The Fide Candidates Tournament is now looming large on the horizon, with next month seeing the latest quest to find Magnus Carlsen’s next title-challenger getting underway in Madrid, running 17 June through 5 July in the Spanish capital. And late last week in Abu Dhabi, during the Fide Council Meeting, the drawing of lots to decide the pairings for the eight-player gladiatorial contest was announced.
The starting numbers are: 1. Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), 2. Ding Liren* (China), 3. Fabiano Caruana (USA), 4. Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), 5. Alireza Firouzja (France), 6. Hikaru Nakamura (USA, 7. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Fide), 8. Richard Rapport (Hungary).
Ding Liren’s place is still only contingent on Sergey Karjakin taking (and winning) his case, should he now present it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, after the 2016 world title-challenger was suspended and then subsequently lost his appeal last week against the game’s governing body for coming out in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a tackless social media outburst.
Currently in Bucharest, the opening leg of the $1.4m Grand Chess Tour, the Superbet Chess Classic Romania, is acting as a very convenient ‘warmup’ event for four of the Candidates – and the opening two rounds witnessed Alireza Firouzja, the 18-year-old seen by many to be the heir apparent to Carlsen’s crown, going manu et manu with the world champion’s last two title challengers, Caruana and Nepomniachtchi.
In the opening round, the former Iranian, who now represents the tricolore of France, had a very cautious 29-move draw with Caruana – but in round two, inexplicably, the teenager all but pressed the self-destruct button against Nepomniachtchi to give the latter’s confidence a big boost before heading to Madrid. And even more inexplicably, in round three, Firouzja also squandered a clear winning chance against Levon Aronian.
And now nearing the halfway point in Bucharest, US champion Wesley So has the sole lead being unbeaten with a score of 3/4, and a half a point lead over the chasing pack going into round five.
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 for each round.
1. Wesley So (USA), 3/4; 2-4. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Bogdan-Daniel Deac (Romania), Levon Aronian (USA) 2½; 5. Ian Nepomniachtchi (FIDE) 2; 6-10. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Leinier Dominguez (USA), Alireza Firouzja (France), Richard Rapport (Hungary) 1½.
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
Superbet Chess Classic, (2)
1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 The Bishop’s Opening was once a relic from a bygone age; one of the oldest systems in chess, that dates back to opening analysis published in the the late 1400s and early 1500s by pioneers such as Luis Ramírez de Lucena and Ruy López de Segura. After laying dormant at the top level for the best part of a century, the ‘great Dane’, Bent Larsen successfully revived it in the 1960s and 70s. Although it can have a separate agenda, more often than not – though not in this case – it is used as a conduit into the Giuoco Piano. 2…Nf6 3.d3 c6 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb3 a5 6.a4 Bb4+ 7.c3 Bd6 8.exd5 cxd5 9.Bg5 Be6 10.Na3 Nbd7 11.Nb5 Bb8 12.d4 If 12.0-0 0-0 13.Re1 Ra6! and Black stands a little better with his more active pieces and pawn centre. 12…e4 13.Nd2 0-0 14.Nf1 h6 15.Bh4 Bf4! 16.h3?! Provocative, to say the least. Safer was 16.Bg3 Bg4! 17.f3 Bxg3+ (If 17…exf3?! 18.gxf3 Re8+ 19.Kf2! Bxg3+ 20.hxg3 Be6 21.Qd2 and White is in no danger.) 18.hxg3 Be6 19.Qd2 Nb6 20.Kf2 Rc8 21.Qf4!? Nc4 22.Bxc4 exf3! 23.gxf3 dxc4 and Black stands a little better due to White’s king being a little exposed. 16…Re8 17.g3?! This is further pushing the envelope – it was not too late to go for 17.Bg3 Bxg3 18.Nxg3 Nf8 19.0-0 Ng6 20.Qd2 Ra6! and black stands better due to his more active pieces – but nothing White can’t handle with careful play. 17…Bb8 18.g4 Nf8 19.Ne3 Ng6 20.Bxf6 Qxf6 21.Bxd5 A hot pawn granted – but a forced capture nevertheless, otherwise Black will consolidate the d-pawn with a big advantage. 21…Bxd5 22.Nxd5 Qg5 23.c4 Bf4 Safer and better was 23…Nf4! 24.Nxf4 Bxf4 25.Qe2 Rac8 26.b3 Rcd8 and White has problems with his king trapped in the middle of the board. 24.Qb3 h5? Too hasty. After 24…Nh4! 25.Ne3 Nf3+ 26.Ke2 Rad8 27.Rad1 h5! and White’s king is in grave danger as the game bursts open. 25.Ne3 This nicely consolidates White’s position. 25…Qh4 The trouble for Black, is that now 25…Nh4 26.0-0-0! Ng2 27.Kb1! White stands better as his king makes its escape from the danger zone. 26.gxh5 Qxh5 27.Qd1 Qh6 28.Nf5 Granted, this is the obvious move in the heat of battle but, as ever, the engine tactically finds the best way to continue with 28.Qe2 Nh4 29.0-0-0! Ng2 30.Kb1! Bxe3 (If 30…Nxe3? 31.fxe3 Bxe3 32.Nc7!) 31.Rhg1! and White is the one on the attack. 28…Qh7 29.Qg4 Ra6 30.Kd1?! Firouzja is clearly in a panic about his king safety – but there was nothing to fear. After 30.h4! Rf6 31.Nc3! Nf8 32.Ne3 and with Ncd5 coming, Black is in trouble. 30…Rf6 31.Re1 This just allows Black to unravel. It was better to get the rooks into action with 31.Rg1! followed by Ra3 to bolster the e3-square. 31…Nf8 32.Ne3 Bb8 33.Qe2 Qh4 34.Rf1 Rf3 35.Kc2 Ne6 36.Nd5 Not an easy position for Firouzja to defend, given his habitual time-trouble. 36…Ng5 37.Rae1 In the mad-dash to reach the time-control. Firouzja missed the better mini rook lift with 37.Ra3! given that 37…Qxh3 38.Rxf3 Nxf3 39.Rd1 Qg2 40.Ne3 Qg6 41.Kb1 and Black faces long-term problems as the d-pawn starts to run. 37…Re6 38.Ndc3 Ref6 39.Nd1 Understandable, given that the flag on Firouzja’s digital clock is metaphorically hanging – but it was not easy to see that after 39.Kb1! the king once again runs from the danger zone, and now 39…Rxf2 40.Rxf2 Rxf2 41.Qg4! Qxg4 42.hxg4 and with the queens forced off, Black is in trouble now as the d-pawn runs up the board. 39…R3f4 40.Qe3 Nf3 Firouzja is in a mess all of his own making, down to his habitual time-trouble. 41.d5 Be5! 42.c5 Nxe1+ Nepo could have piled on the agony with 42…Rh6! leaving White paralysed. 43.Rxe1 Rxf2+ 44.Nxf2 Rf3 45.Nxe4?? The time-trouble panic is over, but Firouzja has clearly missed something along the way. After 45.Qxe4! Rxf2+ 46.Kd1 Qh5+ 47.Re2 Bxb2 48.c6! the game begins to peter out to a draw, according to the engines, with: 48…Rxe2 49.Qxe2 Qxd5+ 50.Kc2! bxc6 51.Kxb2 cxb5 52.Qe8+ Kh7 53.axb5 a4 54.Qc6 Qb3+ 55.Ka1 a3 56.Qe4+ g6 57.Qh4+ Kg8 58.Qd8+ Kg7 59.Qd4+ f6 60.b6 and neither side can make any progress. 45…Rxe3 46.Rxe3 f5! [see diagram] The f-pawn wrecks havoc with white’s fragile fortress. 47.Nec3 Firouzja probably realised too late that 47.Ned6 Qf2+ 48.Kd3 loses to 48…Qf1+! 49.Kd2 Bxb2 50.Re8+ Kh7 51.Re1 (No better was 51.Nxb7 Qg2+ 52.Ke3 f4+! 53.Kd3 (If 53.Kxf4 Qf2+ 54.Ke4 Qe2+ 55.Kf4 Bc1+ 56.Kf5 g6+ is going to pick-up the rook AND the king!) ) 51…Qg2+ 52.Re2 Qxd5+ and he’s lost. 47…Bxc3 48.Nxc3 Qf2+ 49.Kd3 f4! 50.Re4 White is lost and no better was 50.Re8+ Kf7 51.Rc8 Qe3+ 52.Kc2 f3! 53.d6 f2 54.d7 f1Q 55.d8Q Qf5+ 56.Kb3 (If 56.Kd1 Qg1+ 57.Kd2 Qf4+ 58.Kd3 Qg6+ 59.Ke2 Qc2+ 60.Ke1 Qff2#) 56…Qee6+ and the rook is lost. 50…Qg3+ 51.Kd2 f3 52.d6 Qg2+ 53.Ne2 f2! The clean kill. It gets “messy” after 53…fxe2 54.Rxe2 Qd5+ 55.Ke1 Qxc5 56.Rd2 Qg1+ 57.Ke2 Qg2+ 58.Kd1 Qf1+ 59.Kc2 Qf5+ 60.Rd3 Qd7 and now, with the d-pawn blockaded, Black easily wins. 54.Re8+ Kf7 55.Re7+ Kf6 0-1 And Firouzja resigns with no stopping the f-pawn.