Grand Swiss 10: Firouzja a draw away from the Candidates

Alireza Firouzja needs just a draw in the final round of the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss to guarantee a spot in the 2022 Candidates Tournament after winning a thriller against David Howell. The only other players with their fate in their own hands are his last-round opponent Grigoriy Oparin, who will qualify with a win, and Fabiano Caruana, who also needs a win over Alexandr Predke to be certain of the Candidates, though a draw would probably be enough. Lei Tingjie made no mistake as she drew against Mariya Muzychuk to clinch the women’s title, $20,000 and a place in the Women’s Candidates.

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Firouzja downs Howell in thriller

Alireza Firouzja’s clash with David Howell in the penultimate round of the Grand Swiss was everything we could have hoped for. David has been hyper-conscious of his suboptimal time management in Riga, and for once began the game, with the black pieces, with a lead on the clock. Alireza explained why he played the Giuoco Piano opening slowly:

He chose a very solid opening. Obviously it was played a lot in this Champions Tour, and he was commentating on all the games, but yeah, it’s a very solid opening, and I was just choosing whether to go very sharp or just the way I played, very solid, and wait for my chances. This was the reason. 

It wouldn’t last, however, with David spending around an hour over his 18th to 21st moves and, while his position was objectively fine, it had suddenly become hugely more complex. He failed to find some subtle equalising resources and by move 28 Alireza was scenting blood. 

The computer’s preferred option is 28.Rxe5! Nxe5 29.Nd6!, which it gives as winning. 28.Nxh6+! by Firouzja was also good, but after 28…gxh6 29.Bxg6 Bxg3 30.Rxe8 Rxe8 Alireza overlooked a trick.

After the simple 31.fxg3 fxg6 32.Bxf6 White is clearly better, though 32…Qb3!, forcing an ending with opposite-coloured bishops, offers some hope. Instead Alireza played 31.Qf3!?, an objectively excellent, complicated move to play in your opponent’s time trouble, but one he played having completely missed the stunning blow that followed — 31…Qc6!!

David found that move with just 4 seconds to spare, with the point that 32.Rxc6?? runs into 33…Re1# checkmate. Firouzja didn’t pretend it was all according to plan:

No, of course I missed this Qc6, and it was just a shock to me, because normally it’s very awkward, very weird, this setup of mating on the back rank when you have a pawn on h3, but ok, the bishop is on g3. So it was a shock, but I was lucky I had this 32.Bc2! and I was keeping the game going at least, it was not suddenly losing.

After a move like 32.Qd1 Black would just be a piece up and with every chance of winning after 32…Qd6, but, as Alireza mentioned, 32…Bc2! saved the day. 

In the 11 minutes it took Alireza to play that move, David had time to work out his response, but the blitzed out 32…Bb8?! felt like at least a practical mistake. His opponent commented, “I was lucky because when I made this next move he suddenly played a wrong move”. The alternative was 32…Qxc2!, forcing 33.Qxg3+ Qg6 34.Qxg6 fxg6 35.Bxf6 and White is a pawn up, but Black has good chances of holding given the opposite-coloured bishops endgame.

In the game, David’s lack of time really came back to bite, as after 33.Qxf6 Qxf6 34.Bxf6 Rc8 35.Bc3 his chances would have been greater if he found one precise move. 

35…Bd6!, threatening Bxa3 and Rxc3, ties White down, with 36.Bd3 met by 36…Be5!. It looks hard to make progress. 

Instead in the game we saw the tempting 35…d4?!, but after 36.Bd2 Kg7 37.Bd3 Rxc1+ 38.Bxc1 there was nothing Black could hope for in the four-bishop endgame both a pawn down and with scattered, weak pawns. David’s last success was to reach the time control. 

17 moves later, with two of Black’s pawns having bitten the dust, it was all over.

So it was more Candidates qualification disappointment for David Howell, while 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja was of course thrilled.

I think my chances got very low after yesterday’s loss, but I’m happy I managed to get the win today against David, because he played very good until here. He had four wins in a row, so he was in a very good mood, so this win was important, but in general I think I have good chances tomorrow and we will see.

The way other results went was all Alireza could have hoped for!

Caruana keeps on course, Oparin seizes his chance

Fabiano Caruana’s win over Firouzja in Round 9 had taken him into the joint lead, so that he went into his penultimate round clash with one of his big rivals, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, with no need to take a gung-ho approach. For Maxime, meanwhile, it was an unfortunate pairing, given he all but needed to win on demand to have a chance of qualifying for the Candidates. He won a pawn in a Ruy Lopez, but it wasn’t enough.

Caruana’s 34…f6!, defending against back-rank mate, preparing a path for the king and winning a tempo by attacking the rook, was the precision he needed to hold the game, and after 35.Rf5 Rb8 there was nothing Maxime could do, with the game fizzling out into a draw on move 52.

That took Fabiano to 7/10, half a point behind Firouzja, and his Candidates hopes got a huge boost by the fact that only one other player on 6/10 managed to win and join him. The unlikely identity of that player is 24-year-old US-based Russian Grandmaster Grigoriy Oparin.

Grigoriy had the black pieces against Nikita Vitiugov, with the Russian Champion clearly having decided to take some risks to push for the Candidates. Nikita may have felt emboldened to do so by his 30+ game unbeaten streak at classical chess, including 9 rounds in Riga, 11 rounds in the Russian Championship, 6 games in the World Cup and 5 games in the Russian Team Championship. In the opening against Oparin, however, it was his young opponent who got to unleash his creativity. 

11…Kd7!? was an over-the-board novelty that sent Nikita into a 26-minute think. Grigoriy commented:

Overall it’s a typical idea to bring the king to c7, and Kd7 is just a very nice opening move. For me it was the most logical move, because the point is that you don’t really want to move your queen on d8 yet, and your bishop on c8. For example, I could do basically the same and just play Qe7 Bd7, 0-0-0, but it’s not clear where my bishop belongs. For example, I can go to a6 as well, my queen won’t get under attack on d8, because there are some ideas of Ng3-Nf5, so Kd7 seemed like a good way, and I calculated this f4 thing and I didn’t see it working for White, so I just went for it. 

After 12.0-0 Kc7 13.f4 Ng4 14.Bd2 exf4 15.Bxf4 f6 Nikita got to play a remarkable move of his own, 16.Nd4!

Grigoriy summed up the game:

It was a crazy game. Nikita went for a very strategically risky opening with White, and then he had to destabilise the position. He went for this Nd4 piece sacrifice, which I did not accept. I think that was the right decision. I just wanted to keep my structure solid and just to not give him any counterplay, and I felt that I had an advantage from that point on, to be honest. It wasn’t easy, but my pawn structure is so much superior to his that I felt that in the end I should just grab those pawns.

Grigoriy was completely correct not to accept the knight, since the computer gives White a huge advantage of over three pawns after 16…cxd4?, with White able to choose between 17.c5! (17…bxc5 18.Qa4! is winning almost on the spot) or simply 17.cxd4, and although there’s no instant killer blow there’s no way to defend the black king against the coming pawn advance on the queenside. 

Instead in the game after 16…Ne5! Black had no trouble, and when Nikita over-ambitiously pushed his d-pawn all the way to d7 it only became a weakness. When that pawn fell, Grigoriy’s passed pawns began to roll, and he went on to wrap up a very convincing win.

While Predke-Anton was a relatively quiet draw, there were missed chances to reach 7 points on other boards. 38-year-old Gabriel Sargissian, better known as a helper of Levon Aronian and a key part of the Olympiad-winning Armenian team, had a fleeting chance for his day in the sun.

Sam Sevian has just captured a bishop on a6 with 18.Bxa6.

After 18…Qxa6 19.axb4 Bxb4 20.Nf4 Qc4 Sargissian had a small edge in the ending but the game ended in a draw. 

Instead he had the tricky 18…a4!, when captures on a4 lose instantly, but after 19.Qc2 Black continues 19…bxc3, the bishop on a6 has to retreat to d3, and 20…cxb2 follows. There would still be a fight ahead, but Black is winning. 

That was a brief moment, but Shirov-Yu Yangyi looked sure for hours to produce a decisive result. First it was Alexei pushing, but then Yu Yangyi took over when he was allowed to get a hugely dangerous passed pawn on e2. Everything seemed to be going the Chinese player’s way until move 48.

It’s difficult to break through, but the computer suggests 48…Bf3 49.c4! (an only move) 49…Qe4+ 50.Kd2 and then upping the pressure with 50…h5 and h4 next. Instead in the game Yu gave up his prized pawn with 48…Bf5?! 49.Kxe2 Qe4+?! (49…Bxh3!) 50.Be3 Qxc2+ 51.Qd2 Qxb3

Perhaps the Yangyi had seen this far and — with no checks for White, a passed b-pawn and the a4-pawn set to fall — had assumed it would just be a technical win. Instead 52.g4! Be6 53.Qd6! gave White just enough counterplay and Alexei Shirov had pulled off another great escape in Riga. 

The players on 5.5 points were in a must-win situation if they wanted to have a chance of qualifying for the Candidates, though they also knew that their realistic chances would be very small regardless. Nevertheless, there were some notable results. 

19-year-old Andrey Esipenko ended Krishnan Sasikiran’s hopes with a second win in a row since losing a winning position to David Howell, while Vincent Keymer made it a 3rd win in a row after he comprehensively defeated Kirill Alekseenko in just 26 moves. Vincent commented:

It has been going great for me. I already won the second game, so I’ve been on +1, which would already be great for me. Ok, I lost one game, the first game after the rest day against Grandelius, and now having won three in a row I’m of course really happy.

The 16-year-old has every reason to be proud of himself, since despite starting as 65th seed he’s currently up to 7th place. He’s posted a 2787 performance, gained 21.4 rating points and stormed up to world no. 82 with a 2660.4 rating on the live rating list, making him the new German no. 1. 

Vincent still has a tiny chance of reaching the Candidates with a win in the last round against David Howell, but the players further down the table were already playing mainly for pride in Round 10. 2nd seed Levon Aronian’s 2nd win in a row, against Nodirbek Abdusattorov, came too late, while there was little at stake in the Praggnanandhaa-Gelfand slugfest that saw both players miss clear wins. 

Another Indian prodigy, Gukesh, got to play a fine attacking game against Kirill Georgiev, more than three times his age. 

White’s position is miserable, but at this stage it was hard to see that the decisive blow would be delivered by the knight on b3! 23…Nc5! 24.Qg4 Nd3! 25.Rf1? Ne5! 26.Qe2 (there was already nothing better) 26…Nf3+!

27.gxf3 runs into various brutal kills such as 27…Qg5+! 28.Kh1 exf3 29.Nxf3 Qh4!, while 27.Nxf3 exf3 28.Qxc4 fxg2 was also hopeless. 

What matters going into the last round, however, is the situation at the top, which looks as follows.

Here are the crucial pairings.

Three players have their Candidates qualification in their own hands.

  • Alireza Firouzja only needs a draw to be sure of a Candidates spot, though his chances are good even with a loss   
  • Fabiano Caruana and Grigoriy Oparin will qualify for the Candidates if they win their games, while a draw might well be enough for Fabiano   

If Fabiano wins it’s all over for the players who start the day on 6.5 points (Fabi will have 8 points, while one of the players on top board will also have 8+), but if he doesn’t then some of the players on 6.5 points will have a chance if they win their games and the tiebreaks work in their favour — the Buchholz system used is based on the results of the players a player faced, and famously unpredictable. 

Chess by the Numbers has lived up to its name and crunched the numbers.

The Grand Prix is a complicating factor, since there are six spots in that final Candidates qualification series available to players in the Grand Swiss. That’s a qualification route that the players at the very top of world chess don’t require — around a dozen players will get a place in the Grand Prix based on rating — but for the likes of 2654-rated Oparin it’s the only way to qualify. Is it worth his risking that spot by going all-out to beat Firouzja, or is the Candidates spot such a huge prize that it justifies some gambling?

Another dilemma is faced by Fabiano Caruana. It goes without saying he’ll be hoping to beat 2666-rated Alexandr Predke with the white pieces and guarantee his Candidates spot, but if he finds himself in a position where he needs to take risks he might well fall back on the option of making a draw and giving himself a very good but not 100% chance.

Whatever happens, you don’t want to miss this!

Lei Tingjie cruises to the Candidates

Meanwhile there’s no such drama in the women’s event, as Lei Tingjie has won the $20,000 top prize and the single place in the 2022 Women’s Candidates Tournament with a round to spare. The Chinese star, who needed only a draw, once again made everything look easy, though she got a helping hand from Mariya Muzychuk. 

This line was popularised by Vladimir Kramnik, who played it in the first game of the 2008 World Championship match against Viswanathan Anand. Vishy equalised comfortably, but given how Vladimir suffered with White in the games that followed he probably wishes he’d stuck to it!

There were another 40 games played since, however, and everyone had correctly played 14…Rxc6!. Mariya instead went for the dubious novelty 14…bxc6?! after a 13-minute think. Lei Tingjie was puzzled, both during and after the game:

In this game I tried to play for a draw, but my opponent, I think she forgot some lines, because 14…Rxc6 instead of 14…bxc6 and I think 15.Qxb7 Qc8 and this must be drawish, but she played bxc6 and I thought, ok, this position I can’t lose, so I want to play and just enjoy playing chess.

In what followed Lei’s advantage gradually fizzled out, but she was never in any danger and safely clinched the draw she needed to confirm her tournament victory. When asked what she’d do with the $20,000 prize, she replied, “no idea, because I don’t care about it!” 

What she no doubt does care about is becoming the 7th player to reach the Women’s Candidates Tournament that will decide Ju Wenjun’s next World Championship opponent. 

The final place will be based on the January 1st rating list, where Mariya Muzychuk is a clear favourite despite not managing to clinch a spot through the Grand Swiss — assuming Hou Yifan doesn’t return and play the 15 classical games required to become eligible.   

Beyond the fight for first there were other notable results. 18-year-old Zhu Jiner has made a grandmaster norm and is up to clear 2nd place after defeating Lela Javakhishvili (who earlier made a GM norm herself), while 17-year-old Bibisara Assaubayeva also made a grandmaster norm by defeating Polina Shuvalova. 

Peru’s Deysi Cori is also in the tie for 3rd place after an amazing tournament. She began with three losses but her win over Nana Dzagnidze meant she’s now scored 6.5/7 since! 

All eyes in the last round, however, will be on the top boards in the Open section, with Oparin-Firouzja and Caruana-Predke likely to decide who gains the two spots in the 2022 Candidates Tournament. Whoever makes it will be in with a chance of facing Magnus Carlsen or Ian Nepomniachtchi in a World Championship match in 2023. 

Tune in to all the Grand Swiss action here on chess24 from 13:00 CET each day: Open | Women

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