Alireza Firouzja has won a 7th game in a row — counting the last four rounds of Norway Chess — to take the sole lead in the Grand Swiss and move within a win of the world no. 4 spot. While Alireza kept on winning there was more frustration for Fabiano Caruana, who missed a chance to beat Ivan Saric, while Levon Aronian could only scrape a draw against Anton Demchenko. Six players, including 17-year-old Nihal Sarin, seized the chance to move to 2nd place on 2.5/3. In the women’s event Lela Javakhishvili and Harika Dronavalli joined a 9-player leading pack after draws on the top boards.
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One of the strangest stats in chess is that World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi only finally broke into the Top 10 in 2019, at the age of 28. Alireza Firouzja, meanwhile, is on the kind of trajectory only followed in recent chess history by the likes of Vladimir Kramnik and Magnus Carlsen. The 18-year-old broke into the Top 10 during Norway Chess, where he won his last four games, and on the live rating list he’s climbing ever higher.
With three wins in a row in Riga he’s now up to 2780.1 and world no. 6, just a couple of points off 5th place Levon Aronian (2781.4) and 4th place Ian Nepomniachtchi (2782). Fabiano Caruana in 3rd is just 8.4 points away — a gap that could also disappear in a single round.
Alireza’s victory over 27-year-old Russian Grandmaster Alexandr Predke, who a day previously had unleashed a brilliant queen sacrifice, was another powerful display. He won a complicated opening battle in the classical Ruy Lopez, picked up a pawn, and then applied relentless pressure before finally squeezing out a win in the endgame. 59…Bxf3 was Predke’s desperate last trick.
60.gxf3? g2 and the g-pawn queens, though even there it’s not a foregone conclusion that Black would survive. Firouzja instead played 60.Nc6!, when after 60…Bxg2 61.b7! White queens first, and the rest was simple: 61…Be4 62.b8=Q g2 63.Qb2!
63…g1=Q would now be met by 64…Qd4+, winning the new queen.
In the end the Grand Swiss is not about rating points but the race to win one of two spots in the 2022 Candidates Tournament — a potential path to Firouzja winning the World Chess Championship at an earlier age than the 22 of Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen. In those terms it was an even better day for Alireza, since his likely key rivals failed to win.
For a second day in a row Fabiano Caruana was left to lament a missed win. He’d done everything right against Ivan Saric, until move 31.
31.Nxg5! was the path to victory, with White winning the f7-pawn, while the threat of Rd2 and Rxg2+ essentially just a single check. Instead after 31.hxg5? Rd4! 32.Rc7 Bxe4! 33.Rc8+ Kb7 34.Rxf8 Bg6 Ivan was able to set up a fortress that Fabiano could find no way to break down in the next 40 moves.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave made a comfortable draw with the black pieces against Alexander Donchenko, while 3rd seed Levon Aronian found himself on the ropes against reigning European Champion Anton Demchenko.
It was one of those tricky rook endings where one side has an extra outside passed pawn. Just when that pawn had gone and Levon looked to have survived, he could have been caught in the ending with pawns only on one flank.
57.Rf4! was the way to go about it. Black can’t exchange rooks as the pawn endgame is lost, while White’s plan is to play Rf6 and target the weak g6-pawn. It seems it’s winning, but instead after 57.g4?, exchanging another pair of pawns, it really was just a draw.
That left Caruana, Aronian and MVL all on 2/3, enabling a group of six players to overtake them and reach 2.5/3. Firouzja’s toughest challenge yet will be Black against Yu Yangyi in Round 4, after the Chinese star beat Matthias Bluebaum in a game where he was completely winning by move 15.
Pavel Ponkratov reached 2.5/3 by defeating Dmitrij Kollars, Evgeniy Najer defeated Cristobal Henriquez and Robert Hovhannisyan took down Sanan Sjugirov, earning a Round 4 showdown with his great Armenian colleague Levon Aronian. Ivan Saric’s draw also saw him reach 2.5/3, while the stand-out name in the group in second place is perhaps that of 17-year-old Nihal Sarin.
The Indian youngster survived a bishop sacrifice on h3 by Fabiano Caruana in Round 2 and got to play the same move himself in Round 3 against Australia’s Temur Kuybokarov. Soon it was followed by a mating attack.
29…Nf3+! 30.Kh1 Bxg2+! 31.Bxg2 Re4! 32.Bxf3 Rh4#
As always, there was too much action to summarise. There were fine wins for David Anton (crushing Javokhir Sindarov’s King’s Indian), David Navara (vs. Sethuraman) and Jules Moussard, with the Frenchman now having played Daniil Dubov, Andrey Esipenko and Ivan Cheparinov and able to lament only scoring 2/3, since he was completely winning against Esipenko in Round 2.
There were near misses for the likes of Nikita Vitiugov, Grigoriy Oparin and Hans Niemann, Aleksandra Goryachkina drew against Boris Gelfand, and David Howell did better against 16-year-old Praggnanandhaa than he had against the prodigy at the age of 12!
Getting a good night’s sleep would be tougher for David and the other players!
One of the fastest wins of the day was for Daniil Dubov, who took over from Vasif Durarbayli in the opening and got to win in crushing style.
23…h4! was a nice touch, with the point that after 24.Bxh4 Nxf4! White has no time to take on f6 due to the looming Ne2+, forking and winning the white queen. 25.Rf2 Qg4! just prolonged the suffering.
Dubov explained afterwards:
I got surprised in the opening, and I think I looked at it maybe two or three years ago, and maybe he checked it with a better engine and stuff, but my old impression, that could very well be outdated, was that all in all it was a bluff. I didn’t remember what to play anyway, but I felt in general it’s a bluff and with precise play Black is probably slightly better even, so I was slightly puzzled. I thought it’s either I will lose straight out of the opening or, if I will survive, then I’m probably in great shape and maybe slightly better. Then I don’t know, it felt to me like the whole sequence of moves with this f4 and stuff was a bit over-optimistic by him, to be honest, also taking on f5 was completely unnecessary, but sometimes it’s easier to play than to explain what’s going on. For Black it’s very easy. After I played f6 you can explain it to five-year-olds — bring the rook to the f-file, go h5, try to win f4.
Daniil talked about how chess engines have improved massively in recent years after Stockfish as well as Leela Chess Zero adopted the self-learning approach of AlphaZero. He compared the last three years to the progress made in the previous 15:
Some of the lines that were considered to be playable or considered to be good are not playable at all anymore. It’s changed a lot also like all the books make zero sense. I checked recently all Kasparov’s books, My Great Predecessors, all the things in the books are great, basically I became a chess player thanks to those books, but the stuff that he recommends in the openings is outdated now, mildly put.
Daniil did add that even if we can mathematically prove the starting position is a draw and cover all the lines “one’s memory cannot withstand all this stuff”.
We’ll probably find out that the Scandinavian loses, for instance, but I don’t think it will prevent people from playing it anyway!
One of the wildest games of the day, and proof that nothing is predictable in games between humans, was Tari-Fedoseev, a Caro-Kann the players seemed to be playing as “no castles chess” before Aryan Tari castled queenside on move 29. That was a cool and powerful move, and it turns out Vladimir Fedoseev had squandered most of his advantage even before he played 29…Qh2?
30.Rg5! was born of necessity, but also very strong, with the e2-bishop a small price to pay for trapping the black king in the centre. Vladimir commented:
The game was completely under control, I think it’s just as winning as can be in chess, but I played a completely ridiculous move Qh2, and after Rg5 I immediately realised that a draw in this game would be just a huge success for me.
Later Aryan Tari would have plenty to regret as well.
It turns out 39.Re4+! Kc7 40.Rxg4 Rxg4 wins, but only because 41.Nc3! is so powerful, leaving Black no time to consolidate. Instead after 39.b6?! Qg6! 40.Qf8+ Be8 it was only a weird equality, with the players seeing the funny side!
Vladimir said afterwards that he had “a sad smile”, and didn’t agree with the suggestion that he likes this kind of game.
I just hate it. Somewhere I just feel it’s better to kill me right now than I will continue playing this!
Nine now lead the women’s race
None of the seven leaders won in the women’s section in Round 3, though it wasn’t for the lack of trying.
Natalija Pogonina was completely winning with the black pieces against Nana Dzagnidze, but couldn’t quite put her opponent away.
That was an opportunity to catch the leaders on 2.5/3, and one seized by Lela Javakhishvili, who scored a crushing win over Polina Shuvalova, and Harika Dronavalli, who slowly but surely exploited an endgame mistake by Antoaneta Stefanova.
Perhaps the most remarkable game of the day in the women’s section came in a clash between two former Girls World Junior Champions.
Ukraine’s Nataliya Buksa, with the black pieces, would be better after 15.Bb2 Be6!, but instead Kazakhstan star Zhansaya Abdumalik went for the brilliant piece sacrifice 15.d4!! Why had she done it?
Well, I saw that I have many pawns for the piece… and that was my analysis! Also the king on e8 wasn’t really good… and she couldn’t castle and the pawn on d6 was really strong. It just felt really good for White.
After 15…Qxa1 16.d5! Na7 17.Qc7 Bd7 18.Qxb7 Nc8 19.Qxb4 Zhansaya already had three pawns for the piece.
Nevertheless, 19…Qa4!, trying to force off the queens and then win the d6-pawn, looks decent for Black. In the game after 19…Qa6 20.c4! Nxd6 21.c5! Nc8 22.c6! Black was busted, though there a few more twists to follow before Zhansaya wrapped up victory.
As mentioned, Yu Yangyi-Firouzja in Round 4 will be the toughest test yet for Alireza, while Swiercz-Caruana is a repeat of a match-up Fabiano recently won in the US Championship, though there he had the white pieces.