chess24 Apr 11, 2020 | 8:53 AMby Colin McGourty

It’s Carlsen - Firouzja in the Banter Blitz Cup final!

World Champion Magnus Carlsen will play his new arch-rival 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja in the Banter Blitz Cup final after Alireza beat S.L. Narayanan 9:6 in by far his toughest match of the event to date. The semi-final threatened to be a walkover like Magnus Carlsen’s 9:0 win over Sanan Sjugirov, but after Firouzja played a brilliant first game and then reached 2:0 his Indian opponent hit back and eventually went on to win 4 games. Only a blunder in the 15th and final game prevented a nail-biting finale.

Carlsen-Firouzja in the 2019 World Blitz Championship | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

After 131 matches involving a total of 133 players we’re down to the final two, with Magnus Carlsen set to play Alireza Firouzja in the final next week, where the winner will take home $14,000. Magnus cruised into the final 9:0, but Alireza had a much tougher time against S.L. Narayanan:

You can replay the live commentary from both of the players:

And you can also replay all the action with computer analysis (click on a result to open that game):

In English Grandmaster David Howell’s Banter Blitz session just before the match he commented on what makes Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja so good:

I feel like Alireza has many, many strengths – it’s hard to narrow it down. It’s not just speed of thought, it’s tactical awareness, it’s the way he plays with the initiative and it’s just – not in a condescending way, but I genuinely think it’s a factor – the youthful ambition and positivity, because I remember when I was young I used to go for an attack in every game and most of the time it worked just because I thought it would work, even though objectively it wasn’t correct. It seems Alireza somehow makes the tactics work in his favour because he’s not scared to go for them.

It was that formidable Firouzja who we saw in the first game, after Narayanan headed for the famous Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf. Unlike Boris Spassky against Bobby Fischer in their 1972 match, Alireza held onto the pawn, and in the middlegame he spotted that he could follow a series of exchanges with 23.Qe4!

The b7-rook is attacked and the white queen is eyeing g6, and after 23…Qb4!? 24.Qg6+ Kd8 25.Qxe6! Qxb2+ 27. Kd2 White was winning, although Alireza admitted he might just get mated as his king had been lured into the middle of the board. Black did have a chance to equalise at one point, but no more, and Alireza managed to end the first game by giving mate:

That was exactly what Magnus had done in his semi-final, and after Firouzja confidently went on to win the second game a similar 9:0 scoreline didn’t seem out of the question.

Narayanan, who after the match mentioned that 3+0 is his favourite time control, has been brilliant in the Banter Blitz Cup, however, and in the third game it was Firouzja who had to scramble for a draw after finding himself down on time in a bad endgame. Game 4 saw Narayanan play a version of the London System with 5.Ne5 that he described as “not a good system,” but good for blitz, since his opponent had to be careful. Firouzja wasn’t, with 8…Nh5? already a big mistake:  

9.Nxf7! “Is this some famous trick?” asked Firouzja, and while it may not be famous our database records that five players have fallen into this trap before. After 9…Nxf4 the move 10.Nxh8, that Narayanan spent 8 seconds considering, was completely winning, but 10.Nxd6+ was also good and, despite some ferocious resistance from the kid, Narayanan went on to pick up his first win.

Firouzja hit straight back and kept a comfortable lead for most of the match, but he was clearly rattled. During Game 7 he made a comment you’d never expect to hear from a player of Alireza’s speed:

He’s very fast. I don’t know how to keep up with him!

Alireza won that game in the end, but in the next he blundered into a mate to make the score 5:3. It was Narayanan who would make the most critical blunders, however, and at least one of them was hard to explain:

You can’t get a much better example of “long think, wrong think” than Narayanan here spending 17 seconds on 25…f6?? Of course 26.Bxg8 ended the game.

The Indian grandmaster managed to shrug that off, however, drawing the next two games and scoring a fine win in Game 12.

Alireza won Game 13 to move to 8:5, just half a point away from victory, but still Narayanan didn’t give up. He won a rook ending and then, in what turned out to be the final game of the match, Alireza admitted, “he’s outplaying me”. When a queen exchange was forced it looked as though all chances of escape had gone, but then 43.Rf1! landed on the board:

Narayanan had 19 seconds to his opponent’s 7 and here simply needed to play 43…Bf2!, as Alireza immediately saw, but instead we got 43…Qd3?? 44.Rf8# Rather than 8:7 and a chance for Narayanan to take the match to playoffs (at 8:8 the players would start playing pairs of blitz and then even bullet games) it was all over!

“Oh my God, it’s mate! I just blundered,” said Narayanan, while Firouzja seemed too surprised to take it in. Pepe Cuenca added the necessary emotion to the final moments!

Narayanan summed up, “I think it should have been much closer,” while Firouzja commented, “I don’t know what to say, this was a very bad match.”

It certainly wasn’t bad to watch, however, and it’s set up the Carlsen-Firouzja final most chess fans were hoping for. Magnus Carlsen may have the edge so far in over-the-board encounters (wins in the 2018 and 2019 World Blitz Championship and in classical chess in this year’s Tata Steel Masters), but there’s no-one you’d rather see play a blitz final against Magnus than Alireza Firouzja. The match will be played this Wednesday April 15th at 19:00 CEST.

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational also starts a week today – with an announcement of the full line-up coming soon – while we have some more very exciting events lined up before that! Stay tuned to chess24 for non-stop action.

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