Wesley So leads Ian Nepomniachtchi by half a point going into what looks set to be a two-horse race on the final day of the Paris Rapid & Blitz. Wesley managed to stop the rampage of Alireza Firouzja, who had moved from last to 3rd place with a stunning 5.5/6 start to the blitz section. Firouzja trails Wesley by a full four points, while Peter Svidler is in 3rd place after winning the last three games of the day. His fellow Russian 45-year-old, Vladimir Kramnik, won their individual encounter in spectacular style, but looked rusty as he lost games on time and scored only 2.5/9.
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Firouzja catches fire
Despite countless great chances, 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja ended the rapid section of the Paris Rapid & Blitz rock bottom, as the only player yet to score a win. That made the first game of the blitz section, with the black pieces against Teimour Radjabov, all the more important. Alireza showed his intentions with 12…g5!?
He told Cristian Chirila afterwards:
g5 is a typical move in this line. Maybe the engine doesn’t like it, but at least in blitz it’s a very good practical choice.
Teimour burnt up over a minute on his next two moves, 13.Bxg5!? Rg8?! 14.Bxe7 Nxe7?!, and although the computer says White is winning after 15.b3, after 15.Ne1? 0-0-0! Alireza had just the kind of position he wanted. What followed were absolutely wild complications, with both players down to just seconds on their clock.
22.Nc5+ would have given Teimour a nice edge with White, if not for the move he’d missed, 22…Kb6!, hitting the c5-knight so White has no time to capture on f7.
That provoked Teimour to go for 23.Qxd5? when 23…Qxf1+! was winning on the spot for Firouzja. The youngster missed that, however, and justified White’s move with 23…exd5? 24.Nxd3, entering an endgame where almost anything could have happened. At some moments White was winning, but Firouzja’s sheer willpower saw him grab a first win of the event.
There was no looking back from that point on, as Firouzja racked up wins against MVL, Aronian, Kramnik and Rapport and conceded just one draw, to Peter Svidler.
The impossible was beginning to look possible, and with Alireza three points behind the leaders, wins in his next two games against So and Nepo might have put him within firing range going into the final day of the blitz.
After beating Radjabov and MVL (from a lost position), Wesley had lost his first game of the whole Grand Chess Tour to Levon Aronian, so that he didn’t look invulnerable, but in the game that mattered he was on top form, saying later:
I think he started with 5.5/6 in the blitz, so that’s basically an unstoppable score, while I merely had +1 at that stage, so Alireza’s very dangerous. I thought he’d play e4 on the first move. (1.d4 Nf6) 2.Bg5 surprised me. I think this was my only good game in this event!
The Trompowsky gave Firouzja a decent position, but his attempts to play for a win at all costs for once backfired. Wesley correctly saw that he could grab a pawn with 25…Bxd4!.
The point is that 26.Rb4 runs into 26…Bf6!, hittingn the white queen, though that was better than what happened in the game: 26.Re4? Bf6 27.Qh3 Rxd3 28.Rg4? Bg5 29.Rxa4 and now a beautiful clinching move, 29…Qb2!
“A nice finish, using the back rank”, said Wesley, with 30.Rxb2? of course impossible due to either 30…Rc1+ or 30…Rd1+, with mate next move. Alireza tried to play on with 30.Rf1, but it was hopeless, with 30…Rc1! 31.g4 Rxf1+ 32.Kxf1 Qb5! ending the game.
That left Alireza a full four points behind both So and Ian Nepomniachtchi, with Nepo having scored half a point more than So with wins over Caruana, Radjabov, Aronian and Kramnik and no losses.
As Wesley drew in Round 8, a win for Nepomniachtchi would have taken him into the sole lead, and that looked to be where we were heading after just 8 moves of an Alapin Sicilian. Black was busted, and on move 10 we got to see the kind of queen sac you don’t get every day in a top-level game.
After 10.Qxe5! the queen of course couldn’t be taken due to Bf7 mate, and while Firouzja was able to play on with 10…d5, his position didn’t get any better, until a crazy moment on move 23. Nepo could have won a pawn with an overwhelming position with 23.Qc5+ Qc6 24.Rxe6, but for some reason he inverted the move order and began 23.Rxe6??
He must have thought he was giving checkmate or winning material, but after 23…Qxe6 24.Qc5+ Kd7 25.Qc7+ Ke8 26.Qxg7 it turned out that 26…Rg8! kept everything together for Black.
It should have been game over, but that was just the start of more crazy swings. Firouzja’s 31…Qf6? was the next game-changing blunder.
32.c5! suddenly left the d6-rook with nowhere to go. Now it should have been Ian wrapping up victory, but the mayhem went on. Ian seemed upset by the way his young opponent was misplacing pieces on their squares or hitting the clock — and no doubt by how he’d squandered his own advantage — but when the dust had finally settled it was Alireza who was delivering checkmate.
The youngster had made it 6.5/8 and in the final round faced Fabiano Caruana, who had suffered with three losses and no wins for the day. The opening went badly for Alireza, however, and when he blundered two pawns in a single move the world no. 2 wasn’t going to miss it.
24…Nxh3+ 25.Kg2 Nxf2 left no way back, but although it was a disappointing end to the day, Alireza had top scored in the blitz.
The most highly anticipated player to watch in the blitz was 14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, but the very first game of the day made it clear he might take time to adapt to pushing the wooden pieces again. After fighting back from a lost position to reach a clearly drawn endgame, Vladimir lost on time to MVL.
The second game of the day suggested we might still get to see Kramnik at his majestic best. In a 6.Bc4 Najdorf against his Russian contemporary Peter Svidler, Big Vlad got to play 19.Ne6!
19…fxe6 runs into 20.fxe6 and, if the d7-bishop moves, White can simply take on f6. Instead after 19…Qc6 Kramnik’s 20.Nd5? was a brilliancy too far, and the position after 20…Nxd5 21.Bxd5 Qxc2+ 22.Ka1 was in fact only equal.
22…Bc6!, hitting the dangerous d5-bishop, was the move to hold, while after 22…Rg8? 23.Qxh5! Bc6 it was too late, since the stylish 24.Nd4! hit the queen and attacked f7.
Peter resigned, so Kramnik had won a beautiful, if flawed, miniature, but it wasn’t to be the start of a successful day back at the office. Vladimir lost as many as three more games on time (though only one of those positions wasn’t resignable) and didn’t manage to pick up another win.
Peter, meanwhile, won the last three games of the day to end as the 4th highest scorer in the blitz, which was enough for him to take clear 3rd behind the leaders (note Kramnik plays only the blitz and Bacrot played only the rapid section).
The Paris Rapid & Blitz ends Tuesday with the final day of blitz, with Nepomniachtchi-So in the final round having the potential to decide the title. Don’t miss all the action here on chess24 from 14:00 CEST here on chess24!