World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has won his first tournament back at what he called “the wooden screen” after beating Alireza Firouzja in Round 9 of Altibox Norway Chess. Nerves got the better of the 17-year-old prodigy, who blundered with two seconds left on his clock in what should have been an easily drawn pawn ending. Levon Aronian and Fabiano Caruana picked up wins in Armageddon and go into the final round with a chance of second place, but Alireza knows he’ll clinch the runners-up spot if he wins his classical game against Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
You can replay all the games from Altibox Norway Chess 2020 using the selector below.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar.
The year 2020 has wreaked havoc with the world as we know it, but there’s been no change at the very top of world chess. When lockdowns began, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen exerted his dominance online by winning his own Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, but he’s also now smoothly transitioned back to over-the-board chess, winning his home super-tournament, with a round to spare, for a second year in a row. He lost one classical game, the loss to Jan-Krzysztof Duda that put an end to a 125-game unbeaten streak, but has now won five games, adding 5.5 rating points to climb to 2868.5 on the live rating list.
I did not expect to be 100% in the first classical tournament after such a long time, so in general I’m positively surprised! It’s not been perfect, by any means, but there have been some decent games, and the score is obviously very good… I’m getting a bit more used to the wooden screen! It’s really nice to have this experience of playing over the board again.
It was fitting that he clinched the tournament against arguably the most exciting prospect to emerge since Magnus himself, Alireza Firouzja. The 17-year-old had been shaky online all summer, but got right back to business in Stavanger, scoring an unbeaten +3 and picking up rating points in every round… until the Round 9 clash with Magnus.
This was the undisputed game of the day, and we were privileged to have a sound track early on provided by Russian pianist Oleg Akkuratov, who was born blind but starred in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games. There was first classical music…
On the board at first there was little happening, with Magnus entering the confessional to express disappointment at how the opening had gone.
Vladimir Kramnik was talking about it being almost time for the players to commence “negotiations” for a draw, but then we got the first hint that Alireza was feeling uncomfortable.
“I think he just panicked,” said Magnus later of Alireza’s decision to go for 15.Bg5!? h6 16.Bxf6 Bxf6, with Magnus explaining that that his opponent may have feared that 15.Bd1! would run into trouble after 15…b5. While waiting for Alireza to play 17.Nd5 Magnus returned to the confessional to give us one of the moments of the day – don’t miss how he indicated that he now had a chance to be just a “tiny bit” better!
As so often over the course of Magnus’ career, that tiny advantage grew, until the World Champion had seized control of the c-file and was clearly better. 33.Rc3?! looked like more panic and only exacerbated the situation after 33…Rxc3 34.bxc3 Nb3 35.Ke1 Bc5 36.Nc2.
No-one is perfect, however, and Magnus described his quickly played 36…Nc1?! here as “really, really, really, really, really bad” and “almost criminal”. He should have upped the pressure with 36…f5! instead, but had thought he was winning after 37.Bd5 Nd3+ 38.Ke2 Nxf2 39.Bc6, and only now 39…f5, before realising too late that 40.exf5 gxf5 41.Ne3! is just equal. Magnus played 39…f6 instead and, despite being a pawn up, knew that his objective chances of winning were small.
His main advantage was on the clock, where he had over 50 minutes to his opponent’s 5, with the 10-second increment after move 40 giving none of the relief you get in most classical events where players get an extra half an hour or more.
Nevertheless, Alireza seemed to have things under control, and though you could argue about some of his choices the pawn endgame reached on move 61 was a draw.
The game was a bit nervy, I would say, and at the end he didn’t give the appearance of somebody who was sure about everything, so I had some minor hopes about fooling him somehow by moving the king around, but obviously that was a bit much.
The endgame wasn’t an entirely trivial draw – Judit had just managed to trick Vladimir in one line of analysis before what happened in the game – but the blunder that ended the game was still a real shocker.
Here Firouzja played 69.Kc3?? with two seconds left on his clock.
That was met by 69…Kc5, seizing the opposition, and it’s
a simple win for Black. Alireza resigned and Magnus had won the tournament.
While 69.Kc3?? was clearly a terrible move, it was less immediately obvious that all other moves but one for White were losing. As Magnus explained, however, finding 69.Kd2! shouldn’t have been too difficult.
Basically you just need to keep the distant opposition, that’s kind of child’s play, but he was shaking his head, he was so nervous that I felt at some point where he was going to put his king was probably going to be a bit random, because he was shaking so much, so in that sense I had some hopes, but obviously that was lucky.
Debate has rumbled on afterwards about just how bad the mistake was, and whether nerves or a lack of knowledge explain it.
It was certainly a tough lesson, with Magnus himself commenting:
It’s a difficult situation, he’s 17 years old and he’s playing in such a game for the first time. It’s not easy… Certainly I had many experiences like this. I lost two rook endings against Levon for absolutely no reason, for instance. It’s part of the growing process, but he’s so strong he’s going to be around for a long time. It’s nice to be the wise old man!
It wasn’t all reassuring words from Magnus…
Alireza’s going to be around for a long time, so giving him a bit of an unpleasant memory - I think that’s not something that’s a bad thing for me!
The likelihood is that this is a setback that Firouzja will swiftly recover from. 2018 US Champion Sam Shankland knows all about that.
But a susceptibility to nerves may still require some recalibration of the likelihood of Alireza storming straight to the top of world chess in the next few years. Vladimir Kramnik highlighted calmness under pressure as one of the reasons for Magnus being able to become no. 1 as a teenager in a brilliant segment from commentary earlier in the tournament – check out the video and a full transcript here. Magnus was also 17 when he played world no. 1 Kramnik in a rapid game in Monaco in 2008, and also down a pawn and in time trouble:
I have like 7 minutes against 10 seconds. He’s playing on a 10-second increment. Ok, basically it’s impossible to defend under such circumstances. It’s already quite a difficult position anyway, and I play, I play, I try, but finally 40 moves were played, it was a draw in the end, I couldn’t manage to win, and also what was amazing was that I could see him playing very accurately, slowly, no nerves, nothing, making many moves on 1 or 2 seconds, pressing the clock, not even pushing the clock, and ok, I was puzzled, how could it be? Of course you might not win this game, but how can it be that a person can defend?
After the game Vladimir was surprised to discover his young opponent had defended almost perfectly, leading him to realise that Magnus was not just a potential World Champion but a player who could dominate chess.
Of course there’s no ruling out the possibility that Alireza will go on to do the same, using his own unique attributes such as incredible tactical trickery to get to the very top. He has a chance to demonstrate his character right away, when he faces Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the final round, knowing a win in classical chess will secure the runners-up spot.
While Firouzja-Carlsen was looking drawish, most of the action in the round looked set to come from this clash between two players who had been suffering – Aryan Tari has lost four matches in a row, while Levon Aronian had lost three in a row after taking the lead in Round 5. The game suddenly exploded when Levon played 10…g5!?
Aryan seemed to take the move almost as a personal insult.
I was just laughing inside myself when he played g5! It was like, I would never guess this move in my life. g5 was just a huge shock, of course. When he played g5 I knew it can’t be a good move at all, it looks horrible, but I think… when I lost so much maybe he just sees me as a patzer and just wants to come and kill me with g5, but objectively I think it was very bad for him, and he didn’t play correct at all.
Levon defended his life choices.
The thing is I had a feeling that my opponent is uncomfortable when he’s being attacked – I looked at some of his games – so that’s what I was trying to do. Just to bluff a little bit and create some attack, but then I didn’t find the right continuation.
The interesting thing is that the bluff may not be bad at all. After 11.Bxg5 Ne4 12.Bh4 Rg8 13.Kh1 e5! 14.dxe5 we got a critical position.
14…Be7! now and Black seems to be right back in the game (15.Bxe7 Nxf2+), but after 14…Qg6?! Aryan was able to defend and consolidate until it seemed just a matter of time until White won the game. Levon called the position “incredibly unpleasant to defend,” but somehow he managed, meaning the match went to Armageddon.
This time Aryan was the aggressor.
But his 16.Nf6+!? (16.Bg5! gives White chances) was based on a miscalculation – he thought that after 16…gxf6 17.Bf5 he was giving mate, only to spot that 17…fxe5! and f6 next defends. He saw he could force a draw by perpetual check there with 18.Bxh7+!, but in Armageddon a draw for White is the same as a loss. He played on with 17.Qg4+ but soon found himself just two pawns down and went on to lose.
Up next for Levon will be Magnus in the final round. How will he approach that game?
I’m always excited to play against Magnus. I’ll try to do what I can do and play better, not take such unreasonable risks!
Jan-Krzysztof Duda lost his first three classical games, but after that he stabilised, with his 3.5/6 including a win over Magnus. Against world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana he felt the game would have ended in a draw if the players could have found an obvious repetition of moves, but instead they played on and Duda regretted both expanding on the kingside with g3 and h4 and the “very stupid” 36.Qa3?!, which he called "a total gamble".
He felt lucky that after 36…Qg6 he had 37.c3!
Here Fabiano surprised Duda with 37…Rxe4!, but it turned out that material was level and there was only a draw after 38.fxe4 Qxe4 39.Qxc5 Qxa8 40.Qxc4. After the game Fabiano said that 37…Qxg3! would have been more dangerous for his opponent and increased the winning chances in time trouble, though it seems that should also end in a draw.
The Armageddon went all Fabiano’s way as he punished his opponent’s somewhat offbeat opening with a fearsome assault by his knights.
That means that no-one can catch Magnus, Tari ends last and Duda 2nd last, but the 2nd to 4th places are completely up for grabs!
Since the players in the fight for 2nd don’t play each other – it’s Carlsen-Aronian, Firouzja-Duda and Caruana-Tari – all kinds of permutations are possible, though Alireza knows that if he can win a 3rd classical game in a row against Duda he’ll take second place.
Don’t miss the final round with live commentary from Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar from 16:50 CEST.
We respect your privacy and data protection guidelines. Some components of our site require cookies or local storage that handles personal information.