The sixth World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik was dubbed the ‘Patriarch of the Soviet School of Chess’, not only a legendary player in his own right but also a formidable teacher who groomed all the top grandmasters and future world champions. He was the originator of the “Every Russian schoolboy knows” chess aphorism, that alluded to the fact that thousands of unknown kids during the Soviet chess hegemony era, likely knew more about the game than most professionals did in the West.
It seems nowadays though that Russian schoolboys aren’t what they once used to be! That myth was busted in Round 7 of the FIDE Grand Swiss in Riga, Latvia, with a rare slip-up by Evgeniy Najer, with the Russian somehow contriving to lose what should have been a technically-drawn R+P ending, as he gifted frontrunner Alireza Firouzja an unlikely but very crucial full point.
The unexpected win shot the new French Top-10 star into the sole lead. Now there’s no stopping Firouzja, as the on-fire 18-year-old followed up with a second successive win, this time beating India’s Krishnan Sasikiran in Round 8, to extend his lead over the chasing pack to a full point, unbeaten on 6½/8 – and as the tournament heads into the homestretch, he’s now also tantalisingly close to a qualifying spot into the 2022 Candidates Tournament.
Firouzja has also seen his rating spike big-time in Riga, jumping five places to world #4 on the unofficial live ratings, supplanting Magnus Carlsen’s coming title challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, and now within striking distance of toppling Fabiano Caruana at #3. But it is not all done and dusted, as the teenage star plays Black against Caruana on Friday, with both the Candidates and the world #3 spot at stake!
1. A. Firouzja (France), 6½/8; 2-11. M Vachier-Lagrave (France), F. Caruana (USA), A. Predke (Russia), A. Shirov (Spain), S. Sevian (USA), N. Vitiugov (Russia), A. Korobov (Ukraine), D. Howell (England), G. Oparin (Russia), D. Anton (Spain), 5½.
Photo: Could it be a Candidates spot and world #3 for 18-year-old teen sensation Alireza Firouzja? | © Mark Livshitz /FIDE Grand Swiss
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Evgeniy Najer
FIDE Grand Swiss, (7)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 Before the revival of the Berlin ‘Wall’ Defence, during the Kramnik-Kasparov World Championship match in 2000, the Petroff’s Defence was the dreaded drawing system Black player’s would adopt to thwart aggressive opponents. 3.d4 Nxe4 4.dxe5 d5 5.Nbd2 Nxd2 6.Bxd2 Be7 7.c3 c5 8.Bd3 Nc6 9.0-0 Bg4 10.Re1 Qd7 11.h3 Bh5 12.Bf4 Qe6 13.Be2 0-0 14.Qd2 Bg6 15.Rad1 Be4 There’s nothing much in the game, with both sides playing all the logical moves. 16.Ng5 Bxg5 17.Bxg5 d4 18.Bf1 Qg6 19.Qf4 Bc2 20.Rd2 Rae8 If anything, Black has slightly the better of the equality here. 21.Bh4 Kh8 Perhaps better was 21…Bf5!? as the tempi gained from threatening …Bxh3 comes in handy. 22.f3 a6 23.Bf2 Rd8 24.Rc1 Najer has allowed Firouzja to better redeploy his pieces here, and now Black’s queenside comes under pressure. 24…Bb1 25.cxd4 Nxd4 26.Bxd4 cxd4 27.a3 Ba2 28.Rxd4?! Firouzja missed a golden opportunity to make life very awkward for his opponent. The engine doesn’t miss a beat, and quickly spots that better first was 28.b4! forcing the sequence 28…Be6 29.Rxd4 Bxh3 30.Rd6! Be6 31.Qh4 and White does have a big advantage. 28…Qb6 29.Rcd1 Rfe8 30.Kh2 Just stepping out of the awkward pin, and looking to transition into an advantageous endgame. 30…Rxd4 31.Qxd4 Qxd4 32.Rxd4 g5! Firouzja has everything to play for being a pawn ahead, but Najer has realistic drawing chances now, especially with the e-pawn cordoned off, and the excellent prospects of the bishop having to be traded, resulting in a R+P ending. 33.Rd7 b5 34.Rd6 Rxe5 35.Rxa6 Bc4! The ensuing R+P endgame should just be a technical draw – but Firouzja has every right to relentlessly grind this one out to the very end, as he has nothing to lose and his opponent has to play very accurately to defend this to achieve a draw. 36.Bxc4 bxc4 37.a4 Rc5! The R+P ending Najer wants is the one with the passed a-pawn and his rook firmly behind it, with many drawing techniques demonstrated in Smyslov & Levenfish’s classic 1971 tome Rook Endings. 38.Rb6 c3 39.bxc3 Rxc3 40.a5 Kg7 41.a6 Ra3 The only way White can make progress in this ending now is to run his king over to the queenside to support his passed pawn – but in doing so, he risks losing one or even possibly two of his kingside pawns, and Black able to draw by sacrificing his rook for the a-pawn. The process is a lot easier seen in practice than it sounds – but this is an endgame scenario that every player, at all levels of the game, should know just as easily as they do the theory in their favourite opening. 42.Kg3 Ra2! Now hassling the g-pawn – and with the proper technique, you can now see why winning this is difficult. 43.f4 gxf4+ 44.Kxf4 Rxg2 45.Ke5 As chance would have it, I was discussing the perils of this ending in the Chess24 chatroom with the very experienced Turkish-Bosnian GM Suat Atalik. We could both see the long-term draw coming and the techniques needed to save the game. But here, Atalik wanted to try to finesse the ending a little with 45.h4!? hoping for 45…h5 and now 46.Ke5 Ra2 47.Kd6 f5 48.Ke5 looking for 48…Ra5+? (Correct though is 48…Ra4! 49.Kxf5 Rxh4 50.Kg5 Rg4+ 51.Kxh5 Ra4 52.Kg5 Kf7 53.Rh6 (53.Kf5 Ke7 54.Rh6 Kd8! and a draw once again, as Black king safely gets to a8 to cut off the passed pawn.) 53…Kg7! and a technical draw.) 49.Kf4 and the king coming to g5 makes drawing a little trickier for Black to achieve. But kudos to Atalik, as this is an excellent practical winning try – though with accurate play, a draw should be achieved. 45…Ra2 The natural, all-to-human move, putting the rook firmly behind the passed pawn. The computer will throw out the equally drawing 45…Rd2 but after 46.a7 f6+ 47.Ke6 Ra2 48.Rb7+ Kg6 49.Kd7 f5 we’re back to where we end up in the game anyway, with the Black rook strategically best-placed behind the a-pawn. 46.Kd6 f5! [see diagram] The only move in town! But with it, as every Russian schoolboy knows, Black will sacrifice his rook for the a-pawn and then able to draw with the White king being too far away from the kingside, as we’ll demonstrate in a further note. 47.Kc7 Exactly the scenario Atalik and myself had foreseen with the rook sacrifice trick needed to secure the draw. And if now 47.Ke5 hoping for 47…Ra5+ (The best way to draw is 47…Rh2! 48.Kxf5 (If 48.Kd6 Rxh3 49.Kc6 Ra3 50.Kb7 f4 is a draw, as per the note below.) 48…Rxh3 49.a7 Rf3+! 50.Ke5 Ra3 and a draw.) 48.Kf4 Kf7 49.h4!? h5 50.Kg5 with lots of ways for Black to contrive to lose this, though I do stress, with very accurate play, it should still be a draw. 47…f4 48.Kb8 f3 49.a7 f2 Again, what we had foreseen and just wrote the game off now as a draw, as Black saves the game by just one tempi, with the White king too far away to win. 50.Rb1 f1Q?? If he hadn’t had been cremated, Mikhail Botvinnik would have been turning in his grave right now at Najer’s lack of technique, as every Russian schoolboy should know that you draw this with 50…Kg6! 51.a8Q Rxa8+ 52.Kxa8 Kh5! 53.Rf1 Kh4 54.Rxf2 Kxh3 55.Kb7 (If 55.Rf7 h5 56.Rg7 h4 and you will just get a scenario where Black self-stalemates with his king on h1 and his pawn on h2.) 55…h5 56.Kc6 h4 57.Kd5 Kg3 58.Rf1 h3 59.Ke4 h2 and the White king one tempi shy of winning, but having to concede the draw with no way of stopping …Kg2. 51.Rxf1 Rb2+ 52.Ka8 Rb3 53.Rc1 Kg6 54.Rc7! This is now a winning endgame – the big difference being that the rook sacrifice no longer works, as it finally dawns on Najer that Firouzja’s king is going to eventually be shielded by the Black king from all the checks. You live and learn – well, in Najer case, you live anyway! 54…h5 55.Rb7 Rxh3 56.Rb6+! Kg5 57.Kb7 Ra3 58.Ra6 Rb3+ 59.Kc7 1-0 Najer resigns, as all his rook checks will achieve is to chase the White king over to the g-file where the Black king protects it from anymore checks.