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Much of the world has stood still during the Covid pandemic – and with little or no over-the-board chess going on, likewise, the normally over-active FIDE rating list has more or less stood still. But there was some elite-action recently, with the Tata Steel Masters, traditionally the first major of the year, finishing at the end of January with some seismic ups and downs in the FIDE March rating list.

Despite still “being in a funk” at the Tata Steel Masters and dropping 15 points in the March list, Magnus Carlsen retains the top-dog spot as he now closes in on a decade of consecutive years as the world #1 – and according to leading Carlsen stats guru Tarjei J. Svensen, the Norwegian has topped the world rankings for 111 consecutive rating lists and has now been the world #1 for a total of 128 months since January 2010.

And staying on the Tata Steel Masters downside, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s spectacular nosedive (-26) has seen the Frenchman crashing out of the top-10, plummeting to world #14. But on the upside, the three biggest risers on the March list is the Dutch shock local winner Jorden Van Foreest (+30), young Russian Andrey Esipenko (+24) and Anish Giri (+12), with the Dutch #1 once again back in the top-10 where he rightly belongs.

And ominously just lurking outside the top-10, the inexorable rise and rise of Alireza Firouzja continues with another big jump in the former Iranian prodigy’s rating, with the player seen as the heir to Carlsen’s crown now tantalisingly within striking distance of a place in the top-10.

With another excellent performance in the Tata Steel Masters, the 17-year-old – who now lives in Chartres, France, and awaiting French citizenship – gained 10 points to climb to 13th on the list, and now just 6 points away from a coveted spot in the top-10 for the first time.

FIDE March Top-10:
1. Magnus Carlsen, 2847 (-15); 2. Fabiano Caruana, 2820 (-3); 3. Ding Liren, 2791 (=); 4. Ian Nepomniachtchi, 2789 (=); 5. Levon Aronian, 2781 (=); 6. Alexander Grischuk, 2777 (=); 7. Anish Giri, 2776 (+12); 8. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, 2770 (=); 9. Wesley So, 2770 (=); 10. Teimour Radjabov, 2765 (=)

Photo: Alireza Firozuja eyes-up a top-10 spot | © Jurriaan Hoefsmit – Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

GM Alexander Donchenko – GM Alireza Firouzja
83rd Tata Steel Masters, (6)
Semi-Slav Defence, Noteboom Variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nf3 dxc4 5.e3 b5 6.a4 c6 7.Bd2 a5 8.axb5 Bxc3 9.Bxc3 cxb5 10.b3 Bb7 11.bxc4 b4 12.Bb2 Nf6 An enterprising choice from Firouzja, the risky double-edged Noteboom variation, named after the unsung rising Dutch star of the early 1930s, Daniël Noteboom (1910-32). He sadly died all-to-young, not long after his blazing international debut at the 1930 Chess Olympiad – his lasting legacy to chess being the wild and complex Noteboom variation. 13.Bd3 0-0 14.0-0 Nbd7 15.Nd2 There’s a lot to be said for the solid 15.Bc2!? but to be avoided is 15.c5? Bxf3! 16.Qxf3 Nxc5 and Black is already winning. 15…e5! It pays to immediately stop White from gaining momentum with a central pawn push. 16.Bc2 More or less forced, as both 16.dxe5? Nxe5! and 16.c5? Nxc5! is good for Black. 16…Qc7 17.h3 White has to play with care now, as it’s easy to fall into trouble after 17.Re1 Rfe8 18.d5 Nb6! 19.e4 Nfd7! and after …f6 bolstering e5, Black will be ready to play …Nc5 and push the a- and b-pawns up the board. 17…Rfe8 18.Bb3?! More demanding was 18.d5!? and now we return to the theme of the note above with 18…Nb6 (and the follow-up of …Nfd7 and …f6) only this time after 19.Bb3 Black can throw in the annoying 19…Qc5!? thwarting ideas of f4. 18…h6N A novelty, apparently, as previously seen here has been 18…Ne4 19.Nxe4 Bxe4 20.Re1 in an obscure email competitive game – but 18…h6 is not exactly a big groundbreaking novelty from Firouzja, though it does serve a purpose by somewhat confusing his opponent. 19.Nf3 The knight returns, but threatens nothing – but the waste of time allows Firouzja to come up with a dynamic plan. 19…Ra6! An imaginative rook lift from Firouzja that threatens play on both sides of the board: possibly doubling rooks on the a-file to push the a-pawn up the board, or, alternatively, the rook dramatically swinging over later to g6 to attack the enemy king. 20.Nxe5 Worse was 20.dxe5? Ne4 21.Bc2 Ndc5 and the knight blockade is very strong for Black – and it allows the rook to swing right over to g6 for a big x-ray attack on g2. 20…Nxe5 21.dxe5 Nd7 The safe option – but not to be underestimated was the alternative 21…Ne4 22.Bc2 Nc5 23.Bd4 Rb8!? and White has to play with extreme care now, as Black is almost ready to start pushing the a- and b-pawns. 22.f4?! I wonder if perhaps Donchenko was seeing ‘ghosts’ here? Perhaps he intended 22.Ba4 but over-worried he may have overlooked something with the dramatic sacrificial attack that follows with 22…Nxe5! 23.Bxe8 Nf3+! 24.gxf3 Rg6+ 25.Kh1 Qc8 26.Bd7 Qxd7 27.Qxd7 Bxf3+ 28.Kh2 Rg2+ 29.Kh1 Rg5+ but it is only a draw – and in hindsight, the young German may well have regretted not having the courage to allow this dramatic draw option. 22…Nc5! 23.Bc2 a4 Firouzja is spoilt for choices here, as equally good was 23…b3. 24.f5! Donchenko now realises he’s in a street-fight and has to equally be aggressive with the chances offered on the kingside. 24…b3 25.Bb1 Raa8 The game is set to explode, but best for Firouzja seems to be 25…a3! 26.Rxa3 Rxa3 27.Bxa3 Qxe5 with Black having slightly the better prospects in a balanced position. 26.e6! Donchenko is now ‘pot-committed’ to the counter-attack. 26…Qg3 The best move by far, as the Black queen menacingly moves into the attack – and rightly so, as 26…fxe6? walks right into trouble with 27.f6! Rf8 28.Qg4 Rf7 29.Qg6 and its the white queen spearheading the winning attack. 27.Rf2? It may well defend g2, but the rook is need to coordinate the kingside counter-attack. Correct was 27.Qe2! f6 28.Rf4 h5 and White seems to have the better of the double-edged play, but one slip from either side will likely lead to a disaster. 27…f6 Amidst the complications, missing that 27…fxe6! is possible now as the rook is glued to defending the g2 mate, and now 28.f6 gxf6 29.Qh5 Qg5 and Black has a big advantage, especially as 30.Qxg5+ hxg5 31.Rxf6 allows 31…Be4! 32.Bxe4 Nxe4 33.Rg6+ Kh7 34.Rg7+ Kh6 35.Rc7 Red8 and White will sooner, rather than later, succumb to the passed a- and b-pawns. 28.Bd4 Ne4 29.Bxe4? A mistake in a complicated position – and not helped by both players being in serious time-trouble by now. It looked risky, but Donchenko simply had to play 29.Rf3! Qc7 30.Rf4! and it is hard to see what White has to worry about here. 29…Bxe4 30.Ra3 For now, Donchenko has the passed pawns under control – but it comes at the high cost of his rook now out of the game on a3. 30…Rec8 31.c5 Kh7 32.Qd2 Perhaps white can hold the endgame with 32.Qg4 Qxg4 33.hxg4 Bc6 34.Rb2 and a stubborn blockade? Certainly better than what comes next. 32…b2!? [see diagram] Throwing a spanner in the works just at the most critical moment, as Donchenko was the one in the more serious time-trouble – and the young German panics by making the wrong capture. 33.Qxb2? White simply had to play 33.Bxb2! the big idea being to answer 33…Rxc5 with 34.Qd4 Rxf5 35.Qxe4! not giving a jot about the capture on f2 with check, as white’s big passed e-pawn saves the day. Now 35…Qxf2+ 36.Kh2 Black has nothing better than 36…Qxb2 (No better is 36…Rc8 37.Bxf6! Rc1 (Not 37…gxf6?? 38.Qb7+ Kh8 39.Qxc8+ Kg7 40.Qd7+ Kh8 41.e7 and a forced mate.) 38.e7 Qg1+ 39.Kg3 Qf2+ 40.Kh2 Qg1+ and Black has to bail-out with the repetition.) 37.Qxf5+. 33…Rab8 The rook(s) moving into the fray on the b-file kills White off. 34.Qa2 If 34.Qe2 Bxg2! 35.Rxg2 Rb1+ 36.Qf1 Rxf1+ 37.Kxf1 Qxh3 and Black will soon clear up the debris. 34…Rb1+ 35.Rf1 Rcb8 36.Qf2 Rxf1+ 37.Kxf1 Rb1+ 38.Ke2 Qb8! A long backward queen move is one of the most difficult moves to see in the game, and it could will be that Donchenko simply overlooked this retreat – but Firouzja didn’t, and now the sudden redirection of the queen comes with a fatal check on the light-squares. 39.Qf4 Qb5+ 40.Kd2 Qb4+ 41.Bc3 Qxa3 42.Qxe4 Qc1+ 43.Kd3 Qf1+ 0-1 Donchenko resigns, as 44.Kd4 Rd1+ 45.Bd2 Rxd2+ soon forces mate.

 

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