In this extraordinary time with a pandemic global lockdown and all sporting and cultural events cancelled for the foreseeable future, record numbers are going online to seek entertainment. And with the $50,000 Chess24 Banter Blitz Cup throwing up the organiser’s dream final of Magnus Carlsen vs Alireza Firouzja later this week, many are already speculating that this could well become the most-watched online chess match in history.
Carlsen got to the final with his impressive, Fischeresque 9-0 shutout of Russian GM Sanan Sjugirov, while Alireza Firouzja’s path wasn’t quiet so emphatic, as the 16-year-old exiled Iranian GM faced his toughest challenge yet in the mammoth 132-player online knockout competition (that started last September), though he nevertheless did turn in a workmanlike 9-6 victory over India’s Srinath Narayanan in last Friday evening’s second semi-final clash.
We’re now set for the ‘dream final’ for thousands of chess fans caught up in a global Covid-19 lockdown, with Carlsen going head-to-head with Firouzja, his newer-generation wannabe rival, whom many commentators widely believe will rise to become one of the Norwegian’s title challengers in the mid 2020s. And the not-to-be-missed Chess24 Banter Blitz Cup Final of Carlsen vs Firouzja will take place on Wednesday 15 April, starting at 19:00 CEST (14:00 EST, 11:00 PST).
While Carlsen is the bookies’ favourite with the over-the-board edge (with wins in the 2018 and 2019 World Blitz Championship and in classical chess in this year’s Tata Steel Masters) going into Wednesday’s final, Firouzja will be no pushover and capable of a major upset -and the teenager’s confidence will only be boosted with his 103.5-90.5 victory over Carlsen in their under-the-radar, first-to-100 marathon bullet challenge held last week on Lichess.
And it’s non-stop online action all the way now, with the announcement of the full line-up for ‘The Magnus Carlsen Invitational’ that also gets underway on Chess24 this coming Saturday. The field for the mega $250,000 online elite event is headed by Carlsen and will include: Fabiano Caruana (USA), Ding Liren (China), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) and Alireza Firouzja (FIDE).
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM S.L. Narayanan
Chess24 Banter Blitz Cup Semifinal, (1)
Sicilian Najdorf, Poisoned Pawn Variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 The fabled Poisoned Pawn Variation, famously championed by Bobby Fischer. 8.Nb3 The Variation with the double-edged pawn capture on b2 has almost been analysed to a near death now by the computers, and this better explains Firouzja’s preference for something less complicated. 8…Nbd7 9.Qe2 Stopping the awkward …Qe3+ and preparing queenside castling. 9…Qc7 10.0-0-0 b5 11.a3 Be7 12.g4 Rb8 13.Bh4 h6 The problem for Black is what to do with his king? He has to attack on the queenside, so that rules out queenside castling; if he castles kingside, he’s walking right into a ready-made attack; that leaves his only option being to take his chances by keeping his king in the middle of the board. 14.Bg3 b4 15.axb4 Rxb4 16.Bg2 Bb7 17.h4 Nc5 A little too cautious, as it allows White to consolidate. The engine instead immediately wants the complications of 17…Bxe4! 18.Bxe4 Nxe4 19.Nxe4 Rxb3 20.f5 e5 21.Be1 Rb5 22.Rh3 Nf6 23.Nxf6+ Bxf6 24.Qg2! and a complex battle ahead, with both sides having winning chances. 18.Nxc5 dxc5 19.e5 Nd7 It looks scary, but marginally better was 19…Bxg2 20.exf6 Bxh1 21.fxe7 Bd5 22.Qxa6 Qb7! 23.Qa5 Qxe7 24.Nxd5 exd5 25.Qa8+ Qd8 26.Qc6+ Qd7 27.Qxc5!? (White could bail-out with the repetition 27.Qa8+ Qd8 28.Qc6+ Qd7 29.Qa8+ Qd8 etc. – but there’s a slim chance of Black faltering with the text.) 27…Rc4 28.Re1+ Re4 29.Rxe4+ dxe4 30.f5 It’s all still a little bit awkward for Black, but after 30…f6 31.Qc4 e3! White is now forced into the repetition with 32.Bf4 Qd2+ 33.Kb1 Qd1+ 34.Ka2 e2 35.Qe6+ Kd8 36.Qb6+ Kd7 37.Qe6+ Kd8 38.Qb6+ etc. 20.f5 Qa5?! Black wants to avoid 20…Bxg2 21.Qxg2 Qa5 22.Qa8+ Nb8 23.Qf3 Qa1+ 24.Kd2 Rd4+ 25.Ke1 Rxd1+ 26.Nxd1, but in his haste, he’s missed that this is better than what he now falls into. 21.Bxb7 Rxb7 22.fxe6 fxe6 23.Qe4! Narayananis in trouble, having missed that there’s a double hit on his rook and the vulnerable g6 square. 23…Qb4 24.Qg6+ Kd8 25.Qxe6 With Black’s king caught in the crossfire in the middle of the board, White’s attack is more dangerous. 25…Qxb2+ 26.Kd2 Rb4 27.Bf2? The pressure with having to survive the mutual complications in blitz must have been hard for both players – and you can forgive them for not finding some of the best moves, namely 27.Ne2! and White has a completely won game. But now we are back to the realms of he who makes the last mistake loses! 27…Rf8! Suddenly, both kings are now mutually caught in the crossfire! 28.Be3 Rf3?? The fatal, final mistake! Black still had some skin in the game, but he simply had to find 28…Rd4+! 29.Bxd4 cxd4 30.Nd5 Bb4+! 31.Nxb4 Qc3+! Probably difficult to spot in blitz. 32.Kc1 Qa1+ and a draw. 29.Nd5 Rd4+ 30.Ke2! [see diagram] Amidst all the chaos and confusion in the mutual crossfire, Firouzja’s king runs to safety! His opponent probably thought that he was drawing with 30.Bxd4 Qxd4+ 31.Kc1 Qa1+ etc – but not anymore! 30…Rxe3+ 31.Nxe3 All roads are leading to Rome, but the quickest route was 31.Kxe3 with a huge material advantage. 31…Qb5+ 32.Kf2 Qb7 33.Qf5 The ominous metaphorical tick-tock of the online digital clock explains much here, as White could probably have forced a quick resignation with 33.Nd5! 33…Qb4 34.Kf3 Qc3 35.Rd3 Qa5 36.Rhd1 It’s all over now bar the mini-time scramble – but White has enough time left on his clock to clean up. 36…Qb6 37.Rxd4 cxd4 38.e6! Nf6 39.Nd5 Qc6 40.Rxd4 The pin quickly decides the game now. 40…Bc5 41.Rd3 Ke8 42.c4 Qa4 43.Qg6+ Kf8 44.Qf7# 1-0