Chess can be a tough game, and from a young age, we learn through cruel though often invaluable life-lessons while enrolled in the chess school of hard knocks of bitter tournament experiences. And for Alireza Firouzja, the new rising star found himself being schooled in this callous classroom with a lesson in ‘distant opposition’ against Magnus Carlsen, with a fatal and ultimately costly blunder that could well have denied the teenager his first super-tournament victory!
It came about in the big clash between runaway leaders Carlsen and Firouzja in the penultimate round of the Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger, as the young pretender to the world champion’s crown made a self-inflicted elementary endgame blunder that contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of a basic textbook draw.
José Raul Capablanca advised in his famous tome Chess Fundamentals that “In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else.” Undoubtedly sound advice from the great Capa – and the area to concentrate the most in is what is often termed as ‘core endgames’, i.e. textbook endgames that every serious player must know inside out how to play, and ‘opposition’ and ‘distant opposition’ in a basic K+P endgame is crucial.
The sad reversal of fortune was indeed a hard life-lesson for the 17-year-old, but ultimately it also ‘gifted’ Carlsen an unexpected maximum 3-points to win the tournament with the luxury of a round to spare. And therein proved to be what could have been a big ‘What if…?’ moment for the Norwegian’s fast-rising newer generational rival.
Although it could have been a psychologically jarring moment for Firouzja, showing remarkable resilience he bounced quickly back with a resounding last round win over Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda to collect a maximum 3-points to secure the second spot…only to see that Carlsen was being outplayed and losing with White against Levon Aronian for a narrow margin of victory than first thought by the commentators.
And while Firouzja goes into the annals with one of the best super-tournament performances ever from a teenager, you can’t but wonder what would have transpired had he held that easy draw against the world champion, because even if he had gone on to lose the Armageddon-decider, and the final round results had stood, then he instead would have been the one celebrating a famous victory ahead of Carlsen on his home turf!
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 19½/31.5; 2. Alireza Firouzja (FIDE) 18½/32.5; 3. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 17½/32.5; 4. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 15½/32.5; 5. Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) 9½/31.5; 6. Aryan Tari (Norway) 3½/31.5.
Photo: It’s the fateful moment for Firouzja, as he gifts Carlsen victory with his blunder 69.Kc3?? | © Lennart Ootes/Altibox Norway Chess
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Magnus Carlsen
Altibox Norway Chess, (9)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 c5 3.Bg2 Nc6 4.0-0 e5 5.e4 d6 6.c3 g6 7.d4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bg4 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Nc3 Bg7 11.h3 Bxf3 12.Qxd8+ Rxd8 13.Bxf3 There’s not much promise of any blood being spilt with the tame opening choice from both players – and, indeed, the general consensus of the fans was to be asked to be woken up again for the Armageddon-decider! 13…0-0 14.Kg2 Nd4 15.Bg5 h6 16.Bxf6 Bxf6 17.Nd5 Rd6 18.Rac1 Bd8 19.Rfd1 Kg7 20.Ne3 Ra6 21.a3 h5 22.Nc4 Objectively the better square for the knight is 22.Nd5 but after 22…h4 23.Rc5 Rd6 24.b4 Rh8!? Black has a little ‘something’ to work with, but nothing to write home about. 22…Bf6 23.h4 Just stopping any Carlsen plans of …h4 as noted above. 23…Rc8 24.Ne3 Rac6 25.Rxc6 Rxc6 26.Rd3 Bd8 27.Bd1 Rc1 28.Bb3 b5 29.Rd1 Rc8 30.Ba2 a5 Slowly but surely, Carlsen has steadily improved his position, with a little ‘something’ now to grind away at – but again, he shouldn’t be winning. But herein lies a cautionary tale: To get to this position, Firouzja was over an hour behind on his clock, and at the end of the game, when he really needed the extra time to safeguard what should have just been a draw in a core endgame, it all became a bit rushed for him, with little or no time left on his clock, and then having to rely on the 10-second move increment. 31.Rd3 a4 32.Kf1 Bb6 33.Rc3?! The split pawns just give Carlsen something else to nibble away at – better was 33.Rd2 Rc1+ 34.Rd1 Rc8 35.Nd5 Ba5 36.Ne3 Rc5 37.Bb1 and Black is not really making much progress. For Firouzja, though, he just wants to see pieces being traded, hoping for the prospects of an opposite-colour bishop ending to safeguard the draw. 33…Rxc3 34.bxc3 Nb3 35.Ke1 Bc5 36.Nc2 Nc1 37.Bd5 Nd3+ 38.Ke2 Nxf2 39.Bc6 Black’s queenside pawns will eventually fall – but suddenly the ending has got a little trickier than I imagine Firouzja thought it would, and once again he’s eating into his clock time. 39…f6 40.Ne3 Nh1 41.Nf1 Bxa3 42.Bxb5 Bb2 43.Bxa4 Bxc3 Despite being a pawn down, objectively Firouzja has got favourable drawing aspirations with all the pawns on the same side of the board and opposite-coloured bishops. 44.Kf3 Bd4 45.g4! Firouzja is finding all the right moves, as trading as many pawns now as possible makes the draw more realistic. 45…hxg4+ 46.Kxg4 Nf2+ 47.Kf3 Kh6 48.Ng3 Defending e4 and more crucially stopping Carlsen’s king coming to h5. 48…Nd3 49.Be8 Nf4 50.Ne2! The trade of knights to leave the opposite-coloured bishops is the easy route to a draw: if Black goes for the h5-pawn, White will have the g-pawn. 50…Ne6 51.Bf7 Nc5 52.Ng3 Bc3! It’s not winning, but Carlsen simply never gives up hope that he can somehow squeeze blood out of a stone with an unlikely win – his idea being to play …Be1 and trade bishop for knight, and what looks like a possibly winning N v B ending. 53.h5 Also good was 53.Ke2! denying Carlsen the possibility of …Be1, and now 53…Bb4 54.h5! gxh5 55.Bxh5 Kg5 56.Bf3 and Black is never going to be able to win this. But Firouzja is correct in his assessment that the coming trade of pieces should simplify the position for him. 53…Be1 54.Bxg6 Bxg3 55.Kxg3 Kg5 56.Kf3 Nb3 Carlsen’s knight tour …Nb3-d4-e2-f4 will win the h-pawn – but even after the trade of the final pieces, the resulting K+P ending is a draw….with careful play, that is! But the only thing Carlsen had going for him was the clock equation: Right now he was a good 30min+ ahead on the clock, and Firouzja had to rush things somewhat by this stage and was surviving solely on the oxygen of the 10-second move increment. 57.Bf7 Nd4+ 58.Kg3 Ne2+ 59.Kf3 Nf4 60.Kg3 Nxh5+ 61.Bxh5 Alternatively, the easier draw was 61.Kf3 Kh4 62.Be8 Nf4 63.Bd7 and basically you oscillate your bishop between d7 and c8, the point being that there’s no way into the position for the Black king, no realistic chances of stumbling into a knight fork with the gap between king and bishop – but, most crucially of all, the Black pawns are immobile. The worst-case scenario here is Black somehow engineering …f5, the pawns being traded, and White bails-out for the draw by sacrificing his bishop for the passed e-pawn. 61…Kxh5 62.Kh3 Kh6 63.Kh4 Kg7 64.Kg3! It’s the golden rule of keeping the distant opposition, meaning three squares between the kings, as seen in 64…Kg6 65.Kg4=; 64…Kg6 65.Kg2 Kg5 66.Kg3=. So long as you remember this principle, it’s an elementary draw. 64…Kf8 65.Kf2 Ke7 66.Ke2 Ke8 67.Ke3 Kd7 68.Kd3 Kd6 69.Kc3?? [see diagram] I fear somewhere in a dark corner in Hell, Viktor Kortchnoi had to be laughing at yet another teenage chess prodigy slipping up big-time in a core endgame that every player has to know! Nerves and the time may well have been a contributing factor for Firouzja, but there is no excuse for a grandmaster not realising that to secure the draw, you had to play 69.Kd2! so that now 69…Kc5 70.Kc3 Kc6 71.Kc2 Kb5 72.Kb3 Kc5 73.Kc3 etc. It’s easy being a critic though, but it could well be that Firouzja was nervously making sure he avoided the “tougher” loss – with 69.Kc4? Ke7! Now the Black king steals a march on the White king via the h4 back door 70.Kd3 Kf7 71.Ke3 Kg6 72.Kf3 Kh5 73.Kg3 Kg5 74.Kf3 Kh4 75.Kf2 Kh5 76.Kg3 Kg5 77.Kf3 Kh4 78.Kf2 Kg4 79.Ke3 Kg3 and the Black king creeps in to win the e4-pawn – that he walked right into the easy loss. 69…Kc5 0-1 Firouzja resigns, as this time 70.Kd3 Kb4 71.Kd2 Kc4 72.Ke3 Kc3 and the Black king comes in through the front door with 73.Ke2 Kd4 74.Kf3 Kd3 etc.