The French Resistance - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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In the modern era, France has not been associated with chess board supremacy. For that, we need to hark back to two centuries ago when the Café de la Régence in Paris was the venue of choice where the world’s best players met. In the 1820s Louis-Charles Mahé de la Bourdonnais was considered the strongest player in the world, having defeated his mentor Alexandre Deschapelles.

But fast forward two hundred years, and currently flying high once again at the Saint Louis Chess Club – certainly the Café de la Régence of today – is the red, white and blue tricolore, with both Alireza Firouzja and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the French No 1 & 2 respectively, leading the resistance in the first stage of the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz, the penultimate event of the 2022 Grand Chess Tour season.

Firouzja and Vachier-Lagrave have both been in inspired form and took the honours at the end of day three of the rapid, with Sam Shankland just one point behind the joint-leaders – but how the former US champion must have been kicking himself after missing a study-like win against Firouzja in a wild game that would instead have seen him join Vachier-Lagrave in the joint-lead.

But it is not all over, as there are 18 more points to be fought over with the remaining two days of the double-round blitz tournaments. All score from the rapid now carries forward to the blitz to find the eventual winner, and if not, a potential playoff beckons.

There’s coverage of the final day of the 2022 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz on Tuesday August 30th at 1:00 PM CDT with live coverage with the Grandmaster trio of Yasser Seirawan, Peter Svidler & Cristian Chirila at grandchesstour.org/live.

Rapid final standings:
1-2. A. Firouzja (France), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 11/18; 3. S. Shankland (USA) 10; 4-6. I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), J. Xiong (USA) 9; 7-9. F. Caruana (USA), L. Aronian (USA), L. Dominguez (USA) 8; 10. H Nakamura (USA) 7. (All points now carry over to the blitz, where a win scores 1 point and a half-point for a draw)

GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Sam Shankland
Saint Louis Rapid, (3)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Berlin
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 This seems the acceptable antidote now to the notorious ‘Berlin Wall’ Endgame. 4…Bc5 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nbd2 Bd6 7.Nc4 Qe7 8.h3 Nd7 9.0-0 Nb6 10.Ne3 f6 11.a4 Be6 12.a5 Nd7 13.d4 g6 14.a6! Promising an intriguing struggle ahead for both sides – Firouzja chips away at Shankland’s pawn structure, softening it up for the endgame, while the American puts his hopes on the bishop-pair to negate this. 14…b6 15.c4 c5? More prudent would have been 15…exd4! 16.Nxd4 Ne5 17.Qe2 Bc5 18.Nxe6 Qxe6 and Black stands no worse. 16.dxc5 Stronger looked 16.d5! Bf7 17.Qa4 and Black clearly has problems with the light-square weakness on the queenside. 16…Nxc5 17.Nd5 Qf7 18.Re1 0-0 19.b4 Firouzja stakes his claim to be better with a big clamp on the queenside. 19…Nd7 20.b5 Nc5 21.Qc2 Rac8 22.Bh6 Rfd8 23.Rad1 c6 The crucial line had to be 23…g5!? threatening to win the trapped bishop, and forcing 24.h4 g4 25.Nd2 and only now 25…c6 with a slight plus. 24.bxc6 Nxa6 25.Nxf6+?! A risky try in an attempt to bamboozle your opponent, considering that 25.Qa4 Nc5 26.Qb5 Bc7 27.Ra1! a6 28.Qb1 and White clearly has the better prospects of exploiting the queenside frailties. 25…Qxf6 26.Bg5 Qg7 27.Bxd8 Rxd8 28.Rd2 Qc7 29.Qb2 Be7? Predictably, our ‘Silicon Overlords’ see through such complicated positions and have no hesitation in retreating pieces, showing that to retain the advantage, Black has to play 29…Nb8! as the obvious 30.Nxe5 gets into difficulties after 30…Rf8! 31.Ng4 (Best to try to restrict the scope of the bishop-pair. If 31.Nf3 Nxc6 32.Ng5 Bc8 with …Bc5 and …Ne5 coming.) 31…Bxg4 32.hxg4 Nxc6 and Black is well on top with …Bc5, …Qf4 and …Ne5 looming. 30.Rxd8+ Bxd8 31.Qxe5 Suddenly White is out of the danger zone with the major pieces being traded. 31…Qxe5 32.Nxe5 Nb4 33.c5?! Better and safer was 33.Rd1 Bc7 34.f4 where Black has the advantage, but with careful play it is going to be difficult to convert for a win. 33…b5 34.Rd1 Bc7 35.Rd6!?! It looks very dangerous from Firouzja, but it is, in fact, just a bluff – but I can only imagine that Firouzja had seen this possibility when he played 33.c5, believing this might well be his only hopes of saving the game. That said, this is the sort of position where you should ‘mix it’ up rather than try to play safe with 35.f4 a5 36.Rb1 Kf8 37.h4 Ke7 38.Kf2 Bxe5 39.fxe5 Bc4 and Black will just start picking off the loose double pawns. 35…Bxd6?! Short of time, it was difficult for Sam to find the calm retreat of 35…Bc8! forcing 36.Rd4 and now 36…a5 37.f4 Kg7 and Black is well on top – but it is still a very complicated position to fathom out all the tricks. 36.cxd6 Kf8 37.f4 a5 38.g4 The pawns do look threatening with f5 looming. 38…Nxc6! The only route now to equality – but it is still a minefield for both players. 39.Nxc6 a4 40.f5 Also safe was 40.Kf2, but in such scenarios creating your own threats makes your opponent more worried – and have them eat up time on the clock! 40…gxf5 41.gxf5 a3! The only move now – and you could sense in the body language of the players that one slip-up could would prove fatal for either side. 42.fxe6 a2 43.d7 Both sides queen their pawn – but crucially, Sam gets to queen his first and with check. 43…a1Q+ 44.Kg2 Qb2+ 45.Kf3 Qc3+ It’s easy to be critical here, but for both players, with the wild complications of a tricky ending, not to mention both mutually running short of time, it was difficult to see that the easy draw was 45…Qf6+ 46.Ke2 Qb2+ 47.Kf1 Qf6+ 48.Ke2 Qb2+ etc. 46.Kg4 h5+ 47.Kxh5?? [see diagram] The safe bet was 47.Kg5! Qe3+ 48.Kf5 Qf3+ 49.Ke5 Qg3+ 50.Kd5 Qb3+ 51.Ke5 and again a repetition – but what harm can there be by snatching a pawn and putting your king to the edge of the board? 47…Qxh3+? To be fair to both players, with flags metaphorically hanging now on their digital clock, any form of endgame finesses go right out the window! Remarkably, with Firouzja’s king now on the edge of the board, Sam missed the wonderful study-like endgame win with 47…Qxc6!! 48.d8Q+ Qe8+ Ouch! The reason why 47.Kxh5 was a lemon, as Black can transition down to a won K+P endgame where the White king has wandered too far from the now problematic b-pawn. 49.Qxe8+ Kxe8 50.Kg5 b4 and the b-pawn can’t be stopped. You live and learn. Well, you live anyway! 48.Kg5 Qg3+ Now both players settle on the draw – but the look on Sam’s face said it all when it was pointed out to him that he’d missed the win. 49.Kf5 Qf2+ 50.Kg4 Qg2+ 51.Kf5 Qf2+ 52.Kg4 Qg2+ 53.Kf5 Qf2+ ½-½

 

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