16-year-old Alireza Firouzja claimed a historic 8.5:7.5 victory to defeat reigning World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen in the final and win the $14,000 Banter Blitz Cup first prize. Magnus described his opponent as “devilishly tricky” while losing the first game, and was always struggling with both the youngster’s speed and his own mental demons. It could have gone either way, but Magnus had no complaints: “He’s amazingly strong - full credit!” There will be a chance for revenge on Monday when they play again in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational.
After 7 months and 131 matches the Banter Blitz Cup came down to a dream final – World Champion Magnus Carlsen vs. the 16-year-old who currently looks the best bet in a decade to take over at the top of world chess, Alireza Firouzja from Iran. When you hype any match there’s always the fear that it will end up being an anticlimax, and the bookmakers were giving Alireza no chance, but instead we got an instant classic, as you can tell from the scores alone:
It was not just the potential significance of this rivalry for the future of chess, the money at stake (1st place was $14,000, 2nd $9,000) or the brilliant games, but that we got to watch it with both players actually commentating live on their moves and sharing their emotions as the drama unfolded. This is one match you really have to rewatch from both sides!
And of course you can also check out all the games with the all-seeing eye of the computer – click on a result to open that game in a view where you can replay all the moves with computer analysis (and switch between different commentary streams by clicking on the flags under the video):
There’s no way of summarising such a match, but let’s look at some of the big moments:
A first game can define a match, and that was the case here, so let’s take a look in some detail. Playing with the black pieces, Alireza surprised the World Champion by playing the Queen’s Gambit (“I expected something sharper”), but it didn’t take long until things sharpened up dramatically. Magnus was initially confident, commenting, “my king is perfectly safe” and, “no reason to be scared, huh?”, while after 20…Rf6! 21.Be5 he was happy with life, thinking he was winning time by chasing away the rook:
Alireza did think about playing 21…Rf7?!, but then he remembered a move he’d mentioned in another line a moment ago, 21…Ng6!!, with the point that 22.Bxf6?? loses to the fork 22…Nf4+!
“That’s why you never underestimate Alireza – he’s devilishly tricky!” said Magnus, who later added:
Oh boy, this is going to be tough! Rf6! I should have assumed he was going to try and trick me there, not just believe that he played a poor move.
Alireza is not flawless, and he failed to find the computer’s follow-up, but the number of brilliant tactical tricks he comes up with in a single game is what bamboozles his opponents. The next big one that rocked Magnus was 27…Qf4!
Magnus confessed, again, that he’d completely missed it, with the point that 28.Rxf5 fails to 28…Qg4+. He thought 24 seconds, but failed to find the only move that Alireza had seen long ago – 28.Qc3!, and the position is roughly equal. Instead Magnus glanced for a second at the similar idea of 28.Qd4??, saw it fails, and blitzed out 28.Qxf5? instead:
That beautiful move briefly rocked Alireza – if Black takes the queen with a rook White bails out into a rook ending where the game goes on – but then he spotted the hole in his opponent’s idea: 28…Qxg5! and White is just a rook down.
“Ok then, I’m going to lose,” concluded Magnus, but that didn’t stop him playing on in the slender hope of flagging, or stalemating, his opponent. Alireza would say after the match was over:
It was strange that in these zeitnots [time trouble] he was the guy flagging and I had a winning position. I thought it would be the other way!
“First game was good!” concluded Firouzja, like God surveying his creation.
So it was clear from the start who was in form, with Magnus commenting, “this is going to be tough”, but even an out-of-shape Carlsen is still absolutely formidable. He pressed hard for a win before a draw in the second game (“Is he really going to escape on me? Super annoying!”) and then won an attacking gem in the 3rd:
“29.Rf6!! is very tempting!” said Magnus, and he didn’t try to resist! After 29…cxd4 30.Qg4! Black was a full piece up, but there's no way to defend e6. The game concluded 30…Qd2 31.Qxe6+ Ke8 32.Rc7 Qxe3+ 33.Kg2 Rh7 34.Qd7#
Magnus won six games in total, and three more of them were similar crushes with the white pieces.
It’s not often we get to get to watch Magnus Carlsen and can identify with how he feels at the board, but in this match he really was all of us, coming up against a younger and tremendously talented opponent. Even after the beautiful win we saw above, the World Champion’s relief was tempered by anxiety:
This is going to be a rough match – it’s not going to be easy at all!
So it proved as Firouzja hit straight back, while in Game 7 there was tragi-comedy for Magnus. First the comedy – and even on a difficult day Carlsen is a wonderful banter-blitzer:
But at least it’s going to be sort of difficult for him to castle. Right as I said that, he just castled queenside, with no regard for humanity!
Magnus was soon winning, and then he wasn’t, and then it all fell apart when he played 40.Kf2??
40…Qb6+! picked up the a5-rook:
That was so bad, so bad… why can’t I just make some solid moves when I have the chance instead of all this nonsense? Unbelievable! I’m just completely collapsing in these games.
Magnus was never broken and hit back in the next to grind out a win by sheer willpower alone, but then a loss in the next game saw him return to the topic:
I’m playing so incredibly badly. I mean, I know that this guy is a lot better than the other guys I’ve played, but still… It’s really vexing. I’m just constantly doubting myself and it’s all a total mess.
If one position summed up his agonised thought processes it was this one, from Game 14, after Alireza had surprised him with 23.Qg3, threatening Bxf6:
Qg3 is massively annoying. I cannot think. I also can’t not think, because what I’m doing without thinking is just really bad. I have no instincts right now – just none, they’re all gone. Maybe the position’s just lost, let me try this…
32 seconds had gone by before Magnus played the losing 23…Qc6?, though it seems there was a solution: 23…Ne6!, and Black is still in the game.
Before that, however, the World Champion had briefly tasted victory. He scored a fine win in Game 11 to level the scores and with a win in Game 12 took the lead for the first time in the match. It was an epic encounter, with a fitting backstory. For 9 moves the players followed the Firouzja-Carlsen Anti-Berlin they’d played in Wijk aan Zee this year, when Magnus famously won and commented:
I’m very happy, obviously… as happy as you can be beating a 16-year-old and moving into +2 in Round 9!
This time Alireza varied on move 10 and, despite being worse for most of the game, looked set to win on time until Magnus brilliantly managed to give mate with just 0.2 seconds left on his clock! It’s “parental advisory”, but what a moment:
And here’s the full game:
Magnus commented afterwards:
That could just have done it, actually! That could be the point that wins me the match. He was just getting too complacent. He thought he’d flag me, and then I got this… Not for the faint-hearted, huh?
Alas for Magnus, the joy was short-lived. He found himself in a tough position in the next game, and cracked:
25.Nxh5?? Rf5! and Magnus had lost a piece: “I think I celebrated just way too early!”
Firouzja then won again to take a 7.5:6.5 lead, putting him a win away from the title, but Magnus again showed his resilience to hit back and make it 7.5:7.5. A draw and the match would go to playoffs, starting with at least another pair of 3-minute games, but if either player won it would all be over! Here’s what turned out to be the final game, from Alireza’s perspective:
The pressure was immense, which is perhaps one reason why both players missed mate-in-1!
52.Rd2# would have been a sudden end to the match. By that stage there was no doubt about the outcome, however, with Magnus only playing on by inertia, all the way to mate. Firouzja had done it, and the chess world had been shaken!
Magnus was gracious, and succinct, in defeat:
Ok, good game, Alireza! That was really horrible, I just was way out of shape, but he deserves full credit. I’ve just got to be better, but yeah, he’s amazingly strong! Full credit.
Firouzja was of course happy, but it’s a mark of a champion that he didn’t feel it was a shock:
I think the match was 50:50. I don’t think I was favourite or he was favourite… you should be a little lucky.
The good news for everyone is that we don’t have to wait long until Magnus has a chance to hit back. They’re playing on Monday on Day 3 of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational which starts on Saturday:
It’s a very great tournament and it is very generous for Magnus that he did this tournament, because it’s very good for the fans and players.
Firouzja was playing down his chances:
Because it’s rapid of course I have some chances, but of course it’s not much. I’m the last seed and I am not the favourite of course.
Maybe not, but after Magnus it’s hard to imagine there’s any player the rest of the field are less looking forward to playing. We had to offer an alternative hoodie in our store!
How do you get to be so good at 16? Alireza answered, when asked how much he studies chess a day:
It depends on the day, but the only thing I think about is chess, of course – it’s not anything else. Maybe the whole day.
We hope you enjoyed the Banter Blitz Cup as much as we did and will stick around for all the action coming up on chess24 in the following days!
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