Paris Rapid & Blitz 1: Firouzja’s birthday blues

Alireza Firouzja celebrated his 18th birthday in Paris on Friday, but not everything went to plan. After missed chances in the first two games he was beaten by Teimour Radjabov, who had started the day with a 10th non-game in a row but was suddenly spurred into action by losing to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. No-one managed to blow away the field on the first day, with Ian Nepomniachtchi, Levon Aronian, Wesley So and Peter Svidler all leading on 4/6 after scoring one win and two draws.

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In the absence of World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen it’s arguable that Alireza Firouzja is the biggest draw in Paris – the Iranian grandmaster is the first prodigy since Magnus himself who looks to have the potential to get to the very top while still a teenager. The pandemic has likely slowed him down, but he’s already world no. 12 on the live rating list.

Alireza turned 18 on the first day of the Paris Rapid & Blitz, and his first game at 25 minutes + 10-second increment rapid chess illustrated why he can be so exciting to watch. He was getting outplayed by Wesley So in the Giuoco Piano, but suddenly managed to trick Wesley in the complications. Wesley missed a vital tactic on move 44.

The only way to hold here was to play 44…Rb1+!! 45.Qxb1 Qh1+! 46.Bxh1 Rxh1+ 47.Kg2 Rxb1 and the rook ending is close to equal.

Instead after 44…Rb7? 45.Bxd5+ (45.Qe6+! was even better) 45…cxd5 46.Qxd5+ Firouzja was on top and favourite to get the day off to a great start. It wasn’t to be, however, since he also lost his way in the complications, until Wesley was able to survive by the skin of his teeth.

Black’s position seems utterly hopeless, but 63…Rff8! was a beautiful only move – the pawn can’t take the rook as it’s pinned by the other black rook to the white king.

Strictly speaking Firouzja was probably still winning, but it now needed real precision, and a few moves later, with the black g-pawn starting to run, a crazy game ended in a draw by perpetual check.

Firouzja then misplayed a very good position to draw against Peter Svidler, who had just as interesting a game in Round 1 – it’s not every day one side has 6 pawns for a rook!

Peter beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave here with the extra rook – in fact, by the final position, he had a queen for 4 immobilised black pawns.

Then in the final round of the day Alireza came up against Teimour Radjabov, who had started the day as he ended it in Bucharest, with yet another contentless game.

It was all change in Round 2, however, when Maxime Vachier-Lagrave managed to take down the Azerbaijan star with a sacrificial attack — though there was one dicey moment! Maxime had just assumed he was winning in this position.

But then he realised after 27…Ke6! he isn’t!

He had like 15 seconds on the clock, but suddenly after Ke6 I don’t have an attack, which is quite strange. The king is safe…

Black would even have been better, but after 27…Qg6? 28.Nh6+ Kg7 29.Ngf5+! Kh7 30.Qe2, with the white rook coming to g3, the black king was simply too weak.

That meant Firouzja met a Radjabov who was playing catch-up, and we got to see just how dangerous Teimour can be when he decides to play chess. 30.e5!? was risky.

It seems that if Firouzja had captured once now on d5 and twice on e5 he’d have been doing very well, though allowing Qb2 to pin a rook on e5 to the king on h8 looks scary.

Instead Alireza continued a plan he’d started the previous move of targeting the c4-pawn with 30…Ba6?, but after 31.Nf6! the knight was a monster. Alireza did pick up that c4-pawn, but Radjabov’s attack on the black king won him a piece, with the ending child’s play for Teimour.

The leaders after Day 1 are Peter Svidler, who as we saw beat MVL, as well as Ian Nepomniachtchi and Levon Aronian, who beat Etienne Bacrot, and Wesley So, who beat Richard Rapport. That last game featured a beautiful final move, 34.Bg6!

So the standings look as follows after the first day, with no-one yet breaking clear of the pack.

Note that Vladimir Kramnik will play the blitz section on Monday and Tuesday in place of Etienne Bacrot, but before that we have two more days, and six rounds, of rapid chess!

Tune into all the games from 14:00 CEST here on chess24.

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