advantage for White. 6.Bf4 a6 7.Rc1 Bf5 8.e3 e6 In an otherwise symmetrical position, White has played Rc1 and Black a6. Black should be able to equalise – but he has to make a few more precise moves to do so. 9.Be2 The best move by far in the position. 9…Qb6? Firouzja’s lack of experience in these positions show up immediately with this elementary error. If Black wants to equalise, he needs to play 9…Bd6! 10.Bxd6 Qxd6 11.Na4 0-0 12.0-0 Rac8 13.Nc5 Rc7 14.Qb3 Qe7 where Black should slowly be able to trade off some pieces for complete equality. 10.0-0 Qxb2?! This is, of course, the whole rationale behind 9…Qb6 – but this is far too risky, as Firouzja soon discovers to his horror. It was not too late to concede the plan was bad, and to play the better 10…Be7! 11.Na4 Qa7 12.Qb3 Nd7 preventing Qb6. 13.Rc3 Na5!? Kicking the queen back. 14.Qd1 Nc6 15.Bd3 Bxd3 16.Qxd3 0-0 17.Rfc1 Black certainly still has work to do to seek the necessary exchanges needed to ease his difficulties, but at least here, he stands a good fighting chance of equality, unlike the slaughter that awaits him in the game! 11.Na4! The swiftness of Vidit playing this move should have been like a blaring siren going off in Firouzja’s head – but he is not really aware of how bad his position is right now. 11…Qb4 The danger can be seen if Black gets too greedy by grabbing a second pawn with 11…Qxa2 12.Nh4! Bb4 13.Nxf5 exf5 when, suddenly, White pounces with the unsuspecting 14.e4!! and now the Black queen is lost, as the d2 square is covered. Now the best Black has is the hopeless 14…Nxe4 15.Ra1 Qxa4 16.Rxa4 Nc3 17.Qc2 Nxd4 18.Bb5+! Ncxb5 19.Qd3 Bc3 20.Be5 0-0 21.Bxd4 Bxd4 22.Rxd4 Nxd4 23.Qxd4 where Black has a serious scarcity of material. 12.a3! It’s the little moves that are the unsuspecting killers, and it is likely that in his analysis, Firouzja may well have overlooked this possibility. 12…Qa5? No use having a change of heart now. Firouzja was, in poker parlance, “pot committed”, and he really had to grab the second pawn now, and then make the best of a bad job to try and salvage something, anything. And for that, he simply had to play now 12…Qxa3!? 13.Nb6 Rd8 14.Bc7 Bd6 15.Bxd8 Nxd8 16.Nc8 Bb8 17.Ne5 Ne4 where it is all a bit of a “mess”, but White still has work to do to be certain of winning – but far better this than what is coming! 13.Qb3 And now, in an alternate reality mirror, White threatening to capture the b-pawn is deadly, and forces Black into making more concessions. And with it, the rest of the game is a very instructive example on how to finish off your opponent. 13…b5 14.Rxc6 Qxa4 15.Qc3 Such are the vagaries of chess, but the reason for Firouzja’s demise is that he needs an extra move to complete his development – but had he gotten an extra move in here with Be7, he would have been better after 0-0! But Vidit ruthlessly doesn’t give him the time to regroup. 15…e5 Forced; the only way to fend off Rc8+ that will lead to a mate. 16.Nxe5! b4!? Pure desperation now, but Vidit takes it all in his stride as he expertly converts for the win. 17.axb4! Ne4 18.Qa1! This surprising retreating move leaves Firouzja on the brink, as exchanging queens offers no relief, as White’s rooks will dominate. 18…Qxa1 19.Rxa1 Bxb4 20.Rcxa6 Rxa6 21.Rxa6 0-0 [see diagram] Many might well be wondering what all the panic is about, as Black has managed to castle safely, has some activity with his pieces, and is only a pawn down. If you still don’t understand why Black is lost here, then the key to Firouzja’s forced resignation in a few more moves is how uncoordinated his minor pieces are, especially his bishops. 22.Nc6! Taking advantage of the fact that the …Bb4 lacks squares and it also has to defend against the threat of Ne7+ picking up the hanging …Bf5. 22…Rc8 Firouzja tries to make use of the back-rank mating threat to escape – but Vidit has it all finely worked out. 23.g4! The back-rank is now no longer a threat – and he gets to play it with tempo! 23…Nc3 24.Bf1! 1-0 Only now does Firouzja throw in the towel, faced with the daunting prospect of two pieces still under attack, and no way to protect both.

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