As we emerge from our Covid chrysalis, normal life is gradually returning. Some of my favourite events were back in action recently, though rather tentatively in several cases, such as the Norway Chess that proved a much-welcomed diversion from the smorgasbord of mainly online events held over the past eighteen months or so. It’s a good pandemic portent, but alas there has been another minor setback.
The Final of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour that runs 25 September through 4 October cannot be held as the Play Magnus Group organisers originally intended, with an over-the-board showdown in San Francisco. Still, the innovative organisers of the year-long tour that changed the face of chess during the pandemic moved swiftly to introduce a hybrid element to the $300,000-event.
Three of the ten qualified players, world champion Magnus Carlsen, Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Anish Giri, will not compete from their home but instead from the tour’s main production studio in Oslo. Another minor setback is that Ian Nepomniachtchi also had to bow out in order to concentrate on his preparation for the world championship, with his place going to Shakriyar Mamedyarov, who finished 12th in the overall tour standings.
The full line-up is: Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Wesley So (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Vladislav Artiemiev (Russia), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) who were all tour qualifiers or tournament winners, plus and Shakriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) as Nepomniactchi’s replacement. There’s also two wildcard spots that have gone to the respective World Cup and Sinquefield Cup big winners, Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France).
Despite the impressive line-up, the Final is, in effect though, down to a straight two-horse race between Carlsen and rival So than the rest of the field, since the players start with bonus points based on their tour performance, and Carlsen has a head-start (on 16.5-points) with his hat-trick of tour wins over So (12.5 points) with two title wins.
The Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals opening ceremony will take place on September 24 with round 1 kicking off the following day at 17:00 CEST. The round-robin tournament will run until October 4 with a rest day on September 30.
The second half of Norway Chess witnessed two amazing performances going down the homestretch: one from a very much back in-form Carlsen, and another from Alireza Firouzja, that was punctuated by two four-game winning streaks that started with today’s game. The win for Carlsen proved to be the catalyst for his dramatic four-game streak to claim yet another Norway Chess title; and for Firouzja, after losing, the teenager showed character by storming back also with a closing four-game winning streak to take the runner-up spot and smash his way into the world’s Top 10 for the first time.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Alireza Firouzja
9th Norway Chess, (6)
Ruy Lopez, Archangel/Møller variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 b5 6.Bb3 Bc5 7.a4 Rb8 8.c3 d6 9.d4 Bb6 10.a5! Carlsen has come ready to rumble by hitting Firouzja with the most testing move here in the often sharp Archangel/Møller variation. 10…Ba7 11.h3 Bb7 12.Be3 Nxe4 13.Nbd2!N Carlsen is making a statement here against the young player seen by many to be heir apparent to the Norwegian’s crown, as he now hits the teen with a novelty, even although he has a crucial world title match against Ian Nepominachtchi looming large in November. 13…Nxd2 When faced with a novelty at the board, the rule of thumb is that you go for the second best move rather than diving head-first into what might well be the mainline and all your opponent’s homework, and Firouzja eschews 13…exd4!? 14.cxd4 Nxd2 15.Qxd2 where, for the pawn, White has potentially dangerous activity down the semi-open c-file. So rather than walking on a landmine at the end of Carlsen’s prep, Firouzja opts to decline the pawn with the next best option. 14.Qxd2 0-0 Now 14…exd4? doesn’t work due to the zwischenzug 15.Bg5! f6 16.Rfe1+ and the makings of a decisive attack. 15.dxe5 dxe5 16.Qxd8 Rbxd8 17.Bxa7 Nxa7 18.Nxe5 Worryingly for Firouzja, all this was still being blitzed out by Carlsen, a clear sign that the world champion was still in his prep – and this soon shows by how difficult Firouzja’s endgame becomes. 18…Bd5! Firouzja is at least buckling up for the fight with the most challenging move here, and not falling into 18…Rd2? 19.Rad1! Rxb2 20.Bxf7+! Rxf7 21.Nxf7 Kxf7 22.Rd7+ and the rook hoovers everything up along the seventh rank. 19.Bc2! Preserving the Lopez bishop is Carlsen only hope to take the initiative. 19…Nc6 The perceived wisdom in chess endings is to try to keep at least one set of rooks on the board if you are the one defending, and as commentator Judit Polgar was quick to point out, Firouzja may well have wished he’d gone into this by instead playing 19…Rfe8 20.Rfe1 Nc6 21.Nxc6 Bxc6 22.Rxe8+ Rxe8 23.Rd1 Kf8 which certainly looks easier to hold than in the game. 20.Nxc6 Bxc6 21.Rad1 Rfe8 22.Rxd8 Rxd8 23.Rd1 Rxd1+ 24.Bxd1 But in fairness to Firouzja, the human instinct would have been to trade off as many pieces as possible to try to make the position easier – but by trading all his rooks, suddenly the bishop ending of the same colour is not as easy as it looks, as White is playing risk-free and Black’s a- and b5-pawns could become a target for Carlsen. 24…Kf8 25.f4 Carlsen stakes his claim with some space on the kingside whilst at the same time opening up a clear path for his king to e3. 25…Ke7 26.Kf2 Kd6 Firouzja has made the most with what he has here, by putting his pieces on the best squares available to him. 27.b4 Bd5 It’s all about nuances in this ending, and while there’s nothing wrong per se with the aggressive 27…Kd5, Firouzja most likely avoided this, as 28.Bf3+ Kd6 29.Be2 simply improves White’s bishop for free. 28.g4 h6 It’s not losing, but Judit Polgar thought this approach in the ending was a bit ‘suspect’, instead recommending 28…f6 29.g5 f5 followed by …g6, …c6 and then just shuffling the bishop along the g8-a2 diagonal, and how does White make any progress? 29.g5! Carlsen, laser-like, quickly hits on his best chance to win. 29…hxg5 It wasn’t too late for 29…f6!? 30.gxh6 gxh6 31.Kg3 f5 32.Kh4 Bg2 with the idea of continually targeting the h3-pawn, which will at least keeps White on a defensive footing. 30.fxg5 c5 31.Ke3 cxb4 32.cxb4 Ke5 33.h4 g6 34.Bg4 Be6 35.h5! Finding tricks in the ending is Carlsen’s trademark – and now the rest of the game becomes a tightrope walk for Firouzja. 35…gxh5 Of course the bishop is taboo, as 35…Bxg4?? 36.h6 and the h-pawn can’t be caught. 36.Bxh5 Kf5 37.Bf3! Now we see how those pawn weaknesses on a6 and b5 could prove to be fatal, being on the same colour as White’s bishop, and a big handicap for Firouzja. 37…Bc8 There’s no time to grab the the pawn as 37…Kxg5 38.Bb7 quickly wins. 38.Kd4 Kxg5 39.Ke5 Carlsen has sacrificed a pawn, but just look at how active his king is and how restricted Firouzja’s bishop has become. But while it is all risk free for Carlsen, he isn’t yet quite winning, though his opponent has to play with great care. 39…f5 40.Kd6 f4? Nerves, as Firouzja succumbs to the pressure of having to play with great care and caution against Carlsen. He had to play 40…Kf4! that leads to a draw in all lines, the most likely being 41.Bc6 Ke3! 42.Kc7 Be6 43.Bb7 f4 44.Bxa6 Bc4 45.Bb7 f3 46.a6 f2 47.Bg2 Bd5! 48.Bf1 Bc4 49.Bh3 Be6! etc. 41.Ke5! [see diagram] Suddenly it dawns on Firouzja what Carlsen was up to with his pawn sacrifice, as with one very accurate retreating king move from the world champion, and he’s practically in zugzwang. 41…Kg6?? Shaken by what was unfolding, Firouzja fails to find the accurate move to try to save the game with 41…Bh3! 42.Bb7 Bf1 43.Bc8! (Not 43.Bxa6? f3 44.Bb7 f2 45.a6 Bh3 46.a7 f1Q 47.a8Q and a draw.) 43…Bc4! (If 43…Bg2 now 44.Bxa6! Bc6 45.Kd6! Be8 (Unfortunately for Black, 45…f3?? 46.Kxc6 f2 there’s the little matter of 47.Bxb5 also covering the queening square.) 46.Bb7 wins.) 44.Ke4 Bf1 45.Kf3 Bc4 46.Bb7 (After 46.Ke4 Bf1 and we’re back to square one.; And if 46.Bxa6 Bd5+ 47.Ke2 Bc6 48.Bc8 Kf6! the king nips back just in time, so now that 49.a6 Ke7 50.Bb7 Kd6! draws.) 46…Be6 47.Ke4 Bd7 (Again, after 47…Bh3 48.Bxa6 Bg2+ 49.Ke5! wins.) 48.Bxa6 Kg4 The reality is – and will always be – that in any endgame scenario such as this, it is always better to keep your king active rather having it retreating, as Firouzja does in the game. No criticism whatsoever, just chalk it down to a life experience. 49.Bb7 Kg3 50.Kd4 f3 51.Be4 Be6 52.Bc6 f2 53.Bxb5 Bd7!! 54.Bf1 Bh3 55.Bd3 Bf5 which, unless I’m missing something – and that is entirely possible! – it looks suspiciously as if Black is holding this very difficult ending. If wrong, my apologies, as we’re not all Yuri Averbahks, y’know! 42.Kxf4 Kf6 43.Bd5! Precise play from Carlsen, who stops Firouzja’s king making a dash to the queenside via e6, and if now …Ke7 the White king marches in to dominate with Ke5 and Kd6 if …Kd8 is played. And also note that after 43.Be4 Black has the saving trick 43…Ke6!! 44.Bf5+ Kd5! 45.Bxc8 Kc4 and White’s last two pawns fall for a draw. 43…Bd7 44.Bb7 Ke6 45.Ke4 Kd6 46.Bxa6 Now it is safe to snatch the pawn, as Carlsen’s king comes over to d4 to protect his own b-pawn. 46…Bc6+ 47.Kd4 Be8 48.Bb7 Bd7 49.Bf3 The retreat is strategic, as Black will run out of useful moves to make, thus leaving the b5-pawn a big juicy target. 49…Bc8 50.Be2 Bd7 No better is 50…Kc6 51.Bd3 Ba6 52.Ke5! Bc8 53.Be4+ Kc7 54.Kd5 Bb7+ 55.Kd4 Bc8 56.Kc5! and wins. 51.Bd3 Bc6 52.Be4 1-0 And Firouzja resigns, faced with exchanging bishops or losing control of the a8 queening square.