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There was a dramatic element of French flair to the final day at the Superbet Chess Classic Romania in Bucharest on Saturday, with a late, late show coming from Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, as the former French No 1 star snatched a remarkable come-from-behind victory to capture the first leg of the new $1.4m Grand Chess Tour season.

For many years, “MVL” – as he’s more affectionately known as – was his country’s top-player, only to be supplanted in the past year by 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja – and no doubt MVL would have taken a great deal of personal satisfaction in beating the game’s rising star who replaced him in the French rankings, with his last round win proving enough to finish the tournament in a three-way tie for first with the US duo of Wesley So and Levon Aronian.

But buoyed by beating Firouzja, MVL was by now on a high and his confidence carried over to what turned out to be a blunderfest-infused tiebreak-decider, as the Frenchman completed a remarkable hat-trick of wins on the final day by going on to also beat So and Aronian respectively to take the title.

For their efforts, So, Aronian and MVL received 10 Tour points each but, by virtue of winning the three-way playoff, the latter not only took the bragging right to the title but he also received the lion’s share of the prize-fund with $77,666 – the two runners-up each taking home $67,667 apiece – and he stormed back into the World’s Top-10 in the process, jumping five places on the unofficial live list.

The final result will come as a pick-me-up for the three-way trio nevertheless, as they were all disappointed to have narrowly missed out in qualifying spots for the upcoming 2022 Candidates Tournament in Madrid next month, in stark contrast to the four in the field who did qualify. Fabiano Caruana did the least worst of the Candidates quartette on 50%, and Firouzja, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Richárd Rapport worst of all, languishing at the wrong end of the crosstable.

Final standings:
1-3. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave* (France), Wesley So (USA), Levon Aronian (USA) 5½/9; 4-6. Leinier Dominguez (USA), Bogdan-Daniel Deac (Romania), Fabiano Caruana (USA) 4½; 7-8. Alireza Firouzja (France), Ian Nepomniachtchi (FIDE) 4; 9-10. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Richard Rapport (Hungary) 3½.

GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Superbet Chess Classic Romania, (9)
Neo-Grünfeld Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.g3 c6 5.Bg2 d5 The strategy of the super-solid Neo-Grünfeld is that both sides have tactical possibilities along the long diagonals. Unlike in this game, some players will choose complete symmetry with cxd5 cxd5 and games that tend to end in draws after significant exchanges. 6.0-0 0-0 7.Ne5 dxc4 8.Nxc4 Be6 9.b3 Bd5 And with that, easy equality, as Black seeks to exchange off the light-squared bishops. 10.Bb2 Nbd7 11.Nc3 Bxg2 12.Kxg2 b5 13.Nd2 e5 And again, Black has an easy time of it as White’s central pawn is exchanged off, leaving next to nothing for White in an increasingly sterile position. 14.dxe5 Nxe5 15.Nde4 Neg4 The further exchanges only helps Black to marginally edge the better side of equality. 16.Nxf6+ Nxf6 17.Qc2 Qe7 18.Rfe1 Qc5! MVL is the one to make the most of his position, as he centralises his pieces and starts to mobilises his queenside pawn majority. 19.Rac1 Rfe8 20.Nd1 It leaves Black with an even easier life as the queens come off, but then again the alternative of 20.e4 Rad8 21.Nd5 Qxc2 22.Nxf6+ Bxf6 23.Rxc2 Bxb2 24.Rxb2 Re6! 25.Rbe2 Rd4 26.f3 a5 and, if anything, White is the one slightly the more uncomfortable in an equal double R+P ending. 20…Qxc2 21.Rxc2 Re6 22.Ne3 Rd8 23.Nf1?! Firouzja just starts to lose control of the position with this miss-step – the correct way forward was to leave the knight on e3 (to cover …Nd5) and play 23.Rec1 Nd5 24.Nxd5 Rxd5 25.Bxg7 Kxg7 26.e3 and total equality. But Firouzja famously likes to fight on by pushing the envelope, and by doing so, he gives MVL the encouragement to find something a little risky just at the right moment in the game. 23…Nd5 24.Bxg7 Kxg7 25.a3 a5! What’s not to like here for MVL? Black has improved his position considerably with the centralised knight on d5 and now the queenside pawns are on the march. 26.Nd2 b4 Also promising was 26…Nb6 looking to follow up with …a4 – Black just has a nice endgame in prospect. 27.a4 Re3!?! Like a bolt out of the blue, thanks to the knight fork on e3! The “sensible” move was 27…Nc3 28.Nb1 etc – but kudos to MVL for picking the best psychological move to go on the offensive under the circumstances, as Firouzja – who is notorious for frequently getting into time-trouble – has to now tread carefully, and in the process wastes a lot of time on his clock. 28.Rxc6 Rc3 It’s just all a little tricky, and it comes at a very inconvenient time for Firouzja, whose digital flag was metaphorically starting to rise. 29.Nc4 It looks dangerous to snatch the pawn with 29.Rxc3 bxc3 30.Nc4 as now 30…c2 31.Rc1 Nb4 32.Ne3 Rc8 and White is somewhat restricted – but there’s an easy bail-out with the king march Kg2-f1-e1-d2 that forces Black into repeating the position with …Rd8+ Ke1 Rc8 etc. However, all difficult to fathom out when you have seconds now left on your clock. 29…Rxb3 30.e4 Re8 31.Nd6?! MVL complicating the game with 27…Re3 has worked to his advantage, as Firouzja finds the position more messy than he thought he was originally getting, and unwisely continues to “mix it”. The easy way out was 31.Nxa5! forcing 31…Ra3 32.Nb7 Rxa4 33.Nc5 Ra2 34.Nd3 Nf6 35.e5 Ng4 (This time returning with 35…Nd5 sees 36.Rc5! and the b-pawn soon falls.) 36.Rc4 (Not the only try. If 36.h3 Rd8! 37.Rd6 Rxd6 38.exd6 Rd2! sees the position similarly liquidating down to a drawish position after 39.Nc5 Nf6 40.Rb1 Rxd6 41.Rxb4 etc.) 36…h5 37.Rxb4 Rd8 38.Rb3 Rd2 39.h3 R8xd3 40.Rxd3 Rxd3 41.hxg4 hxg4 and the best White can hope for is 42.Re4 Rd5 43.e6 fxe6 44.Rxg4 (The doubled g-pawns option isn’t any better. After 44.Rxe6 Kh6! 45.Re4 Kg5 and Black simply oscillates his rook along the fifth rank.) 44…Kf6 which should end in a technical draw – but the split pawns is a little of a handicap. 31…Re6! It’s just getting more and more complicated for Firouzja, who has to use up more time on his clock – and this is what ultimately becomes the deciding factor in the game between the two top French stars. 32.Rd1 Nf6 33.e5? The game begins to slip inexorably away from Firouzja, as he blunders with just 9 seconds left on his clock. Better was 33.Rd4 that would have held things together – but alas, tick-tock. 33…Ng4 34.Rc7 Nxe5 35.f4 Rd3! [see diagram] Just at the critical moment, with Firouzja in deep time-trouble, all the tactics are working in MVL’s favour. 36.Rxd3 Nxd3 37.Rxf7+ No better was 37.Nxf7 Kf8! 38.Ng5 Rb6 and White is at a loss stopping the b-pawn running down the board. 37…Kg8 38.Rd7 b3 Something now has to give to stop the b-pawn. 39.Rd8+ Kg7 40.Rd7+ Firouzja makes the time-control with 3 seconds to spare – but now he’s clinging onto the wreckage of what just a few moves ago was a balanced position. 40… Kf8 41.Nc4 b2 42.Nxb2 Firouzja has to bite the bullet now, otherwise 42.Rb7 Re2+ 43.Kf3 Rf2+ 44.Ke3 Nb4! 45.Nxb2 Rxb2 is even better. 42…Nxb2 43.Ra7 Nxa4 44.Rxa5 It’s not all over for Firouzja, as swapping off pawns makes a draw an outside possibility – but its in forlorn hope trying to save this position, though I did like commentator Peter Svidler’s comment here that he had “resigned position that were much better than this!” 44…Nb6 45.g4 The most obvious try is 45.f5 but after 45…Re2+ 46.Kh3 (Even easier is 46.Kf3 Rxh2 47.g4 g5!) 46…Nc4 47.Ra4 Ne5 48.fxg6 hxg6 49.g4 g5 50.Kg3 Re3+ 51.Kf2 Rf3+ 52.Kg2 Rf4 and it’s technically “game over”. 45…Nd7 46.Kg3 Re3+ 47.Kh4 Nf6 48.Ra8+ Kf7 49.Ra7+ Re7 50.Ra5 Ne4 51.f5 Rd7 52.fxg6+ hxg6 53.Ra4 Re7 54.Ra5 Kf6 Forcing White’s next move, which effectively fixes his remaining pawns. 55.g5+ Kf7 56.Kg4 Nd6 57.Ra4 Nf5 58.h4 Ng7 59.Kf3 Nh5 With White’s pawns successfully fixed, the rest of the game becomes a formality. 60.Rb4 Rd7 61.Kg4 Rd6 62.Re4 Rd1 63.Ra4 White is reduced to keeping his rook on the fourth rank, otherwise the h-pawn will be lost or the king caught in a potential mating net on h3. 63…Ke6 64.Ra6+ Rd6 65.Ra4 Ke5 66.Ra3 Rd4+ Again, either it’s a mating net or the h-pawn falls. 67.Kh3 Kf5 68.Ra5+ Ke4 69.Kg4 Ke3+ 70.Kh3 Re4 71.Ra1 Kf2 72.Ra2+ Kf3 73.Ra3+ Re3 74.Ra4 Nf4+ 0-1 Firouzja finally throws the towel in, faced with 75.Kh2 Re2+ 76.Kh1 Nh5 77.Ra3+ Kg4 78.Kg1 Ng3! 79.Rd3 Kh3 and no stopping …Rg2 mate.

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