With a devastating second-half performance that ominously saw Magnus Carlsen being back to his domineering best ahead of an upcoming title challenge, the world champion hit the field like a speeding juggernaut with a four-game classical win streak to capture his third successive victory in the Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger.
After a slow start, Carlsen wrecked havoc on the opposition with a series of impressive classical grind wins over Alireza Firouzja, Aryan Tari, Richard Rapport, plus former title-challenger Sergey Karjakin, to collect a maximum 12-points to jump into the lead for the first time in the tournament.
And from there there was simply no looking back for a confident Carlsen on his home-turf, as the deal was sealed on his fourth Norway Chess title with a final round armageddon win over his Russian soon-to-be title-challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi. “It feels even better this time,” said an upbeat Carlsen in victory. “It was really, really tough this year and frankly, at the halfway point, it didn’t seem likely, at all. It’s a really satisfying victory.
“First and foremost, I feel like I just worked really hard during the games. I didn’t have so much to work with; it seemed that every game was tough, every victory I had to grind out. But of course, it makes it even more rewarding to succeed. It wasn’t sparkling at all but I think under the circumstances I came away with absolutely everything I could have hoped for.”
And Carlsen wasn’t the only producing a late summer surge. After making all the early running, Rapport not only lost his lead but he was beaten into second place by Firouzja, as the 18-year-old – who is perceived by the fans and pundits alike to be Carlsen heir apparent – similarly ended with an impressive four-game classical win streak, over Nepomniachtchi, Karjakin, Tari and Rapport, to take the runner-up spot.
The late surge by Firouzja saw the teen not only supplanting Maxime Vachier-Lagrave as the new French No.1, but he also rocketed up the world rankings, jumping seven places to enter the Top-10 for the first time, with his rating spiking 16-points on the unofficial live ratings, to be the new world No 9, just ahead of Rapport at No 10.
1. M. Carlsen (Norway), 19½/32.5; 2. A. Firouzja (France), 18/31.5; 3. R. Rapport (Hungary), 16½/32; 4. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 12/33.5; 5. S. Karjakin (Russia), 10/32.5; 6. A. Tari (Norway), 7/32.
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Richard Rapport
Norway Chess, (10)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 The Rossolimo Attack, named after the Russian/Greek/French/American Grandmaster Nicolas Rossolimo (1910-1975), who emigrated to the US in 1952. The idea behind this set-up is to exchange the bishop for the knight and doubling up the pawns on the c-file – and this is difficult for Sicilian players to maintain the sort of counter-attacking chances they are more accustomed to. 3…Nf6 4.Nc3 Nd4 5.e5 Nxb5 6.Nxb5 Nd5 7.0-0 The game takes a double-edged twist – but as several commentators pointed out, Firouzja’s intentions were probably inspired from Igor Zaitsev’s 1980s discovery of 7.Ng5!? f6 8.Ne4 and a complex, double-edged game. 7…a6 8.c4 Nb4 9.Nc3 d6 Hindsight is always 20/20 and a wonderful thing, and in view of what comes next for Rapport, he might well have preferred 9…g6 to follow up quickly with …Bg7 and …0-0 to get his king to safety. 10.d4 cxd4 11.Qxd4! Firouzja goes all-in to create a little early chaos on the board, and with it, Rapport has trouble completing his development. 11…Nc2 This is the only show in town for Rapport. 12.Qe4 Nxa1 13.Bf4 “There was no way I could be worse here,” said Firouzja after the game. 13…Be6 14.Rxa1 Rc8 “Equality!”, as one of the armchair GM engine-running online fans screamed. But amazing as that remark might seem in a complex and murky position in the opening, what’s even more remarkable – as other commentators and punters noted – was that engine, for added irony, points out that the position is assessed as “0.00”, a sure sign that even the engine doesn’t even understand what’s going on here. 15.Nd5 dxe5 16.Nxe5 f6!?! Rapport goes for the complicated route and lives to regret it, as it all spectacularly backfires on him. The simpler solution was returning the material immediately with 16…Rxc4!? 17.Qxc4 Qxd5 18.Qe2 f6 19.Nd3 Bf5 with the extra pawn and the bishop-pair, the only problem Black has to worry about is quickly developing his kingside pieces. The position is still a little double-edged after 20.Rd1, but with careful play Black should be more than OK here. But you have to admire Rapport’s bravery of getting involved in a street-fight with Firouzja to try to claim the full 3-point bonus to edge Carlsen out of the top spot. 17.Nf3 Bxd5 18.cxd5 Rc5 19.d6! To paraphrase the late, great Sean Connery in The Untouchables, Rapport has brought a knife to a gunfight! 19…Qd7 Firouzja had it all worked out. After 19…e5? 20.b4! Rc6 (No better is 20…Rb5 21.a4 Rb6 22.Nxe5!) 21.Nxe5 and the White attack is crashing through with force. 20.b4 Rc6? It’s the critical moment, and unfortunately for Rapport, this does look the natural move to play, but there’s just a little snafu that Firouja quickly pounces on. And when he does, suddenly Rapport realises his king is in grave danger. More resilient though was 20…Rc8! 21.Re1 Kf7 and look to unravel from here, but the position is still too complex to assess properly, and Firouzja said he thinks Black is doomed anyway here, as he felt it was difficult for Black to break free. 21.Re1 Kf7 22.Nd4 e5 23.Qd5+! Kg6 24.Bxe5!! [see diagram] Firouzja isn’t interested in reclaiming the exchange – he’s going right for Rapport’s jugular! 24…Rxd6 Black is paralysed and the bishop is taboo – after 24…fxe5 the very calm retreat of 25.Nf3! quickly wins due to the knight fork on e5. For example: 25…Qxd6 (Just as bad is 25…Bxd6 26.Nxe5+ Bxe5 27.Qxd7 Bf6 28.g4 and not is the queen lost, but Black’s king is also going to get mated.) 26.Nxe5+ Qxe5 27.Qxe5 h5 28.h4 and the big problem for Black is that he does not have enough time to unravel his kingside pieces. 25.Bxd6 Bxd6 26.Qe4+ Kf7 27.Qd5+ Firouzja isn’t in the least interested in a repeating the position for a draw – but he’s giving everyone a useful tip here, as he’s just repeated a set of moves to steady his nerves, as his heart had to have been beating like a Buddy Rich solo. 27…Kg6 28.g3! Not only creating a little safe haven for his king from a back-rank happening, but stopping the only trick in town Rapport had, namely …Bxh2+. Now, due to the perilious state of his king, and the pin down the d-file, Rapport is a dead man walking. 28…h6 29.Rd1! Re8 No better is 29…Rd8 30.Ne6 Re8 31.Nc5 Qg4 32.Qxd6 Qxb4 33.Qd4 and Black can resign. 30.Nf3 Re6 31.Nh4+ Kh7 32.Qd3+ 1-0 And Rapport throws the towel in, realising that after 32…Kh8 33.Nf5 Qe8 34.Nxd6 Re1+ 35.Rxe1 Qxe1+ 36.Kg2 Qxb4 37.Nf7+ Kg8 38.Nd8 b6 39.Ne6 his position is hopeless.