Garry Kasparov found brilliant counterplay to beat Alireza Firouzja, 40 years his junior, and get his Champions Showdown: Chess 9LX campaign off to the best possible start. Garry was then in trouble against Magnus Carlsen in Round 2 but found a way to save their first competitive game in 16 years. That was the only half point Magnus dropped, with the World Champion’s two wins including a spectacular crush of world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana. Leinier Dominguez is a surprise co-leader on 2.5/3 after beating Hikaru Nakamura and Firouzja.
The pairings for Day 1 of the Champions Showdown: Chess 9LX gave us a mouth-watering clash in each of the first three rounds. You can replay all the action using the selector below (click on a result to open the game with computer analysis).
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Jennifer Shahade, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley.
Let’s take a look at the action round-by-round.
The most anticipated game of Day 1 of Chess 9LX was of course Kasparov-Carlsen, their first competitive meeting since a rapid tournament in Reykjavik in 2004, when Magnus had been just 13. A close second, however, was Firouzja-Kasparov, since 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja is currently the one player who looks to have the potential and mind-set to dominate in the style of Magnus and Garry - though there are a host of teenagers who may yet step into the role if Alireza slows down.
57-year-old Kasparov might have got a shock if he checked the Zoom call to find Firouzja dressed with all the brashness of youth!
As the game developed, though, it was noticeable that although Alireza had a good position he was playing slowly. Garry would later comment:
The first game was a tough one. I think I probably was in trouble, but I created a lot of counterplay and I was quite pleased that I was ahead on time, and I tricked him at the end. Considering the 40 years age difference, I did well!
32.c4? (32.Kc3! intending Kd4 is the computer’s fearless approach, when it claims a winning edge), played with under 20 seconds on the clock, was the first step on the road to ruin for Alireza, who walked into 32…d4! 33.Nxf5 Kxf5 34.Re1 h4!
Garry invites his opponent to win the exchange, as Alireza did with 35.Be4+ (there was no good alternative) 35…Ke6 36.f5+ Kxe5 37.Bd5+ Kf6 38.Bxf7 Kxf7
And suddenly it turns out the g-pawn can’t be stopped from queening. 39.gxh4 is simply met by 39…g3 40.Re2 Nf4, while in the game 39.Re2 hxg3 40.Rg2 was met by the smooth 40…Kf6! and the king and knight escorted the g-pawn on its victory march. Garry, who went six games without a win at the start of his Chess 9LX match with Fabiano Caruana a year ago, was thrilled to get off to a winning start.
It was a dramatic start elsewhere as well, as all but one game ended decisively. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave looked close to trapping Magnus Carlsen’s king with his rooks, but only ended up in a lost rook ending. Peter Svidler spoilt a decent position against Wesley So by castling into trouble, while Leinier Dominguez survived a tough start against Hikaru Nakamura (he’d missed his opponent’s powerful 5…e5!) to score a remarkably smooth win.
Perhaps the most surprising game, however, was the one draw, Aronian-Caruana. Fabi was totally winning.
If he'd known what was going to follow he might have played 31…Rxa2 here, but who could have imagined that after 31…h6 the heavily outnumbered and attacked a-pawn would manage to queen 22 moves later!
The ragged black army was still enough to hold a draw.
Garry Kasparov’s retirement in 2005, while Magnus was just 14 years old, deprived the chess world of what would surely have been some enthralling battles between two of the all-time greats, so it was a thrill to finally get this match-up after the players had come so close to meeting in other Saint Louis events in recent years.
Needless to say, it meant a lot to both players, but it was Magnus who got off to the better start. Garry lamented:
The second game of course was much tougher and less pleasant. I made a terrible move, I think, 5.Nc3. Again this is what you do automatically, but instead 5.Qc2! could actually stop Black’s whole idea with c5.
“The trickiest part [of Chess960] is how to position your queen,” said Garry, and it seems his assessment was correct. After 5…dxc4 6.Bxc4 c5! Garry thought for over 5 minutes and, again, seems to have been correct that there was nothing better than taking on c5 and exchanging queens, despite how much it shocked the commentary team.
It looked as though the legends’ first clash in 16 years might peter out into a draw, but fortunately things soon livened up!
Garry called his 15.g4!? “too optimistic” and suggested 15.Bc2 would have “forced a draw”. He was dreaming of g5, but after a move he “totally missed”, 15…Ba5!, he said he wanted to go back with g4-g2!
That wasn’t an option in this particular variant of chess, and soon it looked as though Magnus was going to cruise to victory, until he sank into a 5-minute think after 31.Rf3:
Magnus lamented afterwards:
That was a really, really, really bad game. He started defending very tenaciously at some point, but I was just overthinking when I went for this 31…Rf7? idea, just trying to be hyper-accurate when there was really no reason for that. That was really, really poor.
Magnus had been looking at 31...Bxe2 32.Kxe2 and then either 32…exf4 or 32…Rxf4, both of which he felt should be winning rook endings if he showed good technique. Then he had the idea of playing 31…Rf7? first, but when checking rook moves he’d missed 32.Re3!, after which Garry was suddenly right back in the game. Magnus didn’t hide his emotions:
Garry, meanwhile, thought that Magnus should have gone for 31…Rd8+ 32.Ke1 Rd3 and, “I would resign”. That puzzled Magnus, since, as he guessed, the pawn ending after 33.Rxd3 Bxd3 34.fxe5 Bxe2 35.Kxe2 is just a draw, while after 34…Kxe5 there would have been plenty of life left in the position.
“It might very well be technically winning, but resignation is pretty far off!” he elaborated, after showing some more lines.
The rook ending that occurred in the game was much tougher, with Garry describing the position after 42.Rh6 as one where “it’s not easy to find a win”.
It seems 42…Kd7! does still win, but it was a draw after Magnus’ 42…Kf7, when play continued 43.h5! gxh5 44.Rxh5 b6 45.Re5!
The black king is cut off, Re4 is threatened and 45…Rxa4 is simply met by 45.Rb5. There was no preventing a draw.
Afterwards Garry noted he’d been inspired by the famous 1962 draw that Mikhail Botvinnik found against Bobby Fischer, a game Emil Sutovsky and Anish Giri had also been reminded of while watching the action. The game, featuring the longest annotations in Bobby’s “My 60 Memorable Games” was also something tackled by a young Garry Kasparov, who was born a year later!
Elsewhere there was just one decisive game in Round 2, a victory for Fabiano Caruana after Maxime Vachier-Lagrave collapsed in a complicated but roughly equal position.
When arguably the least interesting blockbuster clash of the day is Carlsen-Caruana, a clash of the world’s two best players and a repeat of the 2018 World Championship match, you know it’s been a good day! The game absolutely lived up to its billing, however, with Fabiano making the running early on.
Magnus agreed, later commenting:
I thought I was getting outplayed at some point in the middlegame, so I decided just to make the position a bit simpler, and this exchange sac was all in the same style. I just thought after this I have very, very few practical difficulties and it should be just easier for me to play. I didn’t expect it to go as easily as it did in the game, but nevertheless I think White just has an easier position to play and very, very little risk.
27.g4! Nh3 28.f3! Nxg1 was Magnus’ spark of genius, and after 29.Rxg1 g5 30.h4 gxh4? 31.Qf2 Qg7 he even had a choice.
He opted for 32.Qxa7 instead of taking the h4-pawn, explaining, “why not!”
In this way I’m sort of winning on the queenside so he has to create some real counterplay in order not to lose prosaically, and I also thought the h-pawn was a pretty decent shield for my king.
So it proved, with Magnus crashing through in the end.
2.5/3 and the joint lead wasn’t a bad end to the day, and although Magnus himself said, “I don’t feel like I’ve played well at all” he could understandably feel that a Norwegian news site leading with “Carlsen with mega-blunder” was a bit of a harsh summary of his day’s work!
The only player level with Magnus is Leinier Dominguez, who was once again in top, top form as he technically outplayed Alireza Firouzja. Leinier commented, “It feels good. I’m happy because I felt like I was playing well for most of the day.”
Hikaru Nakamura picked up a first win of the day against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, though he commented, “It felt like Maxime was tilted out of his mind!” The game was all but over as a contest early on.
After that Hikaru was mainly concerned about someone mowing the hedge in the background.
It had been another miserable day of online chess for Maxime, and this time you couldn’t put the blame on reserving openings for the Candidates!
Wesley So kept to his usual style of picking up a win or two and then playing as solidly as possible, though he might have played on rather than take a 14-move draw against Levon Aronian, who drew all three games.
Last but not least, Peter Svidler, picked up a win against none other than Garry Kasparov.
22…e3?! was a bold move by Garry, who was already down a pawn, but the 13th World Champion never really came close to justifying the sacrifice as Peter consolidated and went on to win in 45 moves. It was Peter’s most notable win against Garry since he won their first clash in Tilburg in 1997, but he didn’t seem overly thrilled.
He had an entertaining explanation afterwards!
We did play some training games prior to the event, because we wanted to get warmed up a little bit. I got my, whatever it is, handed to me, like you wouldn’t believe the scores in that training week. I was nowhere there! It feels slightly embarrassing. I feel like I sandbagged Garry a little bit, considering how poorly I was playing! I do feel kind of bad about that, but only to a degree.
That left Kasparov and Svidler among the 5-player group on 50%, while Carlsen and Dominguez lead on 2.5/3 and MVL is rock bottom on 0/3.
Games to look forward to on Saturday include Kasparov-Caruana, Nakamura-Carlsen, Kasparov-Nakamura and Firouzja-Carlsen. In short, you don’t want to miss the action live from 20:00 CEST here at chess24!
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