There’s less than a week now to the start of Magnus Carlsen’s latest title defence against Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, with the opening ceremony of the $2m World Championship Match taking place next Wednesday in Dubai, and the opening game of the scheduled 14-game match getting underway two days later on Friday, 26 November.
However, the usual build-up hoopla normally associated with a title match is being somewhat overshadowed by a sideshow attraction at the European Team Championship in Catez, Slovenia, as the rapidly rising 18-year-old French-Iranian star Alireza Firouzja continues his relentless march to 2800 and the world #2 spot, with the fans and pundits alike now more looking forward to seeing the teenage sensation going on to play either Carlsen or Nepomniachtchi in the next World Championship Match!
Right now, Firouzja is on fire and officially anointed as the “Crown Prince of Chess”. After grinding out a Carlsen-like win in round six, over the Greek GM Dimitrios Mastrovaslis, Firouzja kept up his tour de force with yet another impressive win, this time over Georgia’s Baadur Jobava in round seven, to remain undefeated and the best top-board performance in the competition.
The run from Firouzja can now be categorised with the “-esque” suffix normally associated with Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Carlsen himself. Firouzja finished Norway Chess – the strongest tournament of the year – with a four-game winning streak to finish second behind Carlsen, gained his Candidates spot by virtue of winning the FIDE Grand Swiss in Riga (with his only loss coming to second-placed Fabiano Caruana), and now, making a breathtaking debut for France in the European Team Championship, a powerhouse undefeated 6.5/7.
Firouzja has signalled he’s the “coming man”, amassing 18.5/22 (+16, -1, =5) from that run, to first crash his way into the Top-10, and now poised to become the new world #2, and possibly even bettering Carlsen’s record of the world’s youngest 2800 player in the process. Indeed, with a 3056 TPR so far in the European Team Championship, and his rating being rounded up from 2798.9 to 2799, he can even afford to sit out the remaining two rounds and still take the world #2 spot ahead of China’s Ding Liren in the December FIDE Rating List.
Photo: Firo’s on fire – and closing in on the world #2 spot! | © European Team Championship
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Baadur Jobava
23rd European Team Championship, (7.1)
Caro-Kann Defence, Advance Variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 It’s always an interesting psychological battle when you see a top player facing his own favourite defence – and currently Firouzja is one of the leading exponents of the Caro-Kann Defence. 3.e5 Bf5 4.Nf3 In short, the Short Variation. In the early 1990s, the Ebglish GM and and 1993 World Championship challenger Nigel Short devised this slower system to great effect; Short’s idea being to treat the position a little like the Advanced Variation of the French Defence. 4…e6 5.Be2 Ne7 6.0-0 h6 7.Nbd2 Nd7 8.Nb3 Bh7 9.a4 a6 10.Bd2 Qc7 11.Rc1 Rd8 12.Ba5 b6 13.Bb4 a5 14.Bd6 Qb7 15.Qd2 White is a little better but Black is pretty solid and has the advantage of not yet really making a commitment with his pieces and pawns, so he’ll be able to adjust his position, as required. 15…Nc8 16.Bxf8 Nxf8 17.Ne1 Ne7 18.Nd3 Nd7 19.Nf4 0-0 20.Rfe1 Rc8 21.c3 Rc7 22.g4! With Jobava re-arranging his furniture for a possible break on the queenside, Firouzja seizes his chance by grabbing space on the kingside, to launch what turns out to be an impressive attack on his opponent’s king. 22…Qb8 Jobava hesitates with a couple of wasted moves with his queen, and he pays the price for it – regardless of the risks of the game opening up, he had to be proactive and go for the break now with 22…c5!? where 23.Qe3 Rfc8 24.Bb5 Nc6 and play the game where the chips fall. The delay only encourages Firouzja to get on with his attack – and he doesn’t hold back now. 23.Qe3 Qd8?! Almost a masochistic sign from Jobava that he wants to be punished on the kingside. 24.h3 Kh8 25.Nd2 c5 26.Bb5 Nc6 Jobava is sending out conflicted signals – with the queen going to d8, I thought his intentions were the creditable plan of 26…Ng6!? 27.Nxg6+ Bxg6 to follow-up with …Qe7 and …Rfc8, where the Black queen is ideally placed to come to h4 or even g5 to take advantage of the weakened dark-squares in the White camp. 27.Kh2 cxd4 28.cxd4 Nb4?! Jobava has a plan – but unfortunately it turns out to be a bad plan in the time scramble. 29.Rxc7 Qxc7 30.Qc3! Rc8? Basically a series of “iffy” moves from Jobava seals his fate. The only chance is to trade the queens now with 30…Qxc3 31.bxc3 Nc2 32.Rc1 Rd8 33.Bd3! Na3 34.Ra1 Nc2 35.Ra2 Ne1 36.Bxh7 Kxh7 37.Kg1 g5! Forced, otherwise the wayward knight is lost. 38.Kf1 gxf4 39.Kxe1 Rc8 40.Ra3 Kg6 41.Ke2 h5 42.Rb3 hxg4 43.hxg4 f6!? and Black looks to have liquidated more than enough now to save the game, with no way for White to exploit the weak f-pawn. 31.Rc1! Firouzja seizes on Jobava’s mistakes, as the Georgian realises too late that he cant trade the queens. 31…Bc2 The point is that 31…Qxc3? 32.Rxc3! Rd8 (Black loses a piece after 32…Rxc3 33.bxc3 Na2 34.Bxd7 etc.) 33.Rc7 Nf8 34.Rxf7 wins a pawn and with it the game. 32.Qg3! With Jobava walking into a big self-inflicted pin down the c-file, Firouzja switches the direction of play by flicking his queen over to the kingside. 32…Qd8 33.Bxd7 Stronger and better was 33.Nf3! Be4 34.Rxc8 Qxc8 35.g5! Nf8 (There’s no time for 35…Bxf3 36.gxh6! gxh6 37.Qxf3 Nf8 38.Nh5 and Black can’t defend the twin threats of Qf6+ and Qxf7.) 36.gxh6 gxh6 37.Nd2 Qc2 38.Nxe4 Qxe4 39.Be8! Qf5 (Not 39…Qxd4?? 40.Bxf7 with a forced mate.) 40.Qg4! Qh7 41.Qh5 and it is hard to see how Black deals with the pressure of his awkward position. 33…Qxd7 34.g5 The game turns critical at the right moment for Firouzja, as by now Jobava was falling into serious time-trouble with the flag on his digital clock metaphorically hanging. 34…hxg5 35.Qxg5 Qd8 36.Qh5+ Kg8 37.Nf3 g6 Jobava’s task of defending isn’t made any easier with his flag hanging. You don’t really want to commit to …g6, but then again, it could have been so easy to fall into 37…Qf8 38.Ng5! and there’s the big threat of Rxc2! mating. 38.Rg1 Nc6 As dangerous as it looks, now was the time to run the king from the danger zone with 38…Kf8! as 39.Qh8+ Ke7 40.Qg7 Qf8! 41.Nxg6+ Bxg6 42.Rxg6 Qxg7 43.Rxg7 Kf8! 44.Rg4 Rc2! as Black’s active rook looks like it is going to save the ending. But in the mad-dash to reach the time-control at move 40, you have to accurately asses that White’s h-pawn isn’t going to quickly run up the board. It doesn’t look to be, so now 45.Ng5 (There’s no milage in running the pawn. After 45.h4 Rxf2+ 46.Kg3 Rxb2 47.h5 Rb1 48.h6 Rh1 49.Nh4 Rg1+ 50.Ng2 Rh1 The pawn is no danger, and White will have to bail-out now by repeating moves with 51.Nh4 Rg1+ 52.Ng2 Rh1 etc.) 45…Nd3! 46.Kg1 Ke7 47.h4 f5! 48.exf6+ Kxf6 49.Nh7+ Kf5 50.Rg5+ Ke4 51.Rg4+ Kf5 and once again, White has to bail-out with the Rg5+ and Rg4+ perpetual. 39.Qh6! Cutting the king off from running from the danger zone. 39…Qf8 40.Qh4 Qg7? It’s the fatal last move in the rush to make the time-control. After the more accurate 40…Bf5! It’s not easy to see how White wins now, as even 41.Nh5 Qh6! 42.Nf6+ Kg7 and Black has slightly the better of the endgame prospect with the queens coming off – and note that there’s no repetition with 43.Nh5+?? Kf8! and White’s not only losing material but also the game. 41.Nh5 Qh6 In the mad-dash to make the time-control, Jobava believes he’s getting the same get out as the note above – but 41…Qh8 was essential, as he’s missed a big something that Firouzja hasn’t! 42.Rg4! [see diagram] The rook lift proves decisive, as suddenly the reason for 40..Bf5 becomes all-to clear now! 42…Kf8 It’s too late now for 42…Bf5 as after 43.Nf6+ Kg7 44.Qxh6+ Kxh6 45.Rh4+ Kg7 46.Rh7+ Kf8 47.Rh8+ White wins the rook. 43.Qf6 Nd8 Now this time if 43…Bf5 44.Ng5! Nd8 45.Rh4 and there’s no defence to 46.Nf4!! Qxh4 47.Ngxe6+ winning. 44.Rh4 Kg8 45.Ng5 Bd1 46.Qxd8+! 1-0 The queen sac from Firouzja adds just a touch of élan to the finish, forcing Jobava’s resignation, as after 46…Rxd8 47.Nf6+ Kg7 48.Rxh6 Kxh6 49.Nxf7+ forks king and rook for an easy win.