As Magnus Carlsen begins the process of abdicating his world crown, with fine timing the newer generation now begin the jostle to become his successor. Last month India’s juniors were on fire, as a teenage squad captured everyone’s heart and Olympiad bronze. And now rediscovering his mojo comes Alireza Firouzja, as the Iranian-born French prodigy demolished the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz field with a Carlsen-like performance to capture title by a big margin.
Nineteen-year-old Firouzja – seen by many for a long time to be Carlsen’s heir – dominated the penultimate event of the 2022 Grand Chess Tour season, held at the Saint Louis Chess Club, not only sharing first equal in the rapid stage with his countryman, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but then going on to blow the field away in the blitz, as he stormed to the title with a staggering four rounds to spare, in the process becoming the youngest player ever to capture a GCT tournament!
With just one loss in 27 games in the blitz, Firouzja, soared 107 rating points to surpass the 2900 threshold in the FIDE blitz ratings; and in the wake of that score, he also took the overall title with a phenomenal 26 out of a possible 36 points, five points clear of defending champion Hikaru Nakamura. Firouzja’s 15/18 score in the blitz equates to a 3027 rating performance, which makes it one of the highest ever in a top speed event like this – and almost immediately had the fans making comparisons with Bobby Fischer’s domination at the 1970 Herceg Novi blitz event in Belgrade, seen as the strongest blitz tournament of the 20th Century, as the American grandmaster, en route to the world crown half a century ago, scored 19/22 to win by a 4½ point margin ahead of Mikhail Tal.
The STL Rapid & Blitz is the curtain-raiser to the main event, as the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup, the finale of the GCT season, is now the next big event on the horizon. And while it’s now a French one-two atop of the Tour standings, with MVL and Firouzja locked in a battle for the grand prize, entering the fray comes Carlsen himself with a Tour wildcard as the Norwegian goes for a record third Sinquefield Cup title.
The full Sinquefield Cup line-up (in rating order) is: Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Fide), Alireza Firouzja (France), Wesley So (USA), Levon Aronian (USA), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Leinier Dominguez (USA) and Hans Niemann (USA).
Play gets underway in the marquee event of the GCT season, with the Sinquefield Cup running September 2nd through 13th at the Saint Louis Chess Club. There’s coverage throughout starting on Friday 2 September at 1:00 PM CDT with live commentary from the Grandmaster trio of Yasser Seirawan, Peter Svidler & Cristian Chirila at grandchesstour.org/live.
1. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 26.5 ($127, 667); 2. A. Firouzja (France) 25.5 ($84.750; 3. L. Aronian (USA) 22.5 ($104,667); 4. W. So (USA) 22.5 ($100,167); 5. F. Caruana (USA) 20.5 ($68,833); 6. I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 16 ($49,750); 7. L. Dominguez (USA) 10.5 ($42,833); 8. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 10 ($32,250); 9. R. Rapport (Hungary) 6.5 ($22,750).
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Alireza Firouzja
Saint Louis Blitz, (12)
1.Nf3 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.b3 We’ve transposed now into the Nimzo-Larsen Attack, a long-time Nakamura favourite – and in the provocative style that the great Dane Bent Larsen himself loved to play with c4. 4…c5 5.Bb2 Nc6 6.cxd5 exd5 7.Bb5 Bd6 8.0-0 0-0 9.d4 cxd4 10.Nxd4 Bc7 11.Nd2 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 On the positive side for Nakamura, if he can find a way to get all the pieces off the board, then he’ll stand slightly better come the endgame due to Black’s isolated d-pawn. But more worrying for the speed maven is Firouzja’s pieces being ideally-placed to launch a kingside attack rather than have to worry about the endgame! 12…Qd6 13.g3 Well, it’s the obvious way to defend against the mate, but it does open up a light-square weakness around Nakamura’s king. 13…Ba5 14.a3 Bh3 15.Re1 Bxd2 A brave decision from Firouzja to voluntarily cede the bishop-pair – but he clearly has attacking ideas in mind with the imaginative knight hop of e4-g5-f3+. 16.Qxd2 Ne4 17.Qe2 Rac8 18.Bd3 Bf5 19.b4 Qg6 20.Red1 Ng5 21.f4? The position was becoming increasingly problematic for Nakamura, and this desperate lunge only compounds his problems. There was better chances of salvation with the more obvious way to kick the knight with 21.h4! Bxd3 22.Qxd3 Nf3+ 23.Kf1 (Definitely not 23.Kg2? Nxh4+!; And also bad is 23.Kh1 Qg4! 24.Qf1 Rc2! and the only way to stop the mating threat of …Rxf2! is with 25.Kg2 Nxh4+ 26.Kh2 Nf3+ 27.Kg2 Qe4 28.Rac1 Nd2+ and again, White can resign.) 23…Qg4 24.Bxa7 Rfe8 and try to ride out the storm from here – it looks dangerous still, but White is also not without resources, such as 25.Qxd5 Rc2 The Black pieces look dangerous, but White has an escape with 26.Qd7! Qc4+ 27.Qd3 Qc6 where 28.b5! more or less forces Black to seek the bailout draw with 28…Nh2+ 29.Kg1 Nf3+ 30.Kf1 (Not falling for 30.Kh1?? Rxf2!! 31.Rd2 Qe6 forcing either a mate or a heavy win of material.) 30…Nh2+ etc. 21…Bxd3 22.Qxd3 Nf3+ 23.Kg2? [see diagram] Nakamura is well and truly busted, but he simply had to play 23.Kf2 – and well soon see why. 23…Rc2+ Being blitz, this is a clear case of Firouzja “premoving” in his head, fully expecting Nakamura to play 23.Kf2 where 23…Rc2+ is indeed the winning move – but by instead going to g2, he’s overlooked the simple win-on-the-spot tactic of 23…Ne1+! 24.Rxe1 Qxd3 which would have saved a lot of time, effort and frayed nerves – not to mention this columnists’ further annotations! 24.Qxc2 Qxc2+ 25.Kxf3 Rc8 26.Re1 Qxh2 The game is technically over here as Firouzja sweeps up the loose pawns, reducing Nakamura to desperately trying to orchestrate a fortress to somehow save the game. 27.Rac1 Rc2 28.Rxc2 Qxc2 29.Bxa7 f6 Stopping any back-rank embarrassments and restricting the scope of Nakamura’s bishop from its outpost on d4. 30.Bd4 Kf7 31.Re2 Qe4+ 32.Kf2 b5 With the big clamp now on the queenside, Firouzja can begin to ramp up the pressure by pushing up his kingside pawns. 33.Rd2 g5! 34.fxg5 Forced, otherwise …g4 and …Qf3+ will win the g3-pawn. 34…fxg5 35.Kg1 Kg6 36.Bc5 Qf3 37.Kh2 Qe4 38.Bd4 h5! Creating a passed pawn and exposing the White king will trump any hopes of a life-saving fortress. 39.Rf2 h4 40.gxh4 Qxh4+ 41.Kg2 Qe4+ 42.Kg1 Qb1+ Even quicker was the immediate 42…Qd3! as the a-pawn can’t be defended against. 43.Kh2 Qd3 44.Kg3 Qe4?! I don’t know what spooked Firouzja, but better was simply 44…Qxa3 45.Kg4 Qa6! covering against Rf6+ and, with …Qe6+ coming next, eventually White is going to run out of moves and ideas. 45.Kh2? Not the best saving try, but this is blitz, and the players were frantically flicking out moves by this stage – but the engine sees a shimmer of hope with 45.Rh2 Qb1 (It looks tempting to now play 45…g4 but after 46.Rf2 Kg5 47.Rf4 Qe6 48.Rf8! Qd6+ 49.Rf4 suddenly the g4 pawn weakness becomes a stumbling block of trying to win this now difficult position, as White is well on the road to having the game-saving fortress.) 46.Rf2 Qg1+ 47.Rg2 Qc1 48.Rb2 but after 48…Kf5! 49.Rf2+ Ke4 the king creeping into the position should be enough to force a win. 45…Kh5 46.Kg3 Qg4+ It’s just a matter of time before Nakamura runs out of useful moves to maintain his fortress hopes. 47.Kh2 Qd1 Again, this is blitz and we’re down to living off the fumes of the increment, but the quick way to victory now is 47…Kh4! 48.Kh1 (If 48.Rg2 Qf3! 49.Kg1 g4 50.Rh2+ Kg5! 51.Rf2 Qg3+ 52.Kf1 Qh3+ 53.Ke2 g3 and there’s no stopping the g-pawn.) 48…Qe4+ 49.Kg1 g4 50.Rh2+ Kg5 and we reach a scenario akin to the above note. 48.Rg2 Kg6 49.Bc5 Despite how he got into this predicament, you have to admire Nakamura’s ability to stay in the game as long as he has – and this is the main reason why he can be a difficult opponent to beat. 49…Qh5+ 50.Kg1 Qd1+ 51.Kh2 Qh5+ Firouzja is just accruing some valuable increment time on his clock by repeating moves. 52.Kg1 Qf3 53.Bd4 Qd1+ 54.Kh2 Qd3 More accurate was 54…Qb3! just winning the a3-pawn – but the win is now coming regardless of how Firouzja gets there. 55.Bc5 Qxa3 56.Rd2 Qb3 57.Kg3 Qc4 58.Rd4 Qf1 59.Rd2 Qe1+ 60.Rf2 Kh5 61.Kg2 Kg4 With the king now entering the fray, the win can’t be very far behind it. 62.Ra2? Always hard to be critical in blitz with just seconds left on someone’s clock, but 62.Rf3 instead would have offered up a little more resistance – but nothing to raise your hopes of saving the game, as now comes 62…Qe2+ 63.Rf2 Qd3 64.Kh2 Qe4 65.Bd4 Qe7! 66.Rg2+ (Or alternatively 66.Bc5 Qe5+ 67.Kg2 Kh4 68.Rf8 Qe4+ 69.Kf2 Qc2+ 70.Kg1 g4 etc.) 66…Kh4 67.Bc5 Qe5+ 68.Kg1 g4 69.Bd4 Qc7 70.Rh2+ Kg3 71.Rg2+ Kh3! with …g3 to follow and you all know the drill by now. 62…Qg3+ 63.Kh1 Kh3 0-1 And Nakamura resigns with mate unavoidable.