Could we have just witnessed chess history in the making…a potential changing of the guard? That seems to be the view after punters and pundits alike watched what was arguable one of the biggest online chess matches in history, as 16-year-old rapidly rising star Alireza Firouzja defied all the odds to sensationally beat World Champion Magnus Carlsen to capture the Chess24 Banter Blitz Cup Final yesterday.
In the tense final, that was broadcast live to tens of thousands of chess fans in the midst of a global pandemic lockdown, Firouzja – whom the online bookies gave a somewhat over-generous spread, ranging from 5-1 to 7.25-1 to win – matched Carlsen blow for blow, before he finally broke the world champion’s resolve in the final game, as he squeezed out a narrow 8-5.7.5 victory to scoop the $14,000 first prize and title in the 128-player knockout competition where the players are required to do all their own commentary while they play.
“This is going to be tough,” commented Carlsen after he lost the opening game – and his words proved to be prophetic. But after the Norwegian took the lead in the match for the first time at 6.5-5.5 in game 12 – after mating his opponent’s king with just 0.2 seconds left on his clock – a somewhat misfiring Carlsen thought that luck was finally going his way.
But it was all just a sad illusion, as an unshakable Firouzja showed his mettle by hitting back two games later with an audacious sacrificial attack (see below), and then won game 16 (see video below) to take the match and title. In the end, even a crestfallen Carlsen had to praise his newer-generational rival’s performance: “Gotta give credit to Alireza, he is amazingly strong.”
Many see the banter format being one of the great innovations in online chess, as you get to follow the ups and downs (not to mention trash-talk) from the player’s perspective, with all the psychology that comes into play – pure chess entertainment gold, and in many ways a natural digital-age progression from the very first televised chess tournament in the mid-1970s with The Master Game, an equally innovative BBC programme where world-class players competed, with the games condensed into a half-hour format.
The key innovation to The Master Game was the seemingly chess “breaking the fourth wall” with the players voicing their thoughts directly to the viewers, move by move. But it was all just a television illusion, as after each game, the players were immediately taken into a studio to record what they were thinking about during the game, and this was matched-up with the footage of the games to give the impression that the masters were thinking aloud while playing.
Video opposite: Watch Alireza Firouzja’s banter win of the crucial final game.
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Magnus Carlsen
Chess24 Banter Blitz Cup Final, (14)
1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nc6 4.d3 Na5 One of the best, and most solid options for Black in this line of the Vienna, as it immediately clamps down on the potential power of White’s bishop before it can find a safe haven on a2 (after a3). 5.Bb3 Nxb3 6.axb3 d5 With the bishop off the board and White’s queenside pawns a little compromised, this is the perfect move as it takes control of the centre and seeks trades heading into an endgame with the better pawn structure. 7.Nf3 dxe4 8.Nxe5 exd3 9.0-0 If the trades continue, then the endgame will only favour Black – and for this reason, Firouzja – rightly – seeks to open the game up. 9…Be7 Of course, 9…dxc2?? loses on the spot to 10.Qxd8+ Kxd8 11.Nxf7+ Ke8 12.Nxh8 etc. 10.Nxd3 This is where you start evaluating the position: for Carlsen, with the bishop-pair and the better pawn structure, if he can trade queens and rooks then he holds an endgame advantage. For Firouzja, the opposite applies, as he seeks to avoid any trades and tries to make use of the open lines to generate activity. 10…0-0 11.Qf3 c6 12.h3 Re8 13.Rd1 Be6 14.Be3 Alternatively, there was also 14.Nc5 Qc8! (It’s too risky for the queen sacrifice with 14…Bxc5?! 15.Rxd8 Raxd8 16.Bg5! and White has an advantage.) 15.Nxe6 Qxe6 with equal play and only very minimal endgame prospects for Black with White’s queenside pawn damage. 14…Qc7 15.Bf4 Qc8 16.Be5 Nd7 17.Bd4 b6?! This is were the game starts to swing dramatically in Firouzja’s favour, as Carlsen foolishly attempts to keep the advantage of his bishop-pair and the possibility of his winning endgame hopes alive – but he really had to seek to trade a set of bishops with 17…Bf6! 18.Bxf6 Nxf6 and again equality. But in trying to squeeze something out of the position that wasn’t there, he walks right into a dangerous kingside attack from his young rival. 18.Ne4 c5 19.Bc3 f6 Suddenly, it all began to dawn on Carlsen that his position was more awkward than he thought it was going to be. 20.Nf4! Bf7 21.Rd2 Also good and strong was 21.Nd5! forcing 21…Bxd5 22.Rxd5 Nf8 23.Ng3! and with the knight heading into f5, Black faces a very difficult defence of his king. 21…Nf8 22.Rad1 The power moves just keep on coming from Firouzja, who wastes no time in building up his attack – and with it, you could be forgiven for thinking that Carlsen is White here rather than Black! 22…Qc7 23.Qg3! Patiently building up the kingside tension – and with it, Carlsen eventually cracks. 23…Qc6? Inadvertently walking right into a minefield. Carlsen simply had to find 23…Ne6! 24.Nd5 Qxg3 25.Nxg3 and an equal game. 24.Nxf6+! [see diagram] Ka-boom! The World Champion has overlooked this tactic and the subtle little matter of Rd6. 24…Bxf6 25.Rd6 Qe4 26.Bxf6 Ng6?? It’s a desperate situation for Carlsen that’s only made all the more desperate by not finding his only slim hope to hang on with 26…Bg6 27.Bc3 Qb7 28.Nxg6 hxg6 but after 29.Qd3! White is in in total control. 27.Nh5! The trick with the knight fork on f6 picks off the g7 pawn – and with it, ripping open now all the lines to Carlsen’s king. 27…Qxc2 28.Bxg7 Bxb3 29.Bc3 Re7 30.Nf6+ Kf7 31.Nxh7 Take you pick of the clinical wins – either what Firouzja played or 31.Qf3! hitting the loose rook on a8 and a dirty big discovered check. 31…Rae8 32.Ng5+ Kg8 33.Ne4! With the World Champion on his knees, Firouzja ruthlessly shows no mercy whatsoever! 33…Qxe4 34.Rxg6+ Kf8 35.Rdd6 Rf7 36.Rgf6 Ke7 There’s no defence as Carlsen faces many mating threats, such as 36…Ree7 37.Rd8+ Re8 38.Rxf7+ Bxf7 39.Qg7+ Ke7 40.Qf6+ Kf8 41.Qh6+ Ke7 42.Qd6#. 37.Rxf7+ 1-0 Carlsen throws the towel in rather than be mated with 37…Bxf7 38.Bf6+ Kf8 39.Qg7#