The chess action now turns to Bucharest, as the new season of the Garry Kasparov-inspired and US-backed Grand Chess Tour (GCT) gets underway, with the first leg being the Superbet Chess Classic Romania – sponsored by Superbet Foundation, One United and First Bank – that kicks-off on Thursday with a 10-player round robin and a $350,000 prize fund up for grabs.
The big attraction is the return to action once again of Alireza Firouzja, the 18-year-old perceived by many to be the heir apparent to Magnus Carlsen’s world crown. Unusually for the former Iranian, who now plays under the “tricolore” of France, he’s been out-of-action for nearly five months from both over-the-board and online events, with speculation mounting that the teenager has been in deep training ahead of next month’s Candidates Tournament in Madrid.
The full line-up for the Superbet Chess Classic includes: Alireza Firouzja (FRance), Levon Aronian (USA), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Wesley So (USA), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Fide), Richard Rapport (Hungary), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Leinier Dominguez (USA) and Bogdan-Daniel Deac (Romania).
The first leg of the GCT also features a top commentary team with Grandmasters Yasser Seirawan, Peter Svidler, Alejandro Ramirez and Cristian Chirila and Woman Grandmaster Anastasia Karlovich breaking down all the live action and interviews.
The governing body of world chess, Fide, also gave the GCT an added boost to their brand by announcing that their 2023 and 2025 seasons will also qualify two players for the 2024 and 2026 Candidates. Fide also earlier this week released their May Rating List that officially confirmed China’s Ding Liren – after a mad-dash of playing 30 games in not that many more days – as the final piece in the jigsaw for the upcoming Candidates.
Apart from Ding, the only elite Top-10 player to gain points in the latest list was Caruana, the recent winner of the inaugural American Cup held at the Saint Louis Chess Club. En route to the final, Caruana can count himself lucky to have won an Armageddon rollercoaster against Jeffery Xiong to survive the opening round, as the Texan twice solidly defended the notoriously tough Fort Knox Variation, and twice the former title-challenger failed to convert clear winning positions.
Fide May Top 10:
1. Magnus Carlsen – 2864 (=); 2. Ding Liren – 2806 (+7); 3. Alireza Firouzja – 2804 (=); 4. Fabiano Caruana – 2786 (+5); 5. Richard Rapport – 2776 (=); 6. Ian Nepomniachtchi – 2773 (=); 7. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – 2770 (-1); 8. Wesley So – 2766 (-12); 9. Levon Aronian – 2765 (-20); 10. Anish Giri – 2761 (-12).
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Jeffery Xiong
American Cup, (1.5)
French Defence, Fort Knox Variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bd7 5.Nf3 Bc6 [see diagram] The Fort Knox variation with …Bd7-c6 was created/championed by the English IM Andrew Martin, rather than have to face the theory-ladened Winawer and Tarrasch – and with a reputation of being solid and hard to crack, he dubbed it the “Fort Knox” (after the legendary gold repository in Kentucky) and the name stuck. 6.Bd3 Nd7 7.0-0 Ngf6 8.Ned2 Bxf3 9.Nxf3 Bd6 10.c4 0-0 11.Qe2 c6 12.Bd2 Qc7 13.Bc3 Rfe8 14.Rfe1 a6 15.Rad1 Rad8 16.Bc2 All of this is standard fare in the Fort Knox Variation: White has the space advantage and the better-placed pieces for the attack – but Black has a super-solid set-up and it is tough to “crack” open the king, even in an Armageddon-decider. 16…Bf8 17.Ne5 Nxe5 18.dxe5 Nd7 19.h4! Just gaining more real estate on the kingside, whilst threatening to push “Harry the h-pawn” to h6 to weaken the dark-squares around the Black kingside. 19…b5 20.h5 g6 21.b3 a5 22.Rd3 A dual purpose move, with the rook lift either looking to swing over to join in the kingside attack or perhaps just simply doubling rooks on the d-file. 22…b4 23.Bd2 Bg7 24.Bf4 a4 25.bxa4 Caruana has a specific plan in mind for his rook – but better was 25.hxg6 fxg6 (Black has to be careful here. After 25…hxg6?! 26.Rh3! and with Qg4 to follow, suddenly there’s genuine threats on the kingside.) 26.Rh3 axb3 27.axb3 Nf8 and White does look to have the makings of a strong kingside attack brewing – but the …Nf8 holds Black’s defences together. 25…Nc5 26.Rd6 This is what Caruana was looking to play – the Rd6 is uncomfortable for Xiong and, if needs be, in certain circumstances Caruana could well sacrifice the exchange on d6 and then use his bishop-pair to prise open a way to the Black king. 26…Nb7! The more accurate way to kick the rook – wrong was 26…Bf8?! 27.Red1! and capturing the rook is fraught with danger with the dark-square weakness around the Black king. 27.Rxd8 Rxd8 28.h6 If anything, this only helps Black as it releases the tension – better was 28.Bd2! c5 29.hxg6 hxg6 30.Bg5! Rd7 31.Bb3 Na5 32.f4 and White still has genuine threats on the kingside. 28…Bf8 Sure, it’s a little uncomfortable for Black, and he does now have back-rank mating threats to be wary of, but at least he is still solid and has largely contained the danger of White’s bishop-pair for now. 29.Rd1 Nc5 Equally good was 29…Rxd1+ 30.Qxd1 Na5 31.Bb3 c5! with …Nc6-d4 on the horizon. 30.Rxd8 Qxd8 31.Qd2 Qa5! Avoiding the trade of queens now comes with a dilemma for Caruana, as now any winning chances are gone as he’s tied down to defending the a- and c-pawns. 32.Qd1 Qa6 33.Bb3 Be7 34.Be3 Qa5 35.Qd4 Kf8 There’s no time to snatch the a-pawn. After 35…Nxa4?! 36.Qd7 Bf8 37.Qxc6 Nc5 38.Qb5! and suddenly the endgame is turning in White’s advantage. 36.Qd2 Ke8 37.g3 Nxa4! With the king now covering the d7 square from the White queen, now the a-pawn can be taken – and suddenly the game looks to be out of Caruana’s reach for a win. 38.Bg5 Bxg5 39.Qxg5 Nc3 40.Qf6 Ne4 41.Qf3 The Black h-pawn looked a tempting target, but there’s a sting in the tail. If 41.Qh8+ Ke7 42.Qxh7? not capturing on e5 but rather 42…Qc5! and suddenly the White king is going to get mated! 41…Qxe5 Just as James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger discovered to his cost, breaking into Fort Knox just isn’t so easy! If anything, Xiong is now clearly better in this game. 42.Ba4 Ke7 43.Bxc6 Nd2?! Too ambitious and missing the key move of 43…Nc5! that covers the critical d7 square. 44.Qd3! Qd6 45.Qxd6+? With the obvious time constraints, Caruana misses the key sequence 45.Bd5! exd5 46.cxd5! and, with nowhere for the knight to go, White will capture on d2 with an extra pawn and the better chances in the ensuing Q+P endgame. 45…Kxd6 46.Bb5 Ne4 Xiong is winning now, plain and simple. 47.Ba4 Kc5 48.Kg2 Kxc4 49.Kf3 Kd4 50.Be8 Nd6 51.Bd7 e5 52.Kg4 f5+ 53.Kh4 Ne4 54.Be8 Nxf2 Anything can happen in an Armageddon-decider, but the simple win was 54…g5+! 55.Kh5 Nf6+ 56.Kxg5 Nxe8 etc. 55.Bxg6 Ng4 56.Bxf5 Nxh6 57.Bxh7 e4 58.Bg6 e3 59.Bh5 Nf5+ 60.Kh3 Kc3 1-0 What a tragedy for Xiong! It’s not so much breaking into but more like breaking hearts in the Fort Knox, because after staunchly and solidly holding the defences, he has a completely winning position but dramatically gets flagged just as he’s about to make his 60th move and the 2-second move increment kicking in – a real table-turner that saw Caruana going on to win the American Cup.