Firouzja wins Grand Swiss | Caruana in Candidates

18-year-old Alireza Firouzja has won the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss, qualified for his 1st Candidates Tournament and taken home the top prize of $70,000 after drawing his last round game against Grigoriy Oparin. There were draws on the top 13 boards, as Fabiano Caruana claimed the 2nd spot in the Candidates, while Oparin, Yu, Keymer, MVL, Predke and Shirov qualified for the Grand Prix. In the women’s event Elisabeth Paehtz took 2nd place behind Lei Tingjie on a day she also earned the grandmaster title.

After 11 gruelling rounds the Grand Swiss is over, and you can replay all the games using the selector below.

Alireza Firouzja is still on course to become the youngest undisputed World Chess Champion in history after qualifying for the 2022 Candidates Tournament. If he wins the Candidates he has the potential to challenge Magnus Carlsen or Ian Nepomniachtchi to a match in 2023 and, at the age of 19 or 20, smash the record of 22 years old set by Garry Kasparov and matched by Magnus — Ruslan Ponomariov won the FIDE title at the age of 18 in 2002, but in a knockout format at a time when Vladimir Kramnik held the title that mattered.

Alireza did it in style, taking sole first place in the Grand Swiss and the $70,000 top prize with a 2855 rating performance that saw him gain 11.5 rating points to move up to world no. 5. In fact his 2781.5 rating would be rounded up to Ian Nepomniachtchi’s 2782 and he’d take 4th place if the official rating list was published today. That’s academic, however, since he’ll now play for France in the European Team Championship that starts on Friday in Slovenia, so his rating is set to shift again.

The hard work had been done before the final round, with Alireza claiming he hadn’t felt he was a big favourite at the start of the event.

It was a very long tournament. When first I came here I thought my chances were very low, because the players are very experienced here and I didn’t see myself as a really big contender. Ratings-wise I was a contender, but in general these tournaments are really tricky and I’m happy that it ended very well.

With 6.5/8 after eight rounds Alireza was cruising, but then he hit the wall of Fabiano Caruana.

It was going very smooth and I had very comfortable positions until the Fabiano game, and after the Fabiano game it was getting very upsetting, because I had a good position out of the opening and I managed to lose that game, but ok, then I luckily won the next game so that was very difficult, these two days, three days.

The recovery came in a wild encounter with David Howell in the penultimate round, so that Firouzja went into the final round knowing he only needed a draw with the black pieces against Grigoriy Oparin to reach the Candidates.

It’s a very tricky situation, and for me luckily the draw was 100% qualify, so I had this in mind, and in general the most important game of the tournament was yesterday, that was very important, this fight against David, this very difficult pairing, because he won many games and he was in shape. Today I was pretty confident, and he was also not going all-in because of the Grand Prix qualification, I guess.

Grigoriy could reach the Candidates himself with a win and, in playing the 4.d3 Anti-Berlin, he resisted any temptation to go for an instant draw. As Firouzja mentioned, however, there were reasons for Grigoriy not to burn his bridges, and what followed was a quiet draw.

It was a triumph for Alireza, but also meant that Oparin took home $45,000 (he shared the 2-3 place prizes with Fabiano Caruana) and qualified for the Grand Prix series to be held in Berlin in February-April 2022 — that means at least another $10,000 in prizes and the chance for the 24-year-old to fight for one of the remaining two spots in the Candidates.

Top seed Fabiano Caruana had also done the hard work before the final round, saying afterwards:

I only really had one moment that I felt very happy about, when I beat Firouzja. I was extremely happy about this game. The rest… it was a tough tournament, it was really tough, both the length of the tournament and the length of the games. I felt exhausted. After I beat Firouzja I just had no energy left, so I was also happy that I could draw Maxime, because my energy level was pretty much at zero then.

Fabiano came into the final round on an unbeaten +4, but he had a much trickier situation. He knew that only a win against 27-year-old Russian Grandmaster Alexandr Predke would guarantee him a place in the Candidates, but also that a draw would give him very good chances. The Ruy Lopez position that appeared on the board was one where the computer liked White, but Fabiano had reasons to be concerned, since his opponent had blitzed out all his moves.

Fabi summed up:

I didn’t feel I had so many chances. Probably I was even slightly worse at some point, because he was super well-prepared, this whole line. I kind of knew it was possible, but I didn’t know the details, and after Nd4 I just didn’t really know what to do. It’s super sharp. I thought 22.Bb2 was interesting but then this [22…Nxf3+ 23.Qxf3] 23…Qb4 24.Rb1 Qd2 was a nice manoeuvre, and after that I’m certainly not any better. I was kind of worried that I might come under pressure. He has a passed a-pawn, which is very dangerous, but I never felt like I was in real danger.

Caruana may have missed a small trick after that manoeuvre he mentioned.

25.Qe2! seems to be better than his 25.Qd1!?, since after 25…Qxe2 26.Nxe2 White is ready to meet the e4 pawn push that later happened in the game with Nd4 or Nf4. No real harm was done, however, since, despite some nervous moments, Fabiano made a draw in 46 moves.

Fabiano knew he had better tiebreaks than Grigoriy Oparin, who had matched his 7.5/11, but in some scenarios he could still be in trouble if other players reached 7.5 points.

The biggest threat was from Yu Yangyi vs. MVL, where the Chinese star would have come very close to clinching a Candidates spot if he’d beaten a perhaps demoralised Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, whose own Candidates hopes had all but gone after a great start to the tournament.

A win for Yu Yangyi against Maxime’s beloved Najdorf looked a distinct possibility.

After 26.Qb3 Qxe4, however, Yu Yangyi gave up the lion’s share of his advantage with 27.Bxe5?! Qxe5 28.Re2, having missed Maxime’s amazing resource.

28…Ne4! 29.Qd5 Qf4! and it turned out Black was doing just fine, since the seemingly winning 30.Rde1 runs into 30…Nc3+! 31.bxc3 Rb8+ 32.Ka1 Rxe2 33.Bxe2

It’s far from over, as Maxime would be lost here if not for the only move 33…Qg3!, forcing the only reply 34.Qd2 and again, as pointed out by Yangyi, there’s just the one move 34…Qc7!, after which the only defence against checkmate is to give the piece back with 35.Bc4! Qxc4 36.Qd4!, when White can hold a draw. Even a wounded MVL is a tactical beast!

Yu Yangyi dodged all that with 30.Ka1!?, as Fabiano looked on.

I thought the most dangerous game was Maxime against Yu Yangyi. I was very worried for both of them at some point. I was hoping for a draw, but Maxime’s position looked extremely suspicious, and near the end I already thought Yu Yangyi’s position was very dangerous, once the knight was on e4, with Qf4.

In the end it seems that even if Yu Yangyi had won, Fabiano would have gained a place in the Candidates by the narrowest of margins. Meanwhile absolute clarity in the results had to wait until all the games among the players on 6.5 points were over, which meant waiting for David Howell.

The people’s champion of the tournament was taking on 16-year-old Vincent Keymer, who had already had a fantastic event and become the German no. 1 on the live rating list. Vincent had Black and knew a draw would be good for him, while David needed to press.

That’s why here on move 23 instead of going for a level ending with 23.exd4, he created an imbalance with 23.Rxd3 Bxa1 24.Rxd8 Rfxd8 25.Qxa1, getting a queen against his opponent’s two rooks.

The problem was that, as imbalances go, it wasn’t much, and Vincent Keymer was rock solid in defence as he never gave his opponent a chance in the next 51 moves. After six hours and 40 minutes we could finally announce that Fabiano Caruana had reached his 4th Candidates Tournament in a row.

The qualifiers so far are Magnus Carlsen/Ian Nepomniachtchi (the loser of the World Championship match), Teimour Radjabov (given a wild card after he turned down a spot in the 2020 Candidates over COVID concerns), Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Sergey Karjakin (the World Cup finalists), and now Alireza Firouzja and Fabiano Caruana from the Grand Swiss.

That leaves two places that will be decided in the FIDE Grand Prix, a series of three 16-player half round-robin, half knockout tournaments to be held in Berlin from February to April next year. Each player will compete in two of them.

Etienne Bacrot, Vidit, Amin Tabatabaei and Sam Shankland have already qualified from the World Cup, there will be two wild cards, and 11 players will qualify from the December 2021 rating list. The remaining six players come from the Grand Swiss, with Grigoriy Oparin, Yu Yangyi, Vincent Keymer, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Alexandr Predke and Alexei Shirov making the cut.

As you can see, Shirov, who only chose to play in his native city at the very last moment, edged out Howell, with Alexei ending his tournament by playing a draw identical to one he’d played a month earlier in the Spanish League. He’d only heard about the Grand Prix possibility at the very last moment:

I only learned yesterday shortly before pairings. It says something about FIDE communication, right? Totally abnormal… all those rounds I thought I only have chances to be in the Top 2, which I thought was a bit unrealistic, or I want to have a good performance.

“No-one reads the regulations,” is a mantra repeated by exasperated chess organisers everywhere, but in this case, despite some information being posted on the official website, the Grand Prix isn’t mentioned at all in the tournament regulations, where you’d expect to find all the details.

The players who shared the 13-way tie for 4th place on 7/11 but missed out on the Grand Prix (Howell, Sargissian, Anton, Korobov, Sevian, Esipenko, Deac and Artemiev) at least earned equal prize money, around $15k each, before a big drop to around $3k for the next group on 6.5/11. Most players in the final round were playing for money or pride, but while a combination of exhaustion and caution led to draws on the first 13 boards, that wasn’t the whole story.

Jeffery Xiong missed a win against Alexey Sarana, and Sjugirov-Vitiugov was a crazy game where Nikita initially gained a winning advantage, then lost control, until the evaluation was oscillating between dead won and dead lost. For instance, 51…Qe6! would have been completely winning for Vitiugov, but instead he played 51…Kh5?

Now 52.Kf3! is completely winning for Sjugirov, with the simple threat of moving his d1-bishop and giving checkmate by putting his c1-rook on h1. Sanan played 52.Rh7+? instead, and both players missed the same opportunities as the position was repeated before the game eventually fizzled out into a draw. Nikita, who had finally won the Russian Championship at his 15th attempt, tweeted.

The first player to win a game was Vladislav Artemiev on Board 14, who joined the tie for 4th place by taking down Ukraine’s Kirill Shevchenko.

27…Bxf2+! 28.Kxf2 Rb8 29.Qa6 (29.Qa4 Nd3+!) 29…Rxb3 and Black had a crushing attack. Vladislav Artemiev finished unbeaten and picked up three wins with the black pieces, but eight draws was too much to compete for the Candidates spots.

Kirill Alekseenko, the surprise hero of the last Grand Swiss, got to “unleash” some opening preparation that may, or may not, refute the Sicilian: 2.h3!?

Kirill spoilt the effect by going on to get a lost position, but then went on to win the game anyway!

Other noteworthy finishes included Boris Gelfand picking up a 2nd win in three games to end on 50%, while after nine rounds without a win, Aleksandra Goryachkina won her last two games, against Arturs Neiksans and Rinat Jumabayev, to gain 0.5 rating points for the event and finish on a 2604.5 live rating.

Elisabeth Paehtz takes 2nd place and the GM title

Lei Tingjie had already bagged all the main prizes — $20,000 and a place in the Women’s Candidates Tournament — with a round to spare, but there were still things to be decided. Zhu Jiner gave her Chinese compatriot Lei Tingjie one of her toughest games of the event, but when she missed a win she was caught by Elisabeth Paehtz. 

The German star’s convincing win over Bibisara Assaubayeva gave her 2nd place (she and Zhu Jiner both earned $15,250), a place in the Women’s Grand Prix, a final grandmaster norm and the grandmaster title! She said of such games:

A game like today means everything. If you win you score the tournament of your life, if you lose you want to basically die somewhere alone in your room. 

The 4th and final place in the Women’s Grand Prix that starts in August 2022 went to Mariya Muzychuk, who just edged out Harika Dronavalli after they drew their game. The other players to reach a tie for 4th place and earn $9,250 were Lela Javakhishvili, who beat Nino Batsiashvili, and 19-year-old Olga Badelka, who ended Deysi Cori’s incredible 6.5/7 run.

At the bottom of the table Jesse February, from South Africa, came very close to defeating 535 points higher-rated Alina Bivol. It wasn’t to be, but a draw after 10 losses in a row still made all the difference.

So that’s all for the Grand Swiss, with the winners taking the spoils. 

There’s still some unfinished business in Riga, as some very tired top grandmasters compete in the 18 rounds of the Lindores Abbey Blitz, in honour of Mikhail Tal’s 85th birthday (a day later on November 9th). You can watch the games here on chess24.

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