Could we be seeing a glimpse into the future of a serious title challenger emerging for Magnus Carlsen? That seems to be the question on everyone’s lips as Carlsen and Alireza Firouzja, the newer-generational teenage star break from the pack at the Altibox Norway Chess in Stavanger, with the lead dramatically changing hands between the two runaway leaders going down the homestretch.
Things started to heat up when 17-year-old Firouzja grabbed the outright lead with his double-whammy over cellar-dweller Aryan Tari either end of the two halves to the tournament, the brace of back-to-back wins giving the young title wannabe and Iranian exile a maximum six-points, as he sensationally jumped into the lead ahead of Carlsen at the top of the standings.
But Carlsen hit back in round eight with his own win over his haemorrhaging compatriot Tari, while at the same time probably giving the patriotic Norwegians something to cheer about, as it allowed their national hero to leapfrog Firouzja, who also suffered a further setback by losing his Armageddon-decider to Fabiano Caruana in the same round.
Now only one-point separates Carlsen and Firouzja in this two-horse race heading into Thursday’s penultimate round – and the marquee match-up will be the clash between the leaders. If Carlsen wins, he’ll be favourite for yet another title to his amazing haul this pandemic-hit year. But for Firouzja, who has the advantage of the white pieces, it could mean an epoch-defining win – and possibly his first career super-tournament victory – on the world champion’s own home turf!
Surprisingly, some armchair critics have been questioning Firouzja’s opening choice of the Caro-Kann Defence. After all, as Bent Larsen once famously quipped on discovering that a promising young junior was similarly playing the same solid and reputedly stodgy opening: “If you play the Caro-Kann when you are young, then what will you play when you are old?” The great Dane has a point to a certain degree, as this is normally an opening you reach for much, much later in your professional career, when no longer capable of dealing with the complexities and ever-changing theory in those deep Sicilian labyrinths.
But those questioning Firouzja’s wisdom have to keep calm and remember that a young Garry Kasparov was also asked much the same aged 17 or so when he had his brief teenage affair with the Caro! Back then, it didn’t seem to do Kasparov any harm – and if anything, it only helped to give the legendary future world champion a better grasp of having to deal with the nuances of a more positional style of play rather than all those razor-sharp Sicilians he went on to become famous for.
And a little like Kasparov, Firouzja is just expanding his own chess horizons by playing the Caro – and equally successfully too, with a win-ratio that’s just as good, if not better!
Photo: Can Alireza Firouzja step from the shadows for a famous first super-tournament victory? | © Lennart Ootes/Altibox Norway Chess
GM Aryan Tari – GM Alireza Firouzja
Altibox Norway Chess, (6)
Caro-Kann Defence, Exchange Variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3 The Exchange Variation became all the rage through the 1970s after Bobby Fischer successfully adopted it to beat Tigran Petrosian in the legendary USSR vs Rest of the World Match in Belgrade in 1970. And for about a decade thereafter, Caro aficionados struggled to deal with this easy and simple White development plan – but resources were found that resolved many of the issues for Black. 4…Nf6 5.c3 Bg4 6.Qb3 Qc7 And Firouzja’s set-up is one of many ways those Caro diehards fought back against the Fischer favourite, as the set-up stops White dark-squared bishop developing on the better f4 square. 7.h3 Bd7 Black is not so worried about having to retreat the bishop, as h3 now stops White playing Bg5-h4-g3 and the bishop on its best diagonal. 8.Nf3 Nc6 This is another way of fighting back, denying White’s knight occupying the strong e5 outpost. 9.0-0 e6 10.Re1 Bd6 11.Bg5 0-0 Black has achieved easy equality here. 12.Nbd2 Nh5! Suddenly Firouzja is taking control with his knight heading to the excellent outpost on f4. 13.Qd1 f6 14.Be3 Nf4 The …Nf4 is like a thorn in Tari’s side, and not so easy to shift. 15.Bf1 g5 With this aggressive move, Firouzja intentions are now crystal clear – he’s going all-in with his kingside attack. 16.c4 Kh8 17.Rc1 Rg8 18.Bxf4 Bxf4 19.b4 If Tari can holdout against Firouzja’s looming kingside onslaught, then he’ll be well-placed to take advantage on the queenside – easier said than done though, I suppose! 19…Qd6 Just teasing White into playing b5 and c5, as this will allow Firouzja to bust the position open with an eventual …e5. 20.b5 Ne7 21.c5?! Objectively this is exactly what Firouzja wanted to see! Better was keeping things fluid for now; instead playing 21.Rc2!?, the point being that after 21…Nf5 now 22.c5 can be played, as 22…Qc7 23.c6!? bxc6 24.bxc6 Bc8 25.Nb3 h5 26.g3 Bd6 27.Nc5! Qf7 28.Bd3 with an intriguing tussle ahead for both players on opposite wings of the board. Certainly, a better prospect for Tari than the misery he now faces in the game! 21…Qc7 22.g3 g4! [see diagram] The position is fraught with dangers for White on the kingside – and sure enough, Firouzja cuts straight to the chase! 23.hxg4 Rxg4 24.Bh3 Rg7 25.Kh1 e5 The more accurate killing blow – but also the obvious 25…Bxg3 looks as if it will work just as well, as after 26.fxg3 Qxg3 27.Ng1 Nf5 28.Qf3 Qh4 and it’s difficult to see how White can hold on, the only snafu being that 29.c6!? bxc6 30.bxc6 Bc8 White might hope there might be chances of hanging on – but even here, I very much doubt it. But with what Firouzja played, the easy pile-on with …Rag8 looks convincing. 26.Bxd7? in White looks bust, but adding …Qh3 to the mix only hastens the inevitable. The only grim hope was attempting to hang on with 26.dxe5 fxe5 27.gxf4!? Bxh3 28.Ng5 Bf5 29.Qh5 but even here after 29…Ng6 White is struggling to stay alive. 26…Qxd7 27.Nh2 There’s no hope. After 27.Ng1 Rag8 28.Rc3 Rg6! will soon crash through. 27…Qh3 28.Rg1 Rag8 29.Qe2 e4 30.Rc3 The bishop is taboo: if 30.gxf4 Rg2! quickly mates. 30…Nf5 As Doc Nunn was wont to say in such attacking onslaughts, “Let’s invite everyone to the party!” 31.Nxe4 dxe4 32.Qxe4 Bxg3! This sacrifice has been the elephant in the room since Tari played 22.g3. 33.Rg2 Re7 The switch of the rooks to the e-file stretches White just too much and quickly proves decisive. 34.Qb1 Rge8 0-1 Tari resigns, faced with 35.Rc1 Bxh2 36.Rxh2 Qf3+ 37.Rg2 Rg8 38.Rcg1 Rg4! and no stopping …Rh4 mating.