Norway Chess 9: Carlsen wins 4th in a row, Firouzja in Top 10

Magnus Carlsen goes into the final round of Norway Chess against Ian Nepomniachtchi as the tournament leader after picking up a 4th win in a row, but he admitted he’d been outplayed and in huge danger against Sergey Karjakin. Richard Rapport trails Magnus by 1.5 points after losing to Ian Nepomniachtchi in Armageddon, while the only other player who can catch Magnus is 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja, who broke into the Top 10 for the first time with a 3rd win in a row, this time against Aryan Tari.

You can replay all the games from Norway Chess 2021 using the selector below. 

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and David Howell.

For the first time in three rounds we had an Armageddon game in Stavanger, but the other two matches were both decided in classical chess.   

Let’s quickly get the fastest match of the round out of the way.

Rapport 1/2-1/2 Nepomniachtchi (Ian wins in Armageddon)

Richard Rapport went into the penultimate round of Norway Chess as the sole leader, but he didn’t hide the fact that after his loss to Magnus Carlsen the day before he wasn’t in the mood for a long day at the office. 

Yeah, after yesterday I’m still there, pretty much, so I kind of figured ok, I just want to finish the tournament and just go home. I played already, this is my third tournament in a row, so I desperately needed a rest day. I feel like my play dropped dramatically, so I figured, ok, it’s a good way to make a rest day. That’s it, pretty much.

The Rapport-Nepomniachtchi classical game was drawn by repetition in just 18 moves, with nothing to comment on. It didn’t fit in with Ian Nepomniachtchi’s stated aim of getting practice for the World Championship match, though at the least the Russian no. 1 had a little more time to get ready to play Magnus in the final round. 

The Armageddon game was unsurprisingly more fun, and there was a big chance for Richard on move 17.

17.Nxf7! was winning on the spot. You can’t play 17…Kxf7 due to 18.Bxc6! and however Black recaptures 19.Ne5+ will win the queen next move, while Black is completely busted after other moves such as 17…Kh7. Not only is he a pawn down, but the squares around the black king are incredibly weak.

Richard put missing that down to his lack of energy, however, and although he picked up a pawn his slow plan to convert his advantage ultimately allowed Ian to take over and win the game. 

The extra half-point made little difference to Nepo’s tournament situation — he ended the day 7 points adrift going into the last round — but it meant that Magnus could now catch Richard even with a draw, as long as he won the Armageddon. As it happened, however, Carlsen-Karjakin would be anything but drawish!

Carlsen 1-0 Karjakin

Sergey Karjakin is arguably to blame for Magnus Carlsen’s rampage in the second half of Norway Chess, since Magnus has won every game since losing to Sergey in Round 5. Initially, however, it seemed much more likely that Sergey would pull off an unlikely double against the World Champion.

Magnus compared the game to his previous three wins:

It was the toughest one of all, because in the other games I was trying really hard to win some drawish positions, but this time he outplayed me and I was much worse.

It was a very reasonable question to ask the World Champion at what point he felt things were going worst, and he responded.

I think maybe when I played Rd1 at some point, after 25 moves, I was feeling really, really bad about my position. I had 25 minutes left and no plan and very few prospects. I was trying to hang on and I thought already his next move h5 was inaccurate. 

26.Rd1, played by Magnus after 18 minutes, was the computer’s first choice as well, but clearly only a move you make for want of a better option.

26…h5!? at least allowed Magnus to attack something with 27.Bd2, while, as he pointed out, the next key moment was after 30.Ra6?!

Here it turns out White is in deep trouble after 30…Qd8!, a multi-purpose move that defends the b6 and d4-pawns and gives Black the h4-square either for a knight or, more likely, to push h4 and h3. Magnus had a plan, however — and it’s one that worked!

When I played this move Ra6 I was really, really trying to provoke him — please play e4! Because I thought then at least we get to clarify the situation and I can at least try and calculate my way out of it, and so he did, and after that I felt like I was fine, probably not really better, but holding on.

The computer agrees that after 30…e4? 31.Nxd4! the position is completely equal, though that didn’t make it any less tense to play with little time. After 31…exf3 32.Nxf3 Sergey went for 32…Bh3!?

Taking on h3 just loses to Rxf3, while other moves also run into that blow, but Magnus had foreseen his one good reply, 33.Rf2!

I had seen this move Rf2 from afar and I didn’t think it was losing, but it was still looking so scary that I had to calculate, but still, I would’t say that I was 100% calm, but I was just so happy not to have a dead position. 

Sergey had also seen the move, commenting, “I thought that I’ll get big compensation and it will be very hard for him to play with low time, but he just played very well”. The 2016 World Championship Challenger also noted, “somehow everything looked perfect, but the lines didn’t work!”

It was remarkable how quickly things switched around, since after 33…Rxf3 34.gxf3 Rf5 (34…Bg4! 35.f4 Ne5! is the kind of trickery Sergey now needed to find to hold the balance) 35.d4!, a brilliant pawn sacrifice deflecting the black queen from the kingside, bringing the white queen into the game and preparing his next move, it was White who was on top. 

After 35…Qxd4 Magnus was so delighted to be able to play 36.Ra3!, when he knew he was no longer going to lose the game, that he didn’t stop to examine any other options in too much detail, though he realised that e.g. 36.f4! might objectively be stronger. 

Effectively the last chance for Sergey came after 40.Qe3.

Magnus felt Sergey should here have played 40…Re7!, keeping queens on the board and in fact offering a draw by repetition, when the World Champion didn’t rate his winning chances highly. 

He felt his opponent was “dejected” about how things were going, however, and after 40…Rd4?! 41.Qg5! Qxg5+ (forced) 42.Bxg5 it was the kind of endgame where Magnus is almost flawless, even if he only had a 10-second increment per move. 

Four wins in a row have completely transformed Carlsen’s tournament before he has the black pieces against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the final round. He commented on that game:

I don’t know what is Ian’s intention for tomorrow, but I have to assume that he wants to play and try and win, and then we’ll see what happens, but of course I know that a draw tomorrow and an Armageddon win is enough for at least a playoff, so I’m in a good situation now.

Tari 0-1 Firouzja

Another player who could end up in a playoff for the title is Alireza Firouzja, who would reach one if he beat Richard Rapport in the final round while Magnus lost to Ian. Whatever happens there, however, Alireza Firouzja has now become the second player to enter the Top 10 on the live rating list for the first time during Norway Chess, and he’s done it at the age of 18.

It’s not a record — Gata Kamsky reached the Top 10 at 16, while Magnus was 17 when he entered the Top 10 on the April 2008 rating list — but it’s still a fantastic achievement, especially during pandemic times.

The win over Aryan Tari was one-sided, but only after move 22.

Alireza was asked when things turned around:

I think when he played 22.Nb6. He should have exchanged the knights and it’s around equal. When he played Nb6 I got [a lot of] counterplay. 

22.Nxe5 does seem to be good, while after 22.Nb6?! Ng4 23.Bf4?! Rfe8! Alireza was already on top, with 24.Bf3 g5 25.Bxg4 fxg4 26.Be3 Rf7 27.c4? looking a somewhat suicidal decision.

Alireza exploited the undefended rook on f1 with 27…Bb2! and after 28.Rxf7 Qxf7 29.Qxb2 Qf1+ 30.Bg1 he played the key twist in the tail 30…Re2!

The threat of mate on g2 meant there was no alternative but to give up the queen with 31.Qxe2, and although Alireza said he was concerned about the white pawn that soon got to the 7th rank, the pawn didn’t last long!

38…Bxd7! 39.Nxd7 b3! and the b-pawn forces White to give back the piece with a dead lost position. Alireza was ruthless as he went on to win a 3rd game in a row and enter the Top 10! 

Given their current form a Carlsen-Firouzja clash in the last round would have been a dream, but the situation is also almost perfectly set up as it is.

The final pairings and lifetime head-to-head scores are as follows.

As you can see, Firouzja must win a 4th game in a row to have a chance, while Rapport must at least win in Armageddon. If Rapport wins the classical game, a possibility against an aggressively minded opponent, it wouldn’t be enough for Magnus to draw in classical chess, since he’d also have to win the Armageddon to force a playoff. 

Needless to say, Ian Nepomniachtchi can also make Magnus’ live much tougher — and strike a real blow before the World Championship match — if he can beat the World Champion in their final classical game before it begins. Ian has very little to lose! 

Meanwhile even the remaining game holds some intrigue — if Aryan can win he leapfrogs Sergey out of last place.

Don’t miss live commentary from Judit Polgar and David Howell right here on chess24 from 11:00 ET/17:00 CEST!

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