After surviving a mini-setback loss at the hands of Fabiano Caruana going down the homestretch of the FIDE Grand Swiss in Riga, 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja held his nerve with a gritty fightback in the final two rounds to not only capture the $70,000 first prize, but in doing so, he also punched his ticket to follow in the teenage Candidates’ footsteps of Boris Spassky, Magnus Carlsen and Bobby Fischer.
It proved to be an epic Round 9 encounter between Caruana and Firouzja, seen by many as being the young pretender to Carlsen’s crown. The game was on the edge throughout, but a decisive error from the new rising star in his habitual time-trouble was enough to swing the game Caruana’s way – and a vital win for the US #1 that went a long way to safeguard him the second Candidates qualifying spot.
Shaking off the defeat, Firouzja hit back to eventually grind down England’s David Howell, the underdog who dramatically turned into a British bulldog by winning four successive games, in yet another complex game of epic proportions. The win left Firouzja needing a draw against Russian Grigoriy Oparin in the final round to take first place and a Candidates spot, which he duly did with relative ease.
Joining Firouzja in the Candidates is also now a relieved Caruana, who edged out Oparin on tiebreak after a nervy wait to see who would get the second spot. “It was a tough tournament,” admitted the 2019 defeated title challenger at the end of the tournament. “It was really tough—both the length of the tournament and the length of the games. I kind of felt exhausted after I beat Firouzja. I just had no energy left. So I was also happy that I could draw Maxime [Vachier-Lagrave, in Round 10] because my energy level is pretty much at zero now!”
Firouzja now becomes one of the youngest players in history to play in the Candidates, joining the ranks of 18-year-old Spassky, and behind Carlsen and Fischer, both at 16. But crucially, Firouzja has a chance to even eclipse their feat with the glittering prize of a possible shot of going on to capture the title at his first attempt to become the youngest world champion in chess history – a record held since 1985 by Garry Kasparov, who at age 22 defeated Anatoly Karpov to capture the crown.
A further six top-finishers – Grigoriy Oparin, Yu Yangyl, Vincent Keymer, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Alexandr Predke and Alexei Shirov – also qualify into the FIDE Grand Prix, a series of tournaments next on the horizon which will determine the last two qualifying spots for next year’s Candidates Tournament.
1. A. Firouzja* (France), 8/11; 2-3. F. Caruana* (USA), G. Oparin** (Russia) 7.5; 4-16. Yu Yangyl** (China) V. Keymer** (Germany), M. Vachier-Lagrave** (France), A. Predke** (Russia), A. Shirov** (Spain), D. Howell (England), G. Sargissian (Armenia), D. Anton (Spain), A. Korobov (Ukraine), S. Sevian (USA), A. Esipenko (Russia), B. Deac (Romania), V. Artemiev (Russia), 7. (*Candidates qualifier; **Grand Prix qualifier)
Photo: Could the glittering prize be within Firouzja’s grasp? | © Mark Livshitz / FIDE Grand Swiss
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Alireza Firouzja
FIDE Grand Swiss, (9)
Caro-Kann Defence, Advance variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4 Caruana not only honours Riga legend Mikhail Tal by adopting his line of the Advance variation – a pet-line favourite of Tal, who captured the world title from Mikhail Botvinnik in 1960 – but Firouzja would have been concerned the American may well have had an improvement up his sleeve over an earlier game in the same tournament with local hero and former Tal pupil, Alexei Shirov. 4…h5 5.Bd3 Bxd3 6.Qxd3 Qa5+ 7.Nd2 e6 8.Ne2 And here’s where Caruana deviates from the aforementioned Shirov-Firouzja of Round 6, which saw 8.Nf3 and Shirov somehow managed to survive to save the game. 8…Ne7 9.b4!N A novelty here, and this is one of the benefits of rising to become a title challenger, as for years to come you can live off of the opening novelties you and your team cook up en route to a match with Magnus Carlsen. Previously seen here had been 9.0-0 Qa6 more or less forcing the queens off, just what Firouzja wanted to see on the board. But Caruana has other ideas. 9…Qa6 It’s just too dangerous to play 9…Qxb4? 10.Rb1! Qa5 11.Rxb7 Nd7 12.0-0 and early doors, White is on top. 10.Qb3 As White hasn’t castled, the knight now is protected, and this offers Caruana a different avenue to walk rather than the immediate queen trade more normally associated with this line. 10…Nf5 11.Nf3 Black is not without his own devious traps here, as 11.a4?? walks right into the cunning 11…Qxe2+!! 12.Kxe2 Nxd4+ 13.Kf1 Nxb3 14.cxb3 Bxb4 leaving Black not only on top, but also with a couple of extra pawns to boot! 11…Nd7 A little inaccurate, according to Caruana, who pointed out in his post-game interview that better first was 11…Qc4! as White can’t continue as in the game with 12.Bd2 Be7 13.a4 as Black can safely snatch a pawn with 13…Qxb3 14.cxb3 Na6 15.b5 cxb5 16.axb5 Nc7! and the better prospects. 12.a4 Qc4 13.Bd2 Qxb3 14.cxb3 f6 Firouzja’s handicap throughout his short chess career thus far, has been his poor time management. And even at this early stage it has reached a critical level, down to 40 minutes to make the time control at move 40. This makes his games all the more exciting, though they can become messy and often random in the mad-dash to beat the clock – and here again it ultimately plays a deciding factor in the outcome of the game. 15.0-0 Be7 16.g3 Kf7 17.Rfe1 fxe5 Releasing the tension does at least offer Firouzja a series of quick and easy moves to help him on the clock. 18.dxe5 Rac8 19.Nf4 d4 Passed pawns must be pushed after all, but there was a good solid case for keeping things tight with 19…g6 20.a5 Rhe8 21.Rac1 Nb8 – but on the other hand, no one likes a full-ish board and a passive position when short of time. 20.Rac1 c5 21.Nd5! A nice tactical spot by Caruana, whose body language by now was becoming very confident. 21…cxb4 Firouzja’s only chance. After 21…exd5? 22.e6+ Ke8 23.exd7+ Kxd7 24.Ne5+ Kc7 25.Ng6 Rhe8 26.Re5 and unlike what Firouzja played in the game, there are no saving resources here. 22.Nxe7 Nxe7 23.Ng5+ Kg6 24.Rxc8 Rxc8 25.Nxe6 Nc6 26.f4 Kf5! It’s a very brave defence from Firouzja with his digital clock both metaphorically ticking down and his flag beginning to hang, as this leads to a very complicated endgame which, in reality, is his only chance of survival due to the ensuing complexities. 27.Nxg7+ Kg6 28.Ne6 Kf5 29.Ng5 Nc5 30.Nf7! Firouzja was most likely hoping for 30.Rb1 Rc7! with excellent saving chances. 30…Ke6 31.Nd6 Rg8 The only move in town. After 31…Rc7? 32.f5+! Kd5 33.Ne8 and Nf6+ soon wins. 32.Kg2 Kd5 33.Rb1 Ne4? It’s complex, and, as usual, Firouzja is scrambling to make the time control. But in the complexity, he’s either miscalculated or – more than likely – missed a crucial mate down the road. A better try to stay in the game was keeping the pieces on the board with 33…b6! 34.Be1 d3 and with …Nd4 on the horizon, it is very difficult to see exactly how White will ever win this. 34.Nxe4 Kxe4 35.Rc1 Kd3 36.Be1 Ke2 37.e6 d3 38.f5 Nd4?! Firouzja begins to falter and could have made Caruana work a lot harder for the win by trying 38…Re8 and leaving him to find the more difficult path to victory. Now, after 39.a5 a6 40.Ra1 d2 (The position is fraught with the dangers of a transition down to a winning endgame scenario after 40…Rf8 41.e7! Nxe7 42.Bxb4 d2 43.Ra2! Rxf5 44.Rxd2+ Ke3 45.Rd7 Nc6 46.Rxb7 Nxa5 47.Rc7! Rb5 48.Bxa5 Rxa5 49.Rc3+ Kd2 50.Rc6 Ke3 51.Kh3 and Black looks lost in the R+P ending.) 41.Bxd2 Kxd2 42.f6 Kc2! (You can’t capture the pawn, as the other runs home after 42…Rxe6? 43.f7 Rf6 44.Rf1! winning.) 43.f7 Rf8 44.Re1 Kxb3 45.Rc1! Threatening to capture on c6 and then push home the pawns, thus forcing: 45…Ne7 46.Kf3 Ka3 (There’s no way to stop the king waltzing up the board to support the pawns. If 46…Nf5 47.Kf4 Nd6 48.Rc7 Nxf7 49.Rxf7 Re8 50.Ke5 and a technically won R+P ending.) 47.Kf4 b3 48.Ra1+ Kb4 49.Ke5 b2 50.Rb1 Kb3 51.Kf6 Nd5+ 52.Kg7 Ra8 53.f8Q Rxf8 54.Kxf8 Kc2 55.Rf1 b1Q 56.Rxb1 Kxb1 57.e7 Nc7 58.Kg7!! and with Black’s knight paralysed, White will capture the h-pawn, leaving the three passed kingside pawns to romp home to victory. 39.Bxb4! d2 Forced. If Firouzja thought earlier with his 33…Ne4 he might be drawing after 39…Nxf5, then he’s overlooked the little matter of 40.Re1#! 40.Bxd2 Kxd2 41.Rc5! Defending the f5 pawn and threatening Rd5 or even Re5 – and with it, with precise play, Caruana secures a much-needed crucial victory over one of the game’s rising young stars. 41…Re8 42.Re5 Kd3 43.Kf2 Re7 44.g4! Genius at work here from Caruana, as he creates a third passed pawn on the kingside. 44…hxg4 45.Kg3 Re8 46.Kxg4 Nc6 47.Kf4!! [see diagram] Caruana is in his element by now, as he finely finesses his path to victory with a series of study-like rook sacs. 47…Ne7 An admission from Firouzja that he’s lost, as the rook is taboo: 47…Nxe5 48.Kxe5 and the two passed pawns supported by the king eases to victory. 48.f6 Ng6+ 49.Kf5 Nxh4+ Once again, the rook is taboo. 50.Kg5 Nf3+ 51.Kf4 Nd4 52.e7 Nc6 53.f7! Rxe7 54.Rd5+! 1-0 The final finesse that forces Firouzja’s resignation, and not 54.f8Q?? Rxe5 55.Qd6+ Kc3 56.b4 Re1 57.b5 Na5! 58.Qd7 Rb1 and Black is drawing, with no way to stop …Rb1-b4+ and Rxa4. And if 59.Qc7+ Kb4 and the a-pawn also falling.