19-year-old Alireza Firouzja has regained the world no. 2 spot after beating World Champion Ding Liren in Round 5 of the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest. Ding had winning chances of his own, as did Ian Nepomniachtchi, who for most of the round was putting pressure on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. A few careless moves, however, and MVL took over to make it a red-letter day for French chess.
Sometimes the last day before a rest day can be quiet, with the players reluctant to risk spoiling their mood with a loss, but not this time, as both players from the recent World Championship match were put to the sword.
The headline result was the first loss as a World Champion for Ding Liren, especially as it came at the hands of the man Magnus Carlsen said he would have played a match against, Alireza Firouzja. The 19-year-old, who has lost four classical games and won none against Magnus, was asked how it felt to beat a World Champion.
I feel really happy. For sure it’s an easier World Champion than Magnus…
He seemed to realise he’d gone a bit far, before adding:
Of course, Ding is very strong, and I’m very happy to get this victory, because now I moved to +1, and it’s really important.
The opening was an echo of the match, as Ding Liren repeated the Anti-Berlin he’d played in Game 9 against Ian Nepomniachtchi. That game was played the day after training games between Ding and his second Richard Rapport, which featured this line, had become public knowledge.
Although Firouzja varied here with 9.Qc2, the players transposed and followed the earlier game until 11.h3.
The scenario of Game 9 of the match was also repeated, in that Ding seemed to get an excellent position out of the opening but then handled it unconvincingly. Firouzja felt that 18…h5 was “a bit aggressive” and called 20…g6?! “a terrible move” that left the black king weak.
21.Nd2! Nc5 and then the pawn sacrifice 22.Nf3! was the correct punishment, but after 22…hxg3 23.fxg3 Ncxe4 Firouzja confessed to losing his way.
His original plan wasn’t working.
First I thought I’m winning with 24.Qc2? in my calculation, but of course, 24…Qc5! and I lose! This was the first cold shower.
In that line it would be too late to retreat the c4-bishop, since 25.Ba2? would run into the crunching 25…Rd2+! and White has to give up the queen to stop checkmate.
24.Ba2! immediately, however, was the key move, and another echo of Game 9 of the match. Alireza called it “very difficult”, however, explaining that it was largely prophylactic to get the bishop out of the way of the coming Nd6.
Instead Alireza went for 24.Ng5?!, which he admitted “was not a good move”, though he also felt he should be no worse. The computer doesn’t entirely agree, and soon Alireza conceded things had gotten out of hand for him. The critical moment came when Ding chose the wrong knight on move 30 after thinking for almost 7 minutes.
Instead 30…Nde4! was winning, but only if you found the follow-up 31.Nxf7 Rxd1! 32.Rxd1 Nf2!, with the black queen getting the e4-square to attack the white king. Alireza called that “really crazy”, giving up the d-file for no obvious reason, while moves such as Bh6+ and Ng5 are in the air.
Just how difficult it all was to calculate was shown by Ding Liren after the game suggesting to Firouzja that 30…Nde4 was winning, but because of the follow-up 31.Nxf7 Rd2!?. In fact Ding’s line would lead to disaster: 32.Rxd2 Nxd2 33.Bh6+ Kh7 34.Rf4 Nh5? (34…Nde4! should hold).
Alireza pointed out 35.Ng5+! wins for White, with 35…Kxh6 running into 36.Rf7!, threatening mate-in-1 if the queen moves away.
In hindsight 30…Rf8, defending the f7-pawn, might have been a good practical choice for Ding, even if it feels strange to take a defender away from the e-pawn. Alireza felt at this point that Ding had settled for a draw, though it’s also possible that the Chinese star felt the forced line after 30…Nfe4 was simply winning.
31.Bxd6 Nxd6 32.Bxf7 Nxf7 33.Rxf7+ Qxf7 34.Nxf7 Rxd1 35.Qxd1 led to a position you could easily misjudge.
35…e2 would be winning for Black if not for 36.Qd7! e1=Q and then the only winning move 37.Ne5+!
Ding avoided that pitfall with 35…Kxf7, but after 36.Qe2 his next decision would cost him any chances of saving the game.
Firouzja felt he should be winning, but it seems Black might still be able to hold after 36…Kg7, or 36…Bc5, preparing to put the bishop on the more promising d6-square. Instead Ding thought for almost five minutes before abandoning the g6-pawn with 36…Ke7? Firouzja commented:
He thought here for 3-4 minutes and he thought that he’s just lost and he gave up, I think. He just wanted to make some move in the last chance.
Alireza understood he needed to get his king to safety, as he did with 37.Kf1 Rf8+ 38.Ke1, while 38…Rf2 only looked threatening.
“The rest is just easy”, said Alireza, who played 39.Qg4!, taking advantage of the weak g6-pawn, and then began pushing his pawns. Ding conceded defeat on move 52.
That win saw Alireza leapfrog Ding into the world no. 3 spot on the live rating list, but he didn’t have to wait long until he’d climbed to no. 2.
That was because Ian Nepomniachtchi, who just a couple of days ago had been on the brink of beating Ding Liren and crossing 2800 for the first time, instead drew that game, lost to Fabiano Caruana and now, in Round 5, crashed and burned against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
For most of the game that seemed a very unlikely outcome. You might have thought Nepomniachtchi was on tilt when he began with the Alapin, 1.e4 c5 2.c3, but he played fast and well, while Maxime admitted he’d misjudged the endgame. In fact he went as far as to say:
My position was shitty, there’s no other words! Pardon my French…
Maxime explained the issue:
He keeps all the pieces, my pawns are sometimes weak, and I don’t have so much space for my minor pieces.
Even relatively early on, however, you could ask some questions about Ian’s speed of play, for instance in going for 19.Ne3.
19.a5!? was at least an interesting try. Nevertheless, it was only around move 30 that White’s grip on the position weakened. Opening the h-file helped Maxime, while 35.Bd6 ran into the fine move 35…Nd7!
Before the bishop came to d6 the d-file was off limits for the knight, but now suddenly it had the perfect jumping off square on the way to c5 or e5. Maxime commented, “And here I thought 36.Bc7, he has to bail out, but of course it’s tempting to keep playing…”.
36.b3!? was played after 10 minutes, with Maxime finding the strong reply 36…f6!, and after 37.Ba3!? Ne5! the Frenchman was already taking over. A couple more moves, 38.Bb2 Rch8 39.Kf2? and Maxime was completely winning.
39…Rh2+! 40.Ng2 and only then 40…Nc5! is the computer-approved kill, but 39…Nc5 was also strong, and Maxime was suddenly a beast in the final stages of the game.
48…Rxf1+! 49.Kxf1 Rh1+ 50.Kf2 Ne4+ 51.Kxf3 (51.Ke3 Nxd2 52.Kxd2 f2 and the pawn queens) 51…Nxd2+ and MVL had won a piece. He then put no foot wrong before forcing resignation with the little tactic 58…a3!
59.Rxb3 loses the rook to 59…Rh3+. That win means that Maxime now has an even more incredible classical score against Ian of 7 wins to 1.
Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi may feel united in regretting agreeing to play in a major tournament so soon after an exhausting World Championship match, though of course in advance they had no way of knowing that it would go all the way to tiebreaks.
The remaining games in Bucharest were drawn, but only Duda-Caruana was relatively swift. Afterwards Jan-Krzysztof was kicking himself for not having looked at Fabiano’s 13…Ne7, a move played before by Levon Aronian and Daniil Dubov, while preparing:
Today also was another brilliancy, because I totally forgot to check the Ne7 move. It’s the main move…
Despite being out of book, however, you couldn’t really fault a single move Duda made in the remainder of the game. When Fabi forced a draw by perpetual check it brought an end to his 2-game winning streak.
That draw meant that Wesley So and Richard Rapport had a chance to catch Fabiano in the lead, and both came close.
Wesley predictably took few risks but nevertheless applied heavy pressure with the white pieces against tournament underdog Bogdan-Daniel Deac. It came close to working, but the difference between this and many of the Romanian’s other games in the tournament was that he was the player up on the clock.
Richard Rapport had the black pieces, but played the French against Anish Giri, got a new position in under 10 moves, and, when queens were traded, looked to have real winning chances. The white pieces all returned to the back rank and it seemed Black would be able to gradually up the pressure. As it turned out, however, it was necessary to act fast.
31…e3! might have kept winning chances, while after 31…f5 32.b5! White had sufficient counterplay. In fact it briefly seemed as though Anish might be able to nurse a passed c-pawn to victory, before the game fizzled out into a draw.
That meant Fabiano Caruana remains the sole leader going into the rest day, but Alireza Firouzja’s two wins in a row have seen him join Wesley So and Richard Rapport in 2nd place.
The battle for 1st place resumes with a vengeance on Friday with Caruana-Firouzja, Ding-So and MVL-Rapport.
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