Alireza Firouzja overtook Ian Nepomniachtchi on the live rating list to move up to world no. 4 after sacrificing his queen to beat Krishnan Sasikiran. The 18-year-old leads the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss by a full point with just three rounds to go, but he faces the challenge of Black against Fabiano Caruana in Round 9. Fabi is one of 10 players in joint 2nd place, after he beat Nils Grandelius with the black pieces. Lei Tingjie won again and is now a point clear of 2nd placed Elisabeth Paehtz in the race for a single Women’s Candidates spot.
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Alireza Firouzja continues to storm the top of world chess with the kind of form Mikhail Tal showed in the late 1950s as he rose inexorably to the World Championship title. There’s still a long road ahead, but Firouzja’s 5th win in Tal’s home city of Riga has already taken him above World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi on the live rating list.
The win over Sasikiran wasn’t among the toughest for Alireza, with the 18-year-old commenting:
Normally he’s a very good theoretician and knows what he’s playing, but this time I think he messed up the move-orders in the opening, he forgot some things, and if in this line you don’t remember then it can be very dangerous. As we saw in the game, it’s very dangerous for Black, and I get a free advantage.
Sasikiran already seemed to be caught off-guard by a fashionable line where White sacrifices the d3-pawn. The players with Black usually accept, but Sasikiran rejected it after 13 minutes, and on move 13 spent almost 18 minutes on a novelty that’s unlikely ever to be repeated: 13…f5?!
What Sasikiran had misremembered was perhaps 13…Bb6 14.Ng3 Bxf3 15.Qxf3 f5, which was played both by Levon Aronian against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the Skilling Open and by Dariusz Swiercz against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in this year’s Sinquefield Cup. True, White won both those games, but the positions out of the opening were playable. Anish Giri has also been exploring these murky waters.
Instead in Riga, things escalated fast. Firouzja correctly went for 14.Neg5! and 14…h6?! already invited 15.Ne6, winning an exchange. Sasikiran might have had chances to survive if after 15…Qf6 16.Nxf8 he’d played 16…Bxf8, but instead he went for a tactical fight with 16…Rxf8 17.d4! e4 18.dxc5 Nde5.
Black would be doing ok, if not for queen sacrifice 19.Nxe5!, which Alireza played with only a short delay. He’d calculated it all: 19…Bxd1 20.Nd7! Qd8 21.Bxc6! Re8 22.Rxd1 bxc6 and, with the dust settled, White had a rook and two pieces for a queen.
That was an overwhelming advantage, and Alireza made no mistake as he wrapped up a hugely important victory.
When Alireza heard he’d moved up to world no. 4, he commented:
I didn’t know! I knew that I’m number 5-6, around that. It’s good I’m improving the rating, but still many rounds left.
There aren’t so many rounds, but the last three will certainly be critical.
A tense draw in MVL-Shirov, the first time Maxime had been held to a draw with the white pieces, meant that no-one could get closer than to within a point of Alireza, but in Friday’s Round 9 he’ll have the black pieces against one player who’s certainly a threat, Fabiano Caruana.
The US star may have felt that his Round 8 game against Nils Grandelius was close to a must-win, despite having the black pieces, and what followed was the kind of game that the now world no. 3 was winning one after another in 2018 as he powered towards the World Championship match. In an endgame that was very close to level, Fabiano gradually outplayed his opponent, though he worried his fans with his choice on move 44.
There were echoes of Fabi’s Round 3 miss against Ivan Saric as he went for 44…Ke7?!, allowing 45.Ne5! It turns out it was much stronger to play the somewhat clumsy looking 44…Ke6!, keeping the e5-square defended twice, and Black is clearly winning.
Instead the game dragged on, but Fabi found a very nice tactical sequence that gave him two minor pieces against a rook. Since Nils had an extra pawn the position was more or less balanced in terms of material, but the advantage of the two minor pieces is that you can gradually manoeuvre them to attack weak points twice, with the rook a single defender.
Nils’ resignation surprised the commentators when it came, but the h3-pawn was about to drop, and the Swedish no. 1 understandably had no appetite for the methodical torture he would have to suffer next.
Caruana was one of eight players on 4.5/8 who won their games to move into 2nd place on 5.5/8, within a point of the leader.
Alexander Predke smoothly overcame Aryan Tari, Anton Korobov defeated Aronian’s slayer Andrei Volokitin with a nice king hunt, and Sam Sevian, who noted it was his 18th game in a month, overcame David Navara.
Daniil Dubov seemed to be doing his thing and had sacrificed a pawn for excellent compensation, but he lost control in the run-up to the time control and blundered horribly with 40.Rb6? on the final move before 50 minutes were added to his clock.
40…Ba7! won the game for Grigoriy Oparin.
Nikita Vitiugov continued his fine form from the Russian Championship with a crushing win over fellow countryman Pavel Ponkratov, whose 15…Bf7?! came in for heavy criticism.
I think Bf7 was a terrible mistake, and after that his position suddenly collapsed almost immediately. Instead if 15.Bd7 I felt that the position was quite complex and double-edged.
With the bishop on d7 the f5-pawn would be defended twice, while in the game it was undefended and attacked immediately by 16.Qd3! With the a5-knight also undefended, and Bb2, Qc3 a threat in some cases, Black is in trouble, but it seems after 16…c6 17.Bd2 he would have had decent chances if he’d found the drastic 17…b5! Instead in the game after 17…Rc8 18.Rac1! Nikita never looked back as he won a second game in a row.
When asked about his approach to the final rounds he explained:
I think these are just words. What matters is the result, so this “risk”, “solid”, it’s just words. I’m going to play my normal chess and I hope I will do my best.
Spain’s David Anton has shown himself to be a real threat in strong open tournaments, finishing well in Gibraltar on a number of occasions, and ending in the tie for 3rd place, with Alekseenko, Aronian, Carlsen, Nakamura and Vitiugov, in the 2019 Grand Swiss. He suffered a loss in Round 4 in Riga, but has now stormed back to score 3.5/4 since, with his latest success coming against Vladimir Fedoseev.
David felt he was on top with the black pieces by move 15 and expressed surprise that his Russian opponent was clearly unfamiliar with the line. Things just got better and better for Black, with Anton’s 29th move both powerful and stylish.
29…Nd3!! left White nothing better than 30.cxd3 exd3! 31.Qc1 Qb6 32.Rd5 Bxf4 33.gxf4 Re2! 34.Qf1 Rxb2
The three connected passed pawns are far more than a match for the white bishop, while White’s pawn structure is also in tatters. Fedoseev’s 35.Bxd3! was born of necessity, but did nothing to alter the outcome of the game.
Perhaps the fan favourite among the players now on 5.5/8 is David Howell, who would have qualified for the Candidates Tournament if he’d won his last round game against Wang Hao in the 2019 Grand Swiss. David went on to lose that game in painful style, and commented in Riga, “That’s still probably the defining moment of my playing career”. He added:
It took me a long time to recover actually from that. It was nice to just take a break from chess, doing a few other things like the commentary, and now I feel like I can play without the pressure.
In Round 8 he took down 19-year-old rising star Andrey Esipenko, but as David summed up:
It seems to be a long game every day for me, so of course relieved as well, because I played the opening pretty badly, the middlegame pretty badly, but then after move 40 I had a pretty nice position. I’m trying not to get too excited, too ahead of myself, but later I’ll be celebrating.
It was in many ways a typical game by David, who was down to just 11 seconds on his clock by move 28. A move later he’d blundered, but it often happens that the player facing someone in desperate time trouble also gets distracted. By move 31 it seemed to be game over.
31…Ndc4! was a killer move, with Black comfortably winning after 32.bxc4 Bxc6 33.cxd5 Bxd5. David instead muddied the waters with 32.Na7!? when simply 32…Ne3! and taking on f1 should see Black dominate. Instead Esipenko blinked with 32…Ra8?! and after 33.Nb5! things weren’t so clear. 33…c6! would have kept an edge, but instead after 33…Nxb2? 34.Qxb2 White was suddenly on top.
It was a huge turnaround, and Andrey would pay a very high price for his missed chances, as David finished in style.
61.Re7! and the rook is immune from capture due to 61…Qxe7? 62.Qxh6+ and mate next move. After 61…Bf5 62.Bxf5 Nxf5 63.Re6 there was nothing to do for Black but resign.
David, now tied for 2nd place with two spots in the Candidates Tournament up for grabs, talked about his chances:
I didn’t even contemplate trying to qualify for the Candidates, I still think my chances are minimal, but we’ll see. If I have chances on the last day, then we’ll talk!
The 2019 Grand Swiss results give a good guide to what might be needed in Riga to reach the Candidates. Back then Wang Hao and Fabiano Caruana finished top with 8/11.
- For Alireza to reach that score he now needs to score 1.5/3, for instance with three draws
- The 10 players on 5.5/8 now need to score 2.5/3 to reach 8 points, and given there are so many players the chances of at least one of them scoring 2.5 or 3 points must be high
- There are then 15 players on 5/8, and it also feels right that for one of those players to have a chance they probably need to finish with 3/3
Here are the standings at the top:
Lei Tingjie closes on the Candidates
In the Women’s Grand Swiss the situation is more clear-cut, since there’s just one place up for grabs in the Women’s Candidates Tournament, and Lei Tingjie is the hot favourite after winning a 3rd game in a row to move to 7/8. The Chinese star’s latest win, over Alina Kashlinskaya, felt like simple chess.
16.Nb5! prepared to put the knight on the perfect outpost on d4, or in some cases d6, which provoked Alina into complicating matters with 16…f6?! That backfired, since after 17.exf6 Rxf6 although Tingjie wasn’t able to play 18.Nd4?, since the f2-pawn is en prise, she was able to play 18.Qd4! Qxd4 19.Nxd4.
The small tactical point is that the attack on e6 means Black still can’t capture on f2, and after 19…Bf7 Lei was able to defend with 20.f3, keeping full control of the position. A few moves later she had an overwhelming advantage and went on to score an easy win.
A 25-move draw in Paehtz-Kosteniuk meant that Lei Tingjie’s lead over Elisabeth Paehtz stretched to a point, while she’s 1.5 points ahead of Alexandra Kosteniuk and Natalija Pogonina. Kosteniuk-Lei Tingjie looks like a must-win game for Alexandra if she wants to fight for 1st place, but it’s noteworthy that she’s already qualified for the Candidates from the World Cup.
Meanwhile all eyes in the Open Grand Swiss will be on Caruana-Firouzja, where both a place in the Candidates and the world no. 3 spot are at stake!