18-year-old Alireza Firouzja’s reign of terror against 2600 players continued as he beat Dimitrios Mastrovasilis and Baadur Jobava to reach a stunning 6.5/7 and climb to 2798.9 on the live rating list. If he didn’t play again he’d overtake Ding Liren as world no. 2, but his sights will be set on crossing 2800 at a younger age than Magnus Carlsen. Firouzja’s France now face Russia, whose first loss of a game, Kirill Alekseenko’s loss to Kirill Shevchenko of Ukraine, cost them a match defeat. Azerbaijan joined Ukraine in the lead with two rounds to go.
The 2021 European Team Chess Championship remains the Alireza Firouzja show, with the 18-year-old posting the kind of performance by a youngster we haven’t seen often in chess history. The 8.5/9 Vladimir Kramnik scored as a 16-year-old after Garry Kasparov backed him to play in the 1992 Chess Olympiad comes to mind, though so far Firouzja’s 3056 performance is better than Kramnik’s 2958.
It’s not just the results, however, but the seeming inevitability with which he’s been bamboozling strong grandmasters. In Round 6 it was the turn of Greece’s 2619-rated Dimitrios Mastrovasilis, who had scored two wins and three draws in the event to date. Firouzja succeeded in reaching an unbalanced queenless middlegame with a better pawn structure and pieces, but it was very much an open question if that would be enough.
As the time control approached Firouzja grabbed a pawn at the cost of allowing Dimitrios’ king to break through into the centre, where it could support his passed e-pawn. It was extremely sharp, but down to just seven seconds Dimitrios cracked.
With time to think he would likely have found 39…Bf1, or the stylish 39…Rh7! The point is that after 40.Rxb5 — and White has nothing better — Black forces an instant draw with 40…Rh1+ 41.Kd2 e3+ 42.Ke2 Rh2+ and the king can’t escape since 43.Kf3?? Rf2# is checkmate.
Instead 39…Be8? was the losing move, running into 40.Kd2! e3+ 41.Ke1! — an essential detail not to allow the bishop to enter the game with check.
This was all blitzed out, and now Black took a long think, but could only confirm that the position was hopeless. 41…Rh7 now fails concretely to 42.Nb3+! Ke4 43.Re6+! Kf3 44.Nd4+ and the e3-pawn is eliminated, with the white queenside pawns ready to win the game.
In the game we saw something very similar: 41…Ke4 42.Re6+ Kf3 43.Nb3 Bg6 44.Nd4+ Kxg3 45.Rxe3+ and it was soon game over. This is the final position.
There was an element of luck in the error that came just before the time control, but it was an error forced by the pressure Alireza applied by taking risks and making his opponent calculate a complex position with limited time.
In Round 7 Alireza was facing Baadur Jobava, which was bad news for his chances of crossing 2800 quickly on the live rating list. Jobava is currently rated a mere 2582, which meant a win wouldn’t be enough for Alireza to cross 2800.
The Georgian grandmaster is also an extremely talented player with a peak rating of 2734, and after losing to Anish Giri in Round 1 he had been playing well. His win over Turkey’s Mustafa Yilmaz in Round 6 featured the amazing resource 23.Be7!
The point is 23…Rxe7 24.Nc6!, forcing 24…bxc6 25.Rxa8 Re8, though it turns out the position after e.g. 26.Bxc6 Rf8 is equal, and this was Black’s best option. Understandably shaken, Mustafa instead went astray with 23…Be6!? and remarkably soon found himself lost.
The Firouzja-Jobava game was everything we could expect between two such combative players. Baadur chose Alireza’s favourite weapon with Black, the Caro-Kann, and a complex strategic struggle ensued. It felt it could go either way, but once again, approaching the time control, Alireza took over.
It wasn’t easy, and the computer flags up inaccuracies, but the main thing was that Alireza chose to maintain the tension.
White is running risks, since long-term the a4-pawn can’t be defended, and at this stage the three remaining games in the match had been drawn, so that a loss would mean a match defeat for France. Alireza might therefore have been tempted to go for a forcing move such as 39.Nxg6!?, when he has at least a draw.
Instead, after an almost 8-minute think, he opted for the best move in the position 39.Qh6! and after 39…Qf8 40.Qh4 Qg7 41.Nh5! Baadur cracked just when he had an extra half hour to think about the position, with 41…Qh6? (41…Qh8! was essential)
Alireza had it all figured out and quickly replied 42.Rg4!, with the point that after 42…Kf8 43.Qf6 Black can’t play 43…Qxh5 due to 44.Rh4. By this stage, however, there was nothing else, and 43…Nd8 also ran into 44.Rh4! Kg8 45.Ng5 Bd1.
46.f3 is enough here, but Alireza got to finish off a remarkable final attack with the queen sacrifice 46.Qxd8+!
Baadur resigned, since 46…Rxd8 runs into 47.Nf6+ Kg7 48.Rxh6 Kxh6 49.Nxf7+ and White is a piece up. Yet another tour de force from the young French-Iranian star.
If Alireza didn’t play any more games in the European Team Championship his rating would be rounded from 2798.9 up to 2799, and he’d take the world no. 2 spot from Ding Liren on the December FIDE rating list based on having played more games. Neither France nor Firouzja will want him to stop just yet, however, with reaching 2800 at a younger age than Magnus Carlsen a very achievable goal.
In fact we now know that in Round 8 Alireza will have the black pieces against Alexander Grischuk, who so far has drawn all seven of his games. Although only a win away from 2800, it’s likely Alireza would be satisfied with a draw, but in this context it’s perhaps worth recalling what Grischuk said in 2011 when Vlad Tkachiev asked him about his own generation.
Tkachiev: But that also means there wasn’t a new Kasparov among you.
Grischuk: Yes, but you’ve got to understand that if you look at it in terms of gastronomic comparisons, then Kasparov is black caviar, the highest grade. Perhaps in the whole history of chess there have only been two others, Fischer and Karpov. And then you have Anand — wonderful, luxurious caviar, but red. It’s the same with Kramnik and Aronian — fine red caviar of the highest quality. It’s not yet clear with Carlsen: he’s got the potential to change colour and enter the “deluxe” class.
It’s fair to say that by now Magnus has “changed colour”, while it’s much too early to know for sure about Firouzja, but he clearly has the potential to be something very special.
France’s opponents Russia, meanwhile, suffered their first major setback of the European Team Championship in Round 7, just after a win by Daniil Dubov had given them the sole lead in Round 6. Daniil had opened with the combative 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 b5 and outplayed his Hungarian opponent Tamas Banusz in a complex middlegame and ending. The final move was a nice touch.
40…Kc6! and White resigned. 41.Bxa3 e3! and one of the black pawns queens.
Russia hadn’t been firing on all cylinders, but all their players were unbeaten until the Round 7 clash with Ukraine. Three games were drawn, with Vladislav Artemiev missing some chances in a wild game against Volodymyr Onyshchuk, so that it all came down to the battle of the Kirills, Shevchenko vs. Alekseenko.
In a tense struggle Alekseenko missed the right moment to play f5 and only went for it when it was losing. He had nothing better than to resign on move 30.
31.Ng6+ will be devastating, and there’s nothing Black can do to stop it. It was another big win for Kirill Shevchenko, who recently won the Lindores Abbey Blitz in Riga.
That win saw Ukraine, who were silver medalists in 2019, leapfrog Russia into first place, where they were joined by Azerbaijan, European Team Champions in 2017, 2013 and 2009. Nijat Abasov’s win over Erik van den Doel gave Azerbaijan a crucial victory over the Netherlands, so that the standings look as follows with two rounds to go.
As you can see, Spain are in the group of teams just a point behind the leaders, and we can’t end without a mention for Alexei Shirov, whose fine recent form has put him on the brink of a return to the 2700 club at the age of 49.
His win over Bogdan-Daniel Deac of Romania in Round 6 was spectacular, featuring a brilliancy that could have backfired. 26…Rb4? 27.Rxf5 fxe6 was the key position.
28.Re1! and White wins, but Deac fell into a trap with 28.dxe6? which was hit by 28…Be4!, attacking the queen and rook, and suddenly it was Black who was winning. 29.Rf7 at first glance seemed to rescue a draw, but 29…Qg5!, threatening mate on g2, was game over. Deac had to bring the queen back to f1 to defend, but that left the bishop on b3 en prise.
Meanwhile in the women’s event clear top seeds Russia continue to make things look very easy, as their perfect run sees them with a 3-point lead and every chance to seal victory with a round to spare when they take on Ukraine in Round 8.
Curiously, however, Ukraine have reinforcements, since Anna Ushenina tested positive for the coronavirus and the regulations allowed Anna Muzychuk, who didn’t start the event in the team line-up, to be brought in as a replacement. She’ll now face Aleksandra Goryachkina on top board in the key battle.