Three-time World Champion Magnus Carlsen once again will put his title on the line later this month with a showdown in Dubai against his Russian childhood nemesis Ian Nepomniachtchi, in a $2 million match that will run through November 24 to December 16, 2021 as part of last year’s pandemic-rescheduled World Expo.
The 14-game match will be hosted at the Expo 2020 Dubai Exhibition Centre in the UAE, with the player scoring 7.5 points the winner. In the event of a 7-7 tie, there will be a series of rapid, blitz and then, if still no winner, a sudden-death Armageddon decider. The opening ceremony takes place on 24 November and Game 1 gets underway on 26 November.
Yet despite the Carlsen-Nepominiachtchi match looming large, already all the chatter has shifted onto the next world championship match in 2022, with the 18-year-old Iran-born exile Alireza Firouzja already in the Candidates Tournament, and the possibility of the on-fire and rapidly rising teenager – seen by many to be the natural heir to Carlsen’s crown – looking to better Garry Kasparov’s 1985 record of becoming the youngest world champion in history.
Recently, on the back of winning the FIDE Grand Swiss in Riga, Firouzja officially broke into the world’s top-10 with the publication of the November FIDE Rating List, ending up at #9 – and he hit the dizzy heights of #5 on the unofficial live rating list, followed by a fleeting moment at #3 before losing to Fabiano Caruana in Riga.
But there’s just no stopping the surging Firouzja! This week, as he makes his debut for his newly adopted country France in the European Team championship at Catez, Slovenia, despite a team setback with a round 3 loss to Hungary, the conciliation for Les Bleus has been yet another rampant performance from new top board Firouzja, who is currently unbeaten on 3.5/4.
Firouzja is now up to #4 on the live list, as he reaches yet another landmark by equalling Bobby Fischer’s highest live rating of 2789.7 – and if he continues to burn up the opposition at this pace in Catez, his ranking will shoot right up to #2 even before the start of the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi match!
GM Viktor Erdos – GM Alireza Firouzja
23rd European Team Championship, (3.1)
Caro-Kann Defence, Two Knights
1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 The slightly obscure Two Knights against the Caro-Kann – once a favourite weapon of both the young Bobby Fischer and Nigel Short – is not as innocuous as it looks at first. 2…d5 3.Nc3 Bg4 When Fischer played this opening, the Soviets saw it as his big weakness, and many of their top stars adopted the Caro against the young American and played this line to good effect – so much so that Fischer abruptly stopped playing it. 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 e6 6.d4 Nf6 7.exd5 cxd5 8.Bd3 Nc6 9.Ne2 h6 10.c3 Bd6 11.Bc2 Rc8 12.g4 Kd7!?! It’s a very radical approach from Firouzja, realising that kingside castling is taboo, and that he can’t just leave his king in the middle of the board, so he brazenly ‘castles’ queenside by hand as he runs his king to b8. That said, there was also the double-edged option of 12…e5!? 13.dxe5 Nxe5 14.Qg2 Qb6 that will leave both king in the danger zone. 13.g5 hxg5 14.Bxg5 Kc7 15.0-0-0 Kb8 Job done, and with no real loss of tempi! 16.Rdg1 b5!? Don’t try this at home, kids! Firouzja is living on the edge, as more natural here was the plan of 16…Na5 with the idea of swinging the knight into c4. But on the up and up ranking-wise, and being the stronger player, Firouzja takes some liberties by throwing up his queenside pawns in order to dominate his opponent. 17.a3 a5 18.Qd3 Qb6 You got to admire the cunning of Firouzja, with his Hungarian opponent’s pieces all primed to attack on the kingside, and nothing there to attack! All of which means he has a free hand to attack on the more dangerous queenside! 19.Bxf6 gxf6 20.Rg7 Qb7 21.Rhg1 b4! 22.a4 Bf8! A strategic retreat, as the bishop finds a more dangerous diagonal by re-emerging on h6 – and with it, the game firmly begins to swing Firouzja’s way. 23.Rh7 Bh6+ 24.Kd1 f5 Firouzja is now bossing Erdos, thanks to some out-of-the-box thinking. 25.Rxh8 Rxh8 26.Rg3 Rc8 27.Ke1 Time to run – and preferably fast and faraway! 27…bxc3 28.bxc3 Ne7! Another nice strategical retreat from Firouzja that’s not at first easy to appreciate, but he intends the quick knight hop …Ne7-g8-f6-e4 that will put White’s queenside pawns in grave danger. 29.Kf1 Ka7 30.Rg1 Qa6 31.Qxa6+ Kxa6 With the queens now off the board, Firouzja has the better long-term prospects heading into the ending. 32.Bd3+ Ka7 33.Bb5 Ng8 34.Rg3 Nf6 35.Rd3 Ne4 36.Rd1 Kicking the knight with 36.f3 backfires on White, as after 36…Nd6! 37.Rd1 Nxb5 38.axb5 Kb6 Black will now start picking off the weak pawns on b5, c3, f3 and h3 and – and they can’t all be protected. So rather than that, Erdos opts to give up one of the weak pawns now for some spurious activity for his pieces, in the hopes of reaching a bishop ending of opposite colours to try to salvage the draw. 36…Nxc3 It’s human nature to grab the pawn, but the engine prefers 36…Rb8! with the idea of ..Nd6 and the black rook coming with force to either b3 or b2. 37.Nxc3 Rxc3 38.Be8 Rc7 Firouzja is a pawn to the good – but there’s always the danger of an ending of bishops of opposite colours and escaping with a draw. 39.h4 Kb7 40.Rb1+ Kc8 41.h5 Bg7 42.Ke2 Kd8 43.Rb8+ Ke7 Firouzja’s king march back to the kingside is not so much to defend f7, but rather to pick off the stranded h-pawn! 44.Bb5 Kf6 45.Kd3 It’s no use trying 45.Rg8 Rc2+ 46.Kf3 Rc3+ 47.Kg2 Rb3! White can’t stop …Rb3-b4xd4 winning. 45…Kg5 46.Ra8 Kxh5 47.Rxa5 Erdos at least here has ‘some’ saving chances with a potentially dangerous passed a-pawn, but Firouzja has it all in hand. 47…Kg4 48.Ra6 Kf3 49.Rc6 Rb7 Hoping upon all hope for 49…Rxc6? 50.Bxc6 Bf8 51.a5! Bd6 52.Be8 f6 53.a6 Bb8 54.Bh5+ Kxf2 55.Bf7 e5 56.Bxd5 exd4 57.Kxd4 and White will surely hold the draw, as in the worst-case scenario, he can even sacrifice his bishop for the doubled f-pawns and run is king to a8 for a technical draw. 50.Rc2 Bf6! [see diagram] A final, nice touch from Firouzja, who intends …Bf6-d8-a5-e1 not only containing White’s potentially dangerous a-pawn from pushing further up the board, but also picking off the f2 pawn. 51.Rb2 Bd8 52.Rc2 Ba5 53.Rc5 Be1 54.Bc6 Ra7 55.Rb5 Totally busted, Erdos tries a final saving trick. 55…Rxa4 56.Rxd5 Ra3+! 0-1 Winning the rook and the game, leaving Erdos no other option now other than to resign.