Fabiano Caruana beat Alireza Firouzja on demand to catch the 18-year-old with just two rounds of the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss to go. The victory also allowed David Howell to join them in a 3-way tie for 1st after Anton Korobov’s attempt to exploit his opponent’s time trouble backfired completely. 10 players, including Fabi’s Round 10 opponent Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, are half a point behind. Meanwhile Lei Tingjie beat Alexandra Kosteniuk to reach an amazing 8/9 and needs just one draw in the next two rounds to be certain of the Candidates spot.
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After taking a full point lead, Alireza Firouzja was threatening to win the Grand Swiss and reach the Candidates with room to spare, but to be paired with Black against Fabiano Caruana was as tough as it gets. Fabi talked about that pairing afterwards:
The last two rounds went better than I could have hoped for. Especially this game was super important. I was pretty pleased with the pairing. I was surprised that I played against him, because I thought our score group had an even number of players, so I didn’t think that I would go up again, but I was happy for the pairing because certainly it was very unpleasant for him to be very close to tournament victory and playing a tough game with Black, so I thought he might feel under some pressure. I was at least kind of nervous before the game, but also optimistic.
Firouzja played the Caro-Kann and had already started thinking on move 8 before he was hit by the surprise 9.b4!?
9…Qxb4? 10.Rb1 and capturing on b7 would give White a big advantage, but Alireza spent some time deciding where to retreat his queen — he opted for 9…Qa6 — and by the time queens were exchanged on move 13 he’d fallen 40 minutes behind on the clock, with 14…f6!? double-edged.
I felt the endgame was kind of pleasant for me, because he has a lot of squares but he also has a lot of weak pawns. h5 is weak and e6 is weak, and so it was complicated, but I felt like my moves were always easier, at least, and he was clearly quite uncomfortable. He was burning time and probably not finding the best defence.
The game exploded after 20…c5.
Fabiano went for 21.Nd5!, when 21…exd5? would lose to 22.e6+ Ke8 23.exd7+ Kxd7 24.Ne5+, with other forks to follow. He described his thought process:
When I played 20.Rac1 I had this idea, c5 and Nd5, it looked very strong, and then I started to wonder if it was so strong, because the line in the game was extremely difficult to assess from afar. I get the e6-pawn and my pawns on the kingside are very dangerous, but he has these knights which are extremely difficult to control and they have a lot of squares, so I spent a lot of time calculating this after he played c5, to make sure that Nd5 is actually the best move, and at least I thought it’s the most principled way.
The game was an intense battle, with Firouzja giving as good as he got. Play continued 21…cxb4 22.Nxe7 Nxe7 23.Ng5+ Kg6 24.Rxc8 Rxc8 25.Nxe6 Nc6 26.f4 and here Alireza surprised Fabi.
After 26…Kf7 27.Ng5+ White would have complete control of all the squares around the black king, but instead Alireza went for 26…Kf5! 27.Nxg7+ Kg6 28.Ne6 Kf5 and, with the black king on f5 and the knights ready to jump, it was soon even possible for Firouzja to dream of an advantage, despite being a pawn down. Fabiano admitted:
I overlooked this idea to give up the g7-pawn, so I thought that after f4 I’d be much better, but then he gives up this pawn and it’s suddenly extremely difficult, because my pawns are sort of dangerous but they’re not moving so easily, and very often they become weak as well. So it was a total mess and I don’t really know what was happening. Probably we both made significant mistakes. It was difficult to play, probably even more difficult for him, because at least I had quite a bit of time to consider the position and he was very much down to two minutes for 10 moves.
The evaluation of the position depended on the outcome of deep lines that were impossible to fully fathom given the time available to the players. 33…b6! might have put Black on top, while the last chance to change the course charted in the game came on move 38.
38…Re8!? is likely still won for White with perfect play, but it was a better try than 38…Nd4, after which Fabi was clearly winning if he found 39.Bxb4! He did, but there was peak tension as he let his time drop from over 8 minutes to under a minute before finally playing the move.
The threat is suddenly mate-in-1 with Re1, so that 39…d2 was forced, and after 40.Bxd2 Kxd2 Fabiano had the luxury of 50 minutes on his clock as he contemplated his options.
He eventually settled on 41.Rc5! Re8 42.Re5!, later explaining:
I was very happy to find this Re5. Before the time control I went to this position thinking I’m better but not being sure if I was winning, but I didn’t have enough time to really assess it. But after the time control I didn’t see a defence for him after Re5, because his king is cut off.
Firouzja did nothing wrong in what followed, but there was no way to hold the position, with Fabi again and again able to offer his rook for a knight in exchange for leaving his two connected passed pawns unstoppable. The game ended with the clinical 54.Rd5+, and White will promote the f-pawn next move.
That result put Fabiano on an unbeaten +4, confirmed his position as world no. 3 on the live rating list (Firouzja dropped back to no. 5) and much more importantly gave a huge boost to the 2018 World Championship Challenger’s chances of qualifying for the 2022 Candidates Tournament.
It also gave a chance to an unlikely hero, as England’s David Howell won a 4th game in a row to join Alireza and Fabiano in the lead!
David was the only player other than Fabiano among the 10 who started the day on 5.5 points who managed to win, and he did it in his inimitable style. Anton Korobov managed to surprise David with 3…b6, but his 7…Na6 was the 2nd most popular move in the position and had been played 394 times according to the chess24 database.
Why are we showing this unremarkable position? Because David sank into a 26-minute think before playing the most popular reply, 8.Nc3. What was going through his mind? Well, as he put it afterwards:
I’m sitting there, hating myself, I know I’m freezing, I’m not even calculating, I’m just… I wish I could explain. I think it’s just the momentous occasion is getting to me. Obviously I spend a lot of time anyway, but today more than ever, and I’m so bloody nervous during the games!
Paradoxically, however, it worked out perfectly:
I think I played a bit too slowly and that made the game finish quicker, if that makes sense! I was down to less than 10 minutes after 20 moves, and already I could see he was looking at the clock, he was trying to rush me, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise that I spent a lot of time.
David felt he was more comfortable with the structure seen in the game, while Anton was completely lost when he spent just 43 seconds of his 40 minutes on an important decision.
25…g5? was perhaps the last critical mistake, though why it was so bad only became clear after the sharp sequence that followed: 26.Nd2! Nd4 27.Bf1! (played with 6 seconds to spare, but a winning move) 27…Rxd2 28.Bxd2 Nf3+ 29.Kg2 Nxd2 30.Rd1 Nxf1 31.Rd7
If Anton had played 25…Kf7! instead of 25…g5? Black would actually be better here after 31…Ke6, but as it is, there are only bad choices. He went for 31…Nd2 32.Rxd2 Bb7 and David was able to play the beautiful game-winning move 33.Rd6!
There’s no way to defend both bishops, with any attempt to save the f6-bishop running into Rd7, e.g. 33…Bg7 34.Rd7 Bc8 35.Rd8+ and the bishop on c8 will drop next move.
Despite that short game, David, who almost qualified to the Candidates from the 2019 Grand Swiss, is enjoying the very long time control in Riga.
I love this time control. Obviously I love my long games, but I’ve played Gibraltar before, it has the same time control, the British Championship used to, the Four Nations Chess League in the UK used to have the same 7-hour time control, so I love it and it tends to bring out my best results. Just having that extra few minutes here and there makes a big difference.
How does he feel?
I feel like I’m dreaming. I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight, for sure, and yesterday it was a struggle to stay in the same routine, try and avoid social media and avoid the pairings. Today it’s going to be more of the same, but even more hours now to do that.
Even if David managed to avoid the results and pairings he’ll have known he was going to face a monster, and indeed he has Black against Alireza Firouzja in the penultimate round.
The other huge pairing on Saturday is MVL-Caruana, with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave half a point back after taking a relatively comfortable draw with Black against David Anton. There was a much faster draw in Shirov-Vitiugov, while Oparin-Predke and Harikrishna-Sevian also ended peacefully. That allowed three players who started the day on 5/8 to catch the players in the tie for second place.
Yu Yangyi scored a brutally quick win against one of the stars of the tournament so far, Evgeniy Najer, while Gabriel Sargissian pounced on the blunder 19…Be7? by Alexey Sarana.
20.Rxc8! Qxc8 21.Qxd5+ Qe6 22.Nc6! and there was nothing Black could do.
After 22…Qxd5 23.Nxe7+ Kf7 24.Nxd5 White’s two pieces for a rook gave Gabriel an overwhelming advantage, and Alexey resigned a couple of moves later.
There was a similarly dramatic finish in the other win for a player on 5/8, with Krishnan Sasikiran bouncing back and surprisingly getting to unleash fireworks in a Berlin Endgame. Pavel Eljanov missed his last chance to post resistance when he didn’t capture the rook on d7 but played 31…Bd8?, missing a neat trick.
32.Ne8+! Rxe8 and it seems as though Black should be able to fight on after 33.Rxd8. But no, Sasikiran unleashed 33.Bxd8! and Eljanov resigned. The problem is 33…Bxd7 runs into 34.Bf6!, and 35.Rh1 and 36.Rh8# would deliver checkmate.
The players who started the day on 4.5/8 have a mountain to climb, but there were comeback wins for Russians Andrey Esipenko (vs. Cori), Daniil Dubov (vs. Volokitin) and Vladimir Fedoseev (vs. Demchenko), Vladislav Artemiev (vs. Tari) picked up only his 2nd win of the tournament, and Vincent Keymer’s win over David Navara sees the 16-year-old German prodigy as the youngest player in the Top 100. Even if most of the kids aren’t in contention in Riga, their rating rise (as charted on the junior live rating list) remains inevitable.
2nd seed Levon Aronian finding himself on 50% after 8 rounds is an illustration of how tough the tournament is, but the Armenian star did at least manage to return to a plus score, with a nice win over Alan Pichot. 39.Rxe8 posed Levon a mate-in-2 puzzle, and he was up to the task.
39…Bxf2+! 40.Kh1 Ng3#
There were first wins of the event for Mateusz Bartel, Peter Svidler and Boris Gelfand, with the former World Championship Challenger’s win over Sergei Movsesian the kind of win it’s worth waiting for. There were soon four queens on the board.
It’s a very interesting game and I’m happy to play this game, because the tournament doesn’t go well for me, but still such a victory is a good consolation, and I really enjoyed it. I played a rare line, but ok, I kind of prepared this piece sacrifice, but I couldn’t remember so much. In this tournament there were already games with this line and I was afraid I would not have a chance to use it anymore, but fortunately Sergei probably didn’t pay attention or something, and it was an interesting game.
16…a5 by Sergey seems to have been a mistake, with 16…e5! more to the point.
It gave Boris the time to launch his own outside passed pawn up the board with 17.h4!
I didn’t remember, but I found an interesting plan just to push the h-pawn, try to queen, because at that moment I’m just a piece down for nothing, but then I tried to look for a mating attack and couldn’t find one, and I decided I’d push the pawn, I will always have compensation, and it turned out that it’s a dangerous idea and there were a lot of beautiful lines.
Here’s the position before a 5th queen appeared on the board.
At a certain time of the game I was a rook and two pieces down, and then I put a 5th queen. I hope it’s a worthy homage to Mikhail Tal, playing in his city!
Five moves later the two white queens had done the job, capping an amazing game.
Here are the standings at the top going into the final two rounds.
Lei Tingjie leaves the field in her wake
There’s little left to say about 24-year-old Chinese star Lei Tingjie. Once again she made things look very easy as she defeated Women’s World Cup winner Alexandra Kosteniuk to move to an amazing 8/9.
Despite playing with the black pieces, she was on top within a dozen moves and got to clinch victory with some simple but satisfying blows.
32…Rxc3+! 33.Kxc3 Rxd1 and she had a huge advantage in the rook endgame before the final move provided an echo of that tactic.
50…Rxa7! and Kosteniuk resigned, since if she captured the rook the b-pawn would queen.
That win gave Lei Tingjie a 2-point lead with two rounds to go after Elisabeth Paehtz, the only player within a point, was taken down by top seed Mariya Muzychuk. The opening went like a dream for the Ukrainian star, who felt her German opponent’s last hope came on move 22.
After 22…Nc3? 23.Bxc6 bxc6 24.Rfe1 the knight was totally dominated, with White ready to manoeuvre the other rook towards b8. Paehtz gave up the exchange on d6, but it didn’t help. As Mariya commented:
I’m pretty much sure that 22…Nc3 was a huge mistake for her, it was necessary to play 22..Ne3!, to sacrifice the pawn and try to save the game in a different-coloured bishop ending.
22…Ne3 23.fxe3 Bxe4 24.Rxf7 would be no fun for Black, but certainly better than in the game. Mariya now has Black against Lei Tingjie in the penultimate round, and must win to keep up any chances of qualifying for the Candidates Tournament.
Tingjie of course just needs a draw in that game, or the final round, to be absolutely sure of reaching the Candidates, but if she can win there’s a bonus prize of completing an amazing rise to become the highest live-rated player in the Women’s Grand Swiss (Alexandra Goryachkina is playing in the Open tournament).
All eyes on Saturday, however, will be focused on Firouzja-Howell, MVL-Caruana and the other games in the open section. The tension is going to be very high, with just two rounds to go and absolutely nothing decided.