The European Team Championship in Catez, Slovenia, has finished with Ukraine taking the team gold medal. But the main event turned into a sideshow with a stunning top board debut performance from Alireza Firouzja, as the 18-year-old not only secured France the silver medal, he also made a little history along the way by storming up to #2 in the world rankings and becomes the youngest player ever to break the 2800-barrier.
It was nothing short of a sensational debut from Firouzja, playing for the first time for his newly adopted country after leaving Iran. His undefeated score of 8/9 not only went a long way to securing France the team silver, it also saw the teenager deservedly winning the individual top board gold medal with a phenomenal 3015 TPR, the second best performance in history after Fabiano Caruana’s 3080 to win the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis in 2014.
In the penultimate round, Firouzja’s draw with Alexander Grischuk – coupled with Maxime Lagarde’s lone win over Andrey Esipenko – went a long way to France beating defending champions and favourites Russia. In the final round, it was Firouzja’s dramatic win over Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov that gave France silver and saw the teenager becoming a new Les Bleus hero.
Firouzja can arguable now lay claim to being the greatest player to play under the French tricolore since the fourth World Champion Alexander Alekhine back in the mid-1920s – and next up could well be a serious tilt at going on to see his dream come true by also becoming world champion!
Currently, Firouzja is rated 2803.5 on the unofficial live ratings, dramatically jumping seven places to world #2 behind Magnus Carlsen, whose “2800 Club” age-record he’s just broken. It only becomes official though when the next FIDE Rating List is publish on 1st December, where he will have bettered the World Champion’s previous record by about six months.
If Firouzja can keep building on this going into the new year and the 2022 Candidates Tournament, he could very well get a shot of earning a world championship match against the winner of the upcoming Magnus Carlsen – Ian Nepomniachtchi title match in Dubai, which gets underway on Friday.
Photo: Firouzja celebrates with a ‘selfie’ with the French team after making a stunning debut performance | © Alireza Firouzja
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
23rd European Team Championship, (9.1)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano – one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, first played and recorded in the 16th century – means ‘quiet game’ in Italian. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up, as both sides strategically position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 3…Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 h6 6.c3 d6 7.Re1 0-0 8.h3 Another idea here, favoured by Magnus Carlsen, is 8.Na3 with the idea of Na3-c2 and Be3 to challenge Black’s dark-squared bishop. 8…a5 9.Nbd2 Normally this can often see the knight heading to f5, via the Ruy Lopez route of Nbd2-f2-g3, bit Mamedyarov cuts across this plan. 9…Be6 10.Bxe6 fxe6 11.Nb3 Ba7 12.Be3 Bxe3 13.Rxe3 There’s nothing in the position, but long-term, Black has to be careful about transitioning to an endgame while being lumbered by those doubled e-pawns and White having a kingside pawn majority. 13…a4 14.Nbd2 d5 15.Re2 b5 16.exd5 Timed to perfection, as Black has to recapture with the knight, otherwise the e5-pawn will fall with no compensation. 16…Nxd5 17.a3 White can’t grab the e-pawn, as after 17.Nxe5 Nxe5 18.Rxe5 a3! 19.b3 Nxc3 20.Qe1 Nd5 and Black has the slightly better game. Hence Firouzja’s more cautious approach. 17…Nf4 18.Re3 Qe8 Possibly a little better was 18…Qf6 looking to follow-up with …Rad8, and if 19.Ne4 Qg6 20.Nh4 Qf7 and …Rad8 next. 19.g3 Nxh3+?! If anything, this just makes life a little easier for White with Black having the crippled doubled pawn structure on the kingside – though there’s not much in it. But a good solid option was 19…Nd5 20.Re4 Qg6 with play on the kingside and an x-ray attack on d3. 20.Kg2 Ng5 21.Nxg5 hxg5 22.Qg4! Firouzja has good play for the pawn with his opponent’s crippled pawn structure on the kingside. The trouble for Mamedyarov here, is that if one of his doubled pawns falls, then it is likely one of the other doubled pawns will soon fall after it. 22…Rf5 23.Nf3 First 23.Rh1 might well be stronger, as White retains the option of putting the knight into e4 for better attacking options on the kingside. 23…Qf7 24.Qe4 Rf8! Taking full advantage of the fact that the knight is taboo. 25.Rh1 After 25.Qxc6?! g4 26.Kf1 gxf3 Black has dangerous threats. 25…g6? Missing the point completely. After 25…Qf6! 26.Qxc6 g4 27.Kg1 Rxf3 28.Rxf3 Qxf3 29.Qxe6+ Rf7 30.Rh2 Qxd3 White is forced into the bail-out with 31.Qe8+ Rf8 32.Qe6+ Rf7 33.Qe8+ Rf8 34.Qe6+ and a draw by repetition. 26.Qxc6 g4 27.Kg1! Rxf3 28.Rxf3 Qxf3 29.Qxe6+ Qf7 30.Qxf7+ Rxf7 31.Rh4 With so many Black pawns hanging, this isn’t going to be easy to draw – but we have a R+P ending, and with careful play, it should be a draw. 31…Rd7 32.Rxg4 Rxd3 33.Rxg6+ Kf7 34.Rc6 Rd2 35.c4 Rxb2 36.Rxc7+ Ke6 37.Rc6+ Kf5 38.cxb5 Rb3! Ultimately, this should end in a draw with White’s a3-pawn falling – but Black still has to proceed with caution and great care. 39.b6 Rxa3 40.b7 Rb3 41.Ra6 Rxb7 42.Rxa4 e4 43.Ra5+ Kf6 44.Kf1 Rb3 45.Ke2 Rc3 46.Ra8 Rb3 47.Rf8+ Ke5 48.Kf1! [see diagram] One of those moves that will have most players scratching their head in puzzlement over, but Firouzja is laying the foundations for a cunning trap that Mamedyarov unwittingly walks right into. 48…Kd4?? From a psychological point, being a pawn down, one of the most difficult things to do in a chess ending is transitioning from a R+P to a K+P ending – but the only move that doesn’t lose was 48…Rf3! 49.Ra8 (After 49.Rxf3 exf3 despite being a pawn down, Black draws as his king will hold the opposition – but being human, sometimes you just don’t see it, regardless even if you are one of the world’s top grandmasters.) 49…Kd6 50.Ra6+ Ke5 51.Ra5+ Kf6 52.Ra8 Ke5 53.Ra5+ Kf6 54.Ra8 Ke5 and White can’t make any progress due to the threat of …e3 also transitioning to the K+P ending and Black having the opposition. 49.Kg2! With Black’s king cut-off from crossing over to the kingside, White wins by using his king to support the g-pawn up the board. 49…Rb7 50.Kh3 Ke5 Black achieves nothing with 50…Rh7+ 51.Kg4! Ke5 52.Kg5 followed by g4. 51.g4 1-0 And Mamedyarov resigns, realising that 51…Rh7+ 52.Kg3 Kd4 53.Kf4! Rh2 54.Rd8+ Kc3 55.Kxe4 Rxf2 56.g5 sees the Black king further cut off now on the queenside, and one of the most famous and important positions in chess endgame theory, the Lucena position, that dates back to the early-to-mid 17th-century, where you now ‘build a bridge’ with your rook to victory.