18-year-old Alireza Firouzja pounced on an endgame error by Evgeniy Najer to score the only win on the top 10 boards and regain the sole lead with just four rounds of the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss to go. The main action came among the players on 3.5 points, needing a win to get back in contention, as 12 of the 15 games were decisive, including Andrei Volokitin taking down Levon Aronian. In the women’s event Lei Tingjie won again to reach 6/7, with only Elisabeth Paehtz within half a point after what she described as “the tournament of my life”.
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Alireza Firouzja’s chances of finishing in the top two spots in the Grand Swiss and qualifying for the 2022 Candidates Tournament are growing by the day, while victory over Evgeniy Najer in Round 7 also took him up to 2781 on the live rating list, just one point behind 4th placed Ian Nepomniachtchi.
The game saw Alireza pushing in a Petroff, and perhaps doing better than he thought when he was interviewed immediately afterwards, though some of the computer-suggested improvements to his play are hard to fathom without deep analysis. Alireza summed up:
The game was very equal, and then at some point in time trouble he made some mistake and then there was this endgame. The endgame is always very tricky, because I’m a pawn up, and he made a mistake at the end, but I think it was a draw.
Firouzja gave up his extra pawn to try and win the race, but the position was indeed equal, until Evgeniy went for 50…f1=Q?
Alireza correctly explained:
I think there he had to not sacrifice the f-pawn, he had to go with the king, but it’s only about pure calculation, and he calculates pretty well, so I was kind of lucky also.
After e.g. 50…Kh6! 51.a8=Q Rxa8+ 52.Kxa8 Kh5 53.Rf1 Kh4 54.Rxf2 Kxh3, it turns out that Black’s pawn and king are just in time to cost White his rook and hold a draw.
Instead in the game after 50…f1=Q? 51.Rxf1 Rb2+ 52.Ka8 Firouzja’s king was only temporarily locked in. Alireza was easily able to organise the promotion of his a-pawn, with Evgeniy resigning when only spite checks remained.
That meant Firouzja had regained the sole lead he first took after Round 3. He commented:
It’s nice to be a leader, of course, but it’s a very tough tournament. Everybody’s trying to make the top two to go to the Candidates, so it’s very difficult. Everybody’s motivated, so it’s going to be interesting the last 3-4 games, and I’ll look forward to it.
Firouzja will now play Krishnan Sasikiran, with the 40-year-old Indian back in the Top 100 after a fine performance so far. In Round 7 he drew with the white pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and could perhaps have played on in the final position.
The only other player who could have kept pace with Firouzja was Alexei Shirov, but the Latvian found himself on the ropes against 19-year-old Russian Andrey Esipenko.
Here it was much stronger for Andrey to play 33.e5! (and e6), while after picking up a pawn with 33.Bxd4!?, Alexei showed the same fine counterattacking instincts as against Firouzja to find 33…Rd7! 34.Bb2 Rd2! Soon both black rooks were harassing the white king and it proved enough for a draw.
There were 15 players who would have got within half a point of Firouzja with a win, but none of them managed as the remaining 9 of the top 10 boards ended in draws. It wasn’t for the want of trying, with Aryan Tari missing a great chance against Sanan Sjugirov while David Navara was unable to overcome Alexey Sarana in 91 moves.
We could have had a shock in Caruana-Sevian, since Sam Sevian got close to following up his win over Fabiano Caruana in the US Championship by delivering a heavy blow in the Grand Swiss.
Sam noted Fabiano reacted badly to the pawn sacrifice 14…d4! and that the second pawn sacrifice 17…Qxa6! was a powerful move.
I took on a6 with the queen, sacrificing a pawn but not letting him castle. And if he doesn’t take the pawn I’ll play c4, and I have two monster pawns on the 4th rank, so he probably has to take this pawn.
After 42 minutes Fabiano bit the bullet and went for 18.Qxc5, which ran into 18…Rc8 19.Qd5, and here Sam seems to have been right that 19…Nc6 would have been stronger than his 19…Ra7.
It was a game of fine margins, however, and Black also had chances later on before Caruana scraped a draw and remained in the 28-player pile-up one point off the lead.
The draws at the top were compensated by mayhem among the players who started the day on +1 and knew they were going to have to win games fast to have a chance of qualifying for the Candidates. Of the 15 games involving those players, just three were drawn. There was just too much action to summarise, but the headline was that no. 2 seed Levon Aronian’s hopes were likely dealt a fatal blow by a loss to Ukraine’s Andrei Volokitin.
It went wrong early on for Levon, since after blitzing out his opening moves he took his first short think to blunder with 15…exd5?!, a move that had been played by 14-year-old Marc Maurizzi against Nodirbek Abdusattorov in the Kramnik Challenge.
Abdusattorov played 16.Nxe5 and won anyway, but 16.Rd3! by Volokitin was a strong novelty, leaving Black in real trouble. There was already nothing better than 16…Nd6 17.Ng5 Nd5 18.Nxf7!
Levon hanging on by a thread, and although he initially fought on well, when he tried to get active counterplay it just allowed Andrei to take over and seal a deserved win.
Some of the other winners to move to within a point of the leader were Russian Champion Nikita Vitiugov (who beat Alexander Donchenko), Vladimir Fedoseev (Dariusz Swiercz), Kirill Shevchenko (his win vs. Jeffery Xiong was his 3rd in a row), David Howell (who needed a mere 76 moves to beat former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov) and Nils Grandelius (whose win over 16-year-old Vincent Keymer earned him a game against Caruana).
Indian no. 3 Harikrishna suddenly took over when Russia’s Maksim Chigaev blundered with 24…f6? (24…Rf8! was essential)
25.Qg4! Qc3 26.Qe6+! (26.Nxg6 would let Black escape at the cost of a mere pawn) 26…Kh8 27.Nf7+! Kg7
28.Nd8! was the coup de grace, with the threat of checkmate leaving nothing better than 28…Rxd8 29.Qxe7+ and Hari won the black rook with an overwhelming position — the white d-pawn is also ready to race up the board.
Parham Maghsoodloo is carrying the flag for Iran after Alireza Firouzja moved to France, and the 2018 World Junior Champion is now up to 2710 on the live rating list. He finished off his game against German’s Matthias Bluebaum nicely.
56…Qxa2?! 57.Qxd4+ and it’s still a tricky position for Black to win despite the extra piece. Instead Parham destroyed the white king’s cover first with the clinical 56…Nf3+! 57.gxf3 Qxa2 58.Qd4+ f6 59.Qxh4
59.Ne3! The second knight finishes the job! White is in zugzwang, with mate inevitable in the near future. White resigned.
The results further down in the standings are less likely to matter for the Candidates places, but US Grandmaster Hans Niemann was happy to win a second game in a row and move to a plus score. His opponent was 15-year-old Javokhir Sindarov from Uzbekistan, who made a name for himself by knocking Alireza Firouzja out of the World Cup. Hans in fact used that success against his opponent:
I caught him in the opening. He played a game against Firouzja in the World Cup that I correctly predicted and I was able to prepare extremely deep and get just a very big advantage, and then I think I just played logical moves and he got into big time pressure at the end, and he honestly just collapsed.
This is the crushing final position, where White has mate-in-6.
Hans commented on the very long time control in Riga (100 minutes for 40 moves, then 50 for 20, then 15 to the end of the game, with a 30-second increment each move from move 1), which is a curious feature of the World Championship cycle considering the match itself is now played with a faster time control.
I’m definitely not comfortable. In America the time control’s usually 90 + 30, even the actual 30 minutes after 40 moves is something I’m not that comfortable with, or I’m comfortable, but I’m not happy with it, because you could say I’m a faster player, so my opponents having extra time I felt has allowed them to survive situations which usually would’t be survivable… I think the level of defence here is just something I really haven’t been able to adjust to until now.
Hans also did something unusual for interviews in Riga and gave an interesting answer to a question on his predictions for Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi:
I’m actually going to be there for most of it… Magnus is a huge favourite. I think if Nepo loses one game the match is over, just from him as a player, so I think it’s sort of the battle of who can win the first game, and I think Magnus can still recover, but if Magnus wins a game and he gets momentum early on, I really think [Nepo’s] chances are quite slim. So I’m obviously looking forward to it, watching it in person. I think Nepo does have a style that could challenge Magnus, because he’s quite dynamic, he takes a lot of risks, and so I think it’s possible, but one loss I really think would be detrimental to the match chances for Nepo.
The standings at the top look as follows with four rounds to go.
Lei Tingjie pursued by Paehtz
“I’m feeling good right now”, said 24-year-old Chinese star Lei Tingjie, and that was understandable, since after a comfortable win in Round 7 she’s not only sole leader but there are only three players within a point. Tingjie correctly pointed to Nino Batsiashvili’s 10.Qc2? (10.Nbd2! had led to draws for Sam Shankland, Ivan Cheparinov and S.L. Narayanan) as “a big mistake”.
After 10…Bb7! 11.Rd1 Nd7 12.Bf4?! cxd4 White was already borderline lost, and the rest of the game was a massacre.
Russia’s Alexandra Kosteniuk and Alina Kashlinskaya (5 wins, 2 losses, 0 draws!) both won convincing games to move within a point of Lei Tingjie, but the main challenge for now is coming from Germany’s Elisabeth Paehtz, who said Natalija Pogonina “walked into preparation” in their Round 7 game. Elisabeth played the novelty 18.d5:
Natalija went for 18…axb3!? 19.Nxb3 Nfd7 but after 20.g4! was already in trouble. Elisabeth explained:
I even asked my coach what happens if she takes on b3, and he said to me, “it’s very bad, you take back, and you’ll be fine”.
It wasn’t quite so easy in the game, but Paehtz got her knight to c6 and later e7 and dominated most of the remainder of the game. That made it four wins and three draws so far, with Elisabeth commenting:
Objectively speaking, I think it’s the tournament of my life so far — I’ve never performed in such a way. At least I don’t remember that I ever had such a performance before, so I can’t complain.
The women’s standings at the top look as follows, with just one player qualifying for the Women’s Candidates Tournament.
Lei Tingjie and Paehtz have played each other already (a draw), so it’s Lei-Kashlinskaya and Paehtz-Kosteniuk in Round 8.
Meanwhile in the open section Firouzja-Sasikiran is on paper a great chance for Alireza to tighten his grip on the Candidates spots, though his Indian opponent is undefeated so far in Riga. MVL-Shirov, Grandelius-Caruana, Howell-Esipenko and Maghsoodloo-Nihal Sarin are among the many enthralling match-ups.