Filling the Gap - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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It’s not long now to the finale of the Grand Chess Tour season, and conversely the marquee event of the US Chess calendar, as the annual Sinquefield Cup gets underway early next month, running September 1-13 at Rex Sinquefield’s hallowed chess venue of the Saint Louis Chess Club. And the curtain-raiser to the main event of the Tour is always the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, that’s now official underway and will run through August 24-31.

Sadly, missing though from both tournaments is Tour regular Richard Rapport due to continued Covid-19 travel restrictions, as the Hungarian falls into the same category as tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic, with the Serbian superstar announcing earlier this week that he also has to skip the US Open in Flushing Meadows due to his personal choice to remain unvaccinated.

Filling the gap is GM Jeffery Xiong who now replaces Rapport in the STL Rapid & Blitz event, while GM Hans Niemann takes Rapport’s place in the Sinquefield Cup. The full line-up for the STL Rapid & Blitz is: Alireza Firouzja, Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Jeffery Xiong, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Leinier Dominguez, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Sam Shankland.

Despite being on a US break though not yet in Saint Louis, paradoxically Magnus Carlsen proved to be a winner on day 1! Carlsen takes a wildcard slot in the Sinquefield Cup, but with his long-time rival and fellow influencer Hikaru Nakamura getting off to a bad start by losing his first two rapid games and thus haemorrhaging 20 rating points, the Norwegian now returns to his more familiar spot as world No.1 atop of the rapid live rating list.

But the real big winner of day 1 of the rapid was Alireza Firouzja, with the teenage ace on a roll by winning two classy games and drawing one – with wins counting 2-points and draws one-point for scoring purposes – to take the outright lead over the field.

Rapid day 1 standings:
1. A. Firouzja (France) 5/6; 2-4. J. Xiong (USA), L. Dominguez (USA), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 4; 5-6. S. Shankland (USA), I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 3; 7-9. F. Caruana (USA), L. Aronian (USA), H. Nakamura (USA) 2; 10. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 1.

GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Alireza Firouzja
Saint Louis Rapid, (2)
Reti’s Opening
1.Nf3 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.b3 Be7 5.Bb2 The Reti, named after one of the original pioneers of the hypermodern game, Austro-Hungarian Richard Reti (1889-1929), that sees White playing on the flanks to undermine Black’s centre. 5…0-0 6.g3 b6 7.Bg2 Bb7 8.0-0 c5 9.Qe2 Qc8 10.Nc3 Rd8 11.Rac1 Nc6 12.d3 d4 13.exd4 Nxd4! The correct re-capture, as with a lot of pieces suddenly being traded, Firouzja has excellent play as it will not be easy for Nakamura to find good squares for his remaining minor pieces. And adding to the problem, there’s going to be a long-term weakness with White’s backward d-pawn. 14.Nxd4 Bxg2 15.Kxg2 cxd4 16.Nb1 Qb7+ 17.Kg1 h5! Firouzja has a free and easy flowing game – and what exactly is Nakamura going to do to stop …h4 adding to his woes by weakening his kingside? 18.Nd2 The point of Firouzja’s play is that if 18.h4 Ng4 and Black has a simple plan of …e5 and …Bd6 to first bolster the d-pawn before throwing up the a- and b-pawns to wreck havoc on the queenside. 18…h4! A good pawn sacrifice, as Nakamura both can’t decline it while paradoxically accepting it comes with his kingside being crippled. 19.gxh4 Rac8 20.Qf3 Qa6! Of course, Firouzja trading queens would only have offered nothing but instant relief for Nakamura – but now there’s strong play on both the kingside and queenside. 21.Kh1 Instead if 21.a3 the same reply of 21…Rc5! is coming. But Nakamura tries to ‘mix it’ up a little creating something down the g-file. 21…Rc5! The rook lift is very strong, as it menacingly swings over to the kingside. 22.Rg1 Rf5 23.Qg2 Nh5 Both defending g7 and also attacking the h4-pawn. 24.a3 Bxh4 25.Rcf1 Nakamura is in a whole world of hurt with his pieces and position being ‘awkward’, to say the least, while Firouzja enjoys free and easy piece play. 25…g6 26.Ne4 Be7 27.Ng3 Nxg3+ 28.fxg3 b5! Nakamura really has done his best to hold his position together here. And while the engines will tell you that there is nothing to worry about, with the position being “0.00”, White just has a couple of niggling little pawn weaknesses that are just not so easy to defend. 29.g4 Rxf1 30.Rxf1 bxc4 31.bxc4 e5 Now it is abundantly clear to see that White has long-term problems with his a- and d-pawns heading into any endgame scenario. 32.Bc1 Rb8 33.Qf3? Allowing the queens to come off only compounds Nakamura’s endgame problems. Instead, a better chance to hold things together was with 33.Kg1! Qe6 (If 33…Qb7 34.Qf2 Bf8 35.h4! and the coming h5 prising open the kingside not only saves the game but offers White possible winning opportunities.) 34.Qe4 Rb1 35.h3 and although Black clearly stands a little better, it is difficult to see how any possible winning chances can be created with the queens still on the board. 33…Qb7! Firouzja doesn’t even think twice about trading the queens here – and with good reason, because how is Nakamura going to defend both the a- and the d-pawn? 34.Kg2 Qxf3+ 35.Kxf3 Rb1 Firouzja ruthlessly spots a way to force Nakamura into defending a hopelessly lost endgame. 36.Ke2 f5! With Nakamura’s rook tied down to defending the bishop for now, Firouzja just gets his ducks in a row to squeeze out the endgame win. 37.gxf5 gxf5 38.Kd2 Bxa3 39.c5! [see diagram] Nakamura never goes down without a fight, and this is the only try in a desperate situation – and it almost pays off! 39…Bxc5? Time is not your friend in rapid when it comes to subtle endgame finesses! Admittedly, the capture is the obvious move but perhaps it was just too obvious. After 39…Kf7! 40.Rxf5+ Ke6 White is forced into 41.Rf1 where now 41…Bxc5 42.Kc2 Ra1 43.Kb2 Ra3! 44.Rd1 (If 44.Kc2 Rc3+ 45.Kd2 Ba3 46.Bxa3 Rxa3 47.Rf8 (Just as bad was 47.h4 Ra2+ 48.Ke1 Ra1+! 49.Kf2 Rxf1+ 50.Kxf1 a5 and White can resign a pawn to the worse and with no way to stop two passed pawns running down the board.) 47…Ra2+ 48.Kc1 Rxh2 is easily winning.) 40.Rxf5 Bd6 41.Kc2 Remarkably, Nakamura comes very close to saving what looked a totally lost endgame just a couple of moves ago! 41…Rb7 42.h4 Rc7+ 43.Kd1? It’s a 50-50 call and Nakamura opts for the wrong side! After 43.Kb1! Rc3 44.Rf3 a5 (Not 44…e4? 45.Rf6! Bb4 46.dxe4 and White has saved the game.) 45.Bb2 Rb3 46.Kc2 a4 47.Rf6! Ba3 48.Bxa3 Rxa3 49.Re6 Ra2+ 50.Kc1 Re2 Black still has a lot of spade work left to convert this tricky R+P ending. It’s just not so easy. After, say 51.Ra6 Kf7 52.Rxa4 Rh2 53.Ra6! Rxh4 the Black king is cut off and you can envision White being able to save the game by taking the game down to a drawing R+P v R Philidor position, one of two famous rook endgames – the other being the winning Lucena position – that every player simply must know. 43…Rc3 44.Rf6 After 44.Kd2 a5! 45.Bb2 Rc8 46.Rf6 Rd8 47.h5 a4 48.Kc2 a3 49.Bc1 e4!! wins as 50.dxe4 d3+! 51.Kd1 (Not 51.Kxd3 Be7+ etc.) 51…d2! 52.Bxd2 a2 53.Bc3 Be5+ and its game over. 44…Ba3?! Not the best way to go about winning this, but there’s plenty of mitigating circumstances for not finding the correct technique with both player frantically scrambling to make their moves by this late stage in the game. But after the strategic retreat of 44…Bf8! 45.Rf3 a5! once again how is White going to stop the running a-pawn? 45.Bg5?? Time, pure and simple – not even speed maven Nakamura can come up with the saving resource of 45.Bd2! Rxd3 46.Kc2 Rh3 47.Re6! Rxh4 48.Rxe5 and once again heading for a likely draw, as Black can’t make progress having to constantly defend both pawns. 45…Rxd3+ 46.Ke2 No better was 46.Kc2 Rc3+ 47.Kb1 Bf8! 48.Rg6+ Bg7! 49.h5 (If 49.Bf6 Kf7! or 49.Bh6 Kh7! both win.) 49…Kf7 50.Ra6 Rc7 and the central passed pawns now storm down the board. 46…Rh3 47.Rg6+ Kf7 48.Rf6+ Kg7 49.Kf2 If 49.Re6 d3+ 50.Kd1 Bb4! easily wins as 51.Kc1 Bc3 52.Kb1 a5 etc. 49…Be7 0-1 Nakamura resigns, as this time after 50.Re6 there’s an easier way to win with 50…Bxg5! 51.hxg5 Re3 and the central pawns will soon be running down the board.

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