It may well be a new era for Magnus Carlsen with the Norwegian announcing recently that he’s relinquishing his world championship crown, but he’s still the man to beat as he raised his game on the final two days of the competition to capture the SuperUnited Rapid and Blitz Croatia in Zagreb, the third leg of the $1.4m Grand Chess Tour.
And such was Carlsen’s dominance of the field in the final two days of the blitz tournament, he could even afford to lose his final two games, against young pretender Alireza Firouzja, and local hero Ivan Saric, to do just enough to top-score on 22½/36 to take the title and the $40,000 first prize, just a half point ahead of his chasing French rivals, Firouzja and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Although Carlsen could afford to lose his last two games to win the title, he wasn’t best pleased with his overall performance, as instead of moving up to No 1 on the unofficial live blitz rating list, he stayed at No 5 – and perhaps worst of all for Carlsen, he slipped from the No 1 spot on the unofficial rapid list to now be supplanted by his long-time rival and fellow chess influencer, Hikaru Nakamura!
Summing up his overall performance in victory, Magnus commented: “The second day was a bit tough for me, and the rapid in general was not so good, but I think I was lucky that nobody really had a superb performance. For instance, Maxime and Alireza had great performances today, but they didn’t do so well on the other days. Overall, the two last games…it’s a pity to bow out in such a way, but to be honest, I was really tired throughout the day today. I was just trying to get through it, and once the tournament victory was there you don’t care so much.”
The standout game in the blitz – and possibly the overall tournament – turned out to be penultimate round big clash of the generations between Carlsen and Firouzja. And while the title may well have already been decided, the two rivals didn’t hold back with an entertaining, no-holds barred game.
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 22½/36; 2-3. A. Firouzja (France), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 22; 4-5. W. So (USA), I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 21; 6. J van Foreest (Netherlands) 19; 7-8. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), L. Dominguez (USA) 15; 9. V. Topalov (Bulgaria), 10. I. Saric (Croatia) 10½.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Alireza Firouzja
SuperUnited Blitz 2022, (17)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.e4 This is one of the sharpest ways to respond to the Queen’s Gambit Accepted – and credit to both players for keeping the game sharp and interesting with their no-holds-barred dynamic play. 5…b5 6.Nxb5 Against Hikaru Nakamura in the first Champions Chess Tour Final back in 2020, Carlsen preferred 6.e5 Nd5 7.Nxb5 Nb6 8.a4 and went on to lose a razor-sharp game. 6…Nxe4 7.Qa4 Nd7 8.Qxc4 Bd6 9.Nxd6+ Nxd6 10.Qc2 Bb7 11.Bg5 Qc8 Firouzja opts to ‘mix it up’ a little, as I suspect Carlsen fully expected 11…f6 12.Be3 Bxf3 13.gxf3 Nb6 14.Bd3 and again, sharp play on both sides. 12.Rc1 Nf5 13.Qxc7 Qxc7 14.Rxc7 Bxf3 15.gxf3 Nxd4 16.Be3 Ne5! The struggle really starts at this point, with Firouzja’s knights being more than a match for Carlsen’s bishop-pair as they combine with threats of lethal fork-tricks. 17.Bg2 Rd8 18.Rxa7 Nd3+ 19.Kd2 Nf4 20.Bxd4 e5 21.Bf1 The position is just fiendishly tricky for both sides – and likely to go ‘random’ with it being blitz – and while it is hard to be critical with it being blitz, according to our Silicon Overlords, the best way forward for White was with 21.Kc1! Ne2+ 22.Kc2 Nxd4+ 23.Kb1 0-0 24.Rd1 Rfe8 25.f4! and White retains the extra pawn and has activated both his rooks. Now, if 25…exf4 26.Ra3! Ne6 27.Rxd8 Rxd8 28.Ra8! the BvN ending is lost for Black as White’s passed queenside pawns will rapidly storm up the board. 21…Rxd4+ 22.Kc2 0-0 23.Rc7 Ne6 24.Rc4 Rd6 25.Rc3 Rfd8 26.Bc4 Rd2+ 27.Kb1 Nd4 28.Rf1 Rb8 29.b3 g5 30.h3 If Carlsen wanted a trouble- and stress-free game, he could have bailed out now with the tactical solution of 30.Rg1! h6 31.h4 Rxf2 32.hxg5 Nxf3 33.Rxf3! Rxf3 34.g6! Kf8 35.gxf7 Rxf7 36.Bxf7 Kxf7 and a drawn R+P ending. 30…Kg7 31.Rd3 Rxd3 32.Bxd3 Nxf3 33.Kb2 e4 34.Be2 Not 34.Bxe4? Nd2 35.Re1 Re8 36.f3 f5! 37.Re2 fxe4 38.Rxd2 exf3 39.Kc3 (If 39.Rf2? Re2+ wins on the spot.) 39…h5 40.Kd3 g4 and the Black pawns win the day. 34…f5 35.Rd1 h5 36.Rd5 The time was ripe for White to start pushing his own pawns up the board, and after 36.a4! g4 37.a5 f4 (It’s easy to go wrong here with 37…gxh3?? 38.Bxf3 exf3 39.Ka3! h2 40.b4 and White’s queenside pawns, supported by the king wins.) 38.hxg4 hxg4 39.a6 g3 40.fxg3 fxg3 41.Bc4 g2 42.Bd5! Rd8 (Also drawing is 42…g1Q 43.Rxg1+ Nxg1 44.a7 Rh8 45.Bxe4 Ne2 46.a8Q Rxa8 47.Bxa8 Kf6 etc.) 43.a7 and both pawns cancel each other out, as we head to a draw similar to the above note. 36…Kf6 37.a4 h4 Black can keep the heat on with 37…Ng1! 38.Bf1 h4 39.a5 g4 40.hxg4 fxg4 41.Bg2 Nf3 42.a6 the game will likely end in a draw, but Black has slightly the better of it with more possibilities. 38.a5 g4! 39.hxg4 fxg4 40.a6 h3 41.Bf1 Ng5 First and foremost, this is blitz, and the players are down to only the seconds of their increment by this stage, so they are playing very much on instinct. That said, the engines say that stronger was 41…Ne1! just denying White the crucial g2 square for his bishop. Now things do get really tricky for White – and there could well be a finesse I’m missing that allows a draw in the R+P ending – but Black looks to have an ace up his sleeve with 42.Rh5 Kg6 43.Rh4 Kg5 44.Rh7 Nd3+! 45.Bxd3 exd3 46.a7 Rc8 47.Rc7 Ra8 48.Kc3 h2 49.Rh7 d2!! Admittedly all difficult to spot with both players down to seconds on their clocks. 50.Kxd2 g3! The sting in the tail…and the truth is that to see 50…g3!, then you first had to spot the more difficult previous move also 51.fxg3 Rxa7! 52.Rh8 Ra6! And now, with no way to stop …Rh6 winning, White has to go into the equally losing 53.Rxh2 Ra2+ 54.Kd3 Rxh2 and with accurate play Black will capture both pawns. 42.Kc3 e3 43.fxe3 g3 44.Rd4 Kf5 45.Rf4+ Despite the obvious blitz time constraint, kudos to both players for finding the best moves to save/win the game. 45…Ke5 46.Bxh3?? The tricky ending has become a lottery with it being blitz – but unfortunately someone has to lose this epic clash, and Carlsen simply had to find 46.Rg4! Ne4+ 47.Kb2 g2 48.Bxg2 hxg2 49.Rxg2 and White does draw. But now he’s lost as he’s overlooked a deadly knight fork. A sad end to a truly wonderful blitz battle between the two players. 46…Nxh3 47.Rg4 Nf2! [see diagram] And Carlsen discovers there’s a sting in the tail, as he can’t capture now on g3 as he intended, as …Ne4+ wins the rook. 48.Rg7 Kf6 To compound Carlsen’s woes, now his rook finds itself embarrassingly short of squares. 49.Rxg3 Ne4+ 50.Kc4 Nxg3 51.b4 Ne4 52.Kd5 Rxb4 53.Kc6 Ra4 54.Kb6 Nd6 0-1