Alireza Firouzja is youngest 2800 ever | Ukraine take gold

18-year-old Alireza Firouzja will be the 2804-rated world no. 2 when the official FIDE rating list is published on December 1st, beating Magnus Carlsen’s own record for crossing that landmark by six months. Alireza made it with a dramatic win over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov that saw his team France come within a whisker of winning the European Team Chess Championship before Ukraine took the title on tiebreaks. Poland took bronze, while in the women’s event it was 1.Russia, 2.Georgia, 3.Azerbaijan.

The 2021 European Team Chess Championship has been all about the performance of Alireza Firouzja, who has been in stunning form since losing to Magnus Carlsen in Round 6 of Norway Chess. He won his last four games in Stavanger, then won the Grand Swiss in Riga and qualified for the Candidates, before now going on to produce a staggering 3015 rating performance in Terme Catez, Slovenia.

Magnus Carlsen became an official 2800 player on the November 1st 2009 FIDE rating list, the same month in which he turned 19. 

He did that by picking up 28.8 points in the Pearl Spring event in Nanjing, China (which ended October 9th), where he scored a stunning 8/10 for a 3002 rating performance. On the November list he was rated 2801 to world no. 1 Veselin Topalov’s 2810.

Alireza Firouzja only turns 19 on June 18, so has broken the record for the age of reaching 2800 by six months, but there’s a real battle on for another record. On the next FIDE rating list in January 2010 (they were bi-monthly at the time), Magnus Carlsen was already officially the world no. 1, at the age of 19 years, 1 month and 2 days. Given the current 52-point lead of Magnus on the live rating list that may be tough for Alireza to break.

Things could change quickly, however, with Carlsen’s 74-point lead over Ian Nepomniachtchi leaving him in ratings jeopardy during the World Championship match in Dubai, while Alireza Firouzja doesn’t feel like a young man who’s likely to rest on his laurels. He’s already the 14th highest rated player of all time.

You might blame the 15th, Anish Giri!

When we left the Firouzja story in our last report on Rounds 6 and 7, a win over Baadur Jobava had taken Alireza to 2798.9, just a single win away from 2800. He faced his biggest test of the event yet in the next game, when he took on Russia’s Alexander Grischuk, who had drawn all seven of his previous games. 

Alireza’s 20…Bxb5?! invited trouble.

It was much safer to take on b5 with the rook, since after 21.Bxf7+! Rxf7 Alexander now had 22.Qb3! and after 22…d5 23.Nxf7 Kxf7 24.exd5 Qxd5 White was clearly on top.

In hindsight 25.Qc3!, keeping queens on the board, might have had greater chances of success, since after 25.Qxd5+ Nxd5 26.Rxe5 Alireza put his advantage on the clock to good use as he traded down into a worse but drawish endgame. 

The playing of technical endgames has so far been considered Alireza’s Achilles’ heel, but as was noted after he suffered some painful losses, it’s a skill that’s eminently trainable for a young player. It looks as though that’s just what Alireza has done, and he went on to hold the ending a pawn down in 86 moves, ending with a pretty stalemate.

Grischuk wasn’t only playing on for so long to probe a perceived weakness in the youngster’s game, but because Maxime Lagarde had defeated Andrey Esipenko and it was the last chance for defending champions Russia. Their 2.5:1.5 match defeat meant that despite losing just two games all tournament, they’d lost two matches in a row and now had no medal hopes going into the final round.

For France, meanwhile, gold was attainable as they took on Azerbaijan in the final round. Alireza Firouzja found himself for the first time all tournament on the top board of the top table, and the opening followed a huge recent game for Firouzja, his victory over David Howell in the penultimate round of the FIDE Grand Swiss.

Alireza here chose not the 10.Bb5 from that game, but 10.Bxe6, saying afterwards that he chose, “just to play a solid position — White is nominally better, but it’s nothing, of course”. Firouzja was talking afterwards on the official broadcast.

Mamedyarov’s 15…b5!? was the first move Alireza hadn’t looked at in his preparation, while the moment when the dream came alive was when Shakhriyar went for 18…Qe8?! instead of 18…Nd5!, which Alireza felt was likely a draw. 

The point was the follow-up 19.g3!, with Alireza commenting:

Qe8 is dubious and probably he missed g3, and then here I’m better, because if he goes back with the knight my structure is much better. 

Mamedyarov went for 19…Nxh3!? and later came up with what Alireza termed an “amazing” resource, playing 24…Rf8! and offering up his knight on c6, though after 25.Rh1 Alireza pointed out an inaccuracy which prolonged the game. 

25…g6?! was a loose move, compared to the more accurate 25…Qf6!, which Alireza felt Shakh might have rejected because 26.g4 Rf4 27.Qh7+ is “a little scary”, though in fact after 27…Kf7 Black is even winning there. 

In the game we got to see the point of Mamedyarov’s defence, since 26.Qxc6 was met by 26…g4!  27.Kg1 Rxf3 28.Rxf3 Qxf3 29.Qxe6+

With the black pawn still on g7 Black simply draws with Rf7 here, but with the pawn on g6 29…Rf7? not only leaves the g6-pawn en prise, but 30.Qe8+ Kg7 31.Qh8# is checkmate. 

That meant 29…Qf7 had to be played, and after 30.Qxf7+ Rxf7 31.Rh4 we got a tricky rook ending. There were ways for Mamedyarov to go wrong before the time control — the plausible 38…Rxb5? loses, for instance — but Shakh held things together until he seemed to be almost home and dry. 

Alireza here felt that Mamedyarov should just have moved his king and was shocked after the game to find that 42…e4!? wasn’t objectively a bad move.

e4 is ok, wow! After e4 I thought it’s very tricky.

It soon did get very tricky indeed. 

This was peak tension, with the other games in the match having been drawn, so that the fate not just of Alireza Firouzja but of medals for France and Azerbaijan rested on this game. And now the tablebases — a look-up table of all possible positions when there are seven or less pieces on a chessboard that tells you instantly if a move wins or draws — were pointing out that only 48…Rf3! was still a draw.

“This is very difficult! This pawn endgame is a draw? Wow!” was Alireza’s reaction afterwards, and entering the pawn endgame after 49.Rxf3 exf3 was something you could only do if you were sure it was a draw, or perhaps also if you could see that all the alternatives were losing. Instead Mamedyarov played 48…Kd4, a move Alireza half-expected, but after 49.Kg2! Rb7 50.Kh3 Ke5 51.g4! the g-pawn was unstoppable and Shakhriyar resigned.

It was a stunning end to a stunning tournament for Alireza Firouzja, who of course took the individual gold medal on top board to add to his other achievements. 

For a description of where Firouzja is now it’s worth repeating Vishy Anand’s comments while commentating on Tata Steel Chess India in Kolkata (check out our full report).

Like everyone else, I’m slightly breathless from watching him. It’s insane! People at 2775 don’t gain 25 points in one tournament, or whatever he’s doing. Last year everyone already understood that he was a phenomenal talent. He won these four games in Wijk, and even though he ended up losing a lot of games later, everybody understood that he’s going to be there. But such a rapid rise? He must have been shocked with his own performance in the World Cup, but to win the Grand Swiss in such style and then go on to play the thing here. Now I think people are impatient already — can we have the next match, with him and Magnus! 

I’m very excited to see him in the Candidates. What can you say? He creates positions, he wins them, he scores points very heavily, and he’s able to win every kind of position. He’s everything you’d want in a chess player. It’s phenomenal to watch! 

He’s one of these players you watch just in admiration, he’s so overflowing with talent.

All that stopped it being an absolutely perfect day for Firouzja was that France missed out on overall gold medals when the complicated tiebreaks could finally be calculated and it was Ukraine who finished on top. 

Ukraine had known tiebreak heartbreak themselves when they lost out to the USA after tying for 1st place in the 2016 Olympiad, while they’ve been building up to this European Team Chess Championship victory. They took bronze in 2017, silver in 2019 and have now won European gold for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. 

Ukraine’s final match against Armenia went like a dream, with Anton Korobov getting an enormous advantage and winning soon after Gabriel Sargissian decided to swap off queens.

Victory was sealed when the team’s main hero, Andrei Volokitin, picked up a 4th win, helped by Haik Martirosyan taking huge risks in a must-win position for his team. Volokitin’s 2824 performance was the second best in the tournament and gave him a gold medal on board 2.

The comparison of France and Ukraine makes for interesting viewing!

As you can see, Ukraine’s result was built on absolute solidity, as they didn’t lose a single game, but Volokitin won more games that the rest of his team combined, while Alireza Firouzja alone scored as many wins as the whole Ukrainian team. You can also see what a heroic effort it was for the 18-year-old, since he almost single-handedly won gold while his teammates all under-performed compared to their rating. 

The battle for bronze was also intense, with Poland managing to edge out Spain, helped partly by their resounding win over Georgia in the final round. 

Jan-Krzysztof Duda impressed on top board with a 2792 rating performance, enough for individual silver, but 33-year-old Wojciech Moranda deserves huge credit for coming back from an early loss to post a +3, 2699 performance that gave him silver on board 4.

For Spain, meanwhile, David Anton performed at 2755, but the headlines go to 49-year-old Alexei Shirov, who finished with draws against Duda and Giri for a 2788 performance, individual bronze on top board, and a triumphant reentrance into the 2700 club. Alexei is now rated 2702.1 and world no. 35, just a couple of points behind Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo. 

Russia’s disappointment in the Open tournament was, as so often in past team events, compensated for by gold medals in the European Women’s Team Championship. Russia lived up to their pre-tournament billing by winning all nine matches to clinch the title with a round to spare. It was their 4th title in a row and their 7th in the last eight European Championships. 

For a 3rd event in a row Georgia took silver, with Nana Dzagnidze and Lela Javakhishvili winning the individual gold medals on the top two boards. They’d also sealed the deal with a round to spare. 

The battle for bronze was much tighter, with Ukraine ultimately losing out on tiebreaks to Azerbaijan.

So that’s all for the European Team Championship, with all the chess world’s attention now set to switch to Dubai, where Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi are preparing to do battle, starting Friday, November 26th. Alireza Firouzja could potentially qualify for a World Championship match to be played in the first half of 2023, but who would he face? And who would he have to overcome in the Candidates Tournament next year?

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