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Reports Sep 8, 2021 | 11:34 AMby Colin McGourty

Norway Chess 1: Carlsen beats Firouzja, Rapport enters Top 10

Richard Rapport is the early leader of Norway Chess 2021 after easing to a victory over Aryan Tari that took him up to world no. 9 on the live rating list. The match of the day saw World Champion Magnus Carlsen facing an opening novelty before a tense classical game against Alireza Firouzja ended in a draw. Then, just as in last year’s edition of the tournament, Firouzja looked set to win in Armageddon but was thwarted, this time not by the clock but by a passed pawn that cost him a whole rook.

Richard Rapport keeps an eye on Firouzja-Carlsen | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

You can replay all the games from Norway Chess 2021 using the selector below. 

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and Jovanka Houska. 

There were just two matches on Day 1 of Norway Chess, since Ian Nepomniachtchi had arrived too late due to visa issues. 

He has made it to the venue, but his match against Sergey Karjakin will now be played on the September 11th rest day. 

Of the other two matches, it was only Hungary’s Richard Rapport who picked up a full 3 points for a victory in classical chess, and it was a win that saw the 25-year-old move up into the world Top 10 on the live rating list.

It was one of the easiest wins Richard could ever have hoped for with the black pieces, as Norwegian no. 2 Aryan Tari, who lost 7 classical games in last year’s event, was again unconvincing. 

Richard Rapport got off to a great start | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Ayran began by taking a rock-solid approach against his opponent’s usually fiery Winawer French. 

There was nothing wrong with that, but Judit Polgar thought his decision on move 10 was a basic positional blunder.

He went for 10.Nh4? Bxc3 11.bxc3 Bxe2 12.Qxe2, with Judit explaining you should never exchange your light-squared bishop in such structures. Soon Richard had what she described as a dream position.

The bishop on c1 is totally dominated by the black knight on c4 and the pawn on g5, while here our commentators felt it was much more important for Aryan to eliminate the e4-pawn instead of what he played, 30.Nxb7?, with 30…Nf5! ensuring that after 31.Nc5 Richard was in time to defend the e4-pawn with 31…Nfd6

There are tougher challenges ahead for Rapport, but he's had a good couple of months | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

In the play that followed Aryan gave up a knight to try and stop the black pawns, but when Richard gave it back with 54…Nxd6! and then pushed his unstoppable a-pawn it was all over. 

An absolutely convincing first game from Richard Rapport, and one to forget in a hurry for Aryan Tari. On Wednesday he faces his Norwegian colleague Magnus Carlsen, who beat him 2:0 in the recent FIDE World Cup. 

Alireza Firouzja always means business | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

All eyes were on Firouzja-Carlsen, which could have been the final of the Aimchess US Rapid if Alireza had beaten Vladislav Artemiev. Instead he lost and, feeling unwell, skipped the 3rd place match while Magnus played the final. He seemed to have recovered in time for his game against the player who finished just one point ahead of him to win last year’s Norway Chess. 

The opening was a Sicilian, and if Firouzja’s 3.Bb5 suggested he wanted a quieter game, things soon got interesting, with the position after 5.Re1 already a key turning point.

Here Magnus played only the 3rd most popular move, 5…Ng6, while — to skip ahead — in the Armageddon game he went for 5…b6, a near novelty, though also the top move of Stockfish 14. 

Alireza didn’t show any hints of surprise, and on move 7 unleashed a novelty, though once again it was the computer’s top move. 

This did get Magnus thinking, but the surprise was that it also saw Alireza in deep thought. after 7…a6 he thought 11 minutes on 8.Bxc6+ bxc6 and another 15 on 9.h5, which was met by 9…Nf4.

The computer prefers 10.exd5! here and thinks White has a big edge, but after another 21 minutes Alireza went for 10.d4 Nxh5 11.Ne5 Nf6 and now with 12.Qa4!?, instead of 12.Nxc6, it seems Black was on top for the first time in the game.

The time format in Norway Chess is very unusual, with the players at first having two hours for 40 moves, but with no increment. That has the potential to be useful practice for Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi, since their World Championship match will also have the same first time control with no increment. It gets very different after that, however, since the players in Dubai will then get an extra hour for the next 20 moves, while in Stavanger there’s no extra time at all, just a 10-second increment.

Magnus can also do stares | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

That meant that time could easily become a factor, with Alireza living dangerously, while Magnus could dream of keeping his extra pawn after playing 12…Bd7

Instead, however, the game fizzled out as Alireza won back the pawn and Magnus then went for a well-timed queen trade just when he risked getting into positional trouble himself. The ending that followed was always going to be a draw with some rudimentary accuracy from the players, who didn’t disappoint. 

Even the fist-pump after the game showed impressive precision!

That meant that, as in their first encounter in Norway Chess 2020, the match went to Armageddon. Back then Alireza was Black and was winning, then drawing the game, then lost on time and slammed down his rook in disgust.

This time round it wasn’t quite so dramatic, but the scenario was similar. Firouzja started with 10 minutes to Carlsen’s 7, and while Magnus managed to play the opening fast he found himself under real pressure, until he unleashed the necessary sacrifice 15...Rxf2!

From there on it was blow and counterblow for most of the rest of the game, beginning 16.Bxd8! Rf3+! 17.Kh1 Rxg3. Surprisingly 18.Bxb6 Bxb6 19.hxg3, picking up a pawn for the bishop, seems to have been a mistake (the immediate and straightforward 18.hxg3 Rxd8 is best).

Despite Magnus being an exchange down, it seems 19…Rf8! was powerful here, with Rf5-h5 one key threat, while the bishops are raking down the board to the white king. Instead after 19…Bf2?! 20.Re2 Bxg3 21.Ne4! it was Alireza who had seized the initiative, leaving Magnus on the ropes. 

Firouzja could clearly scent blood, and for instance on move 34 he made what Judit described as a “genius move”. 

34.Rxe4! was much stronger than capturing on c6, with Magnus digging deep to find the best defence of 34…Ra3! 35.Rc4! Rxc3 36.Rxc3 Bxc3 and once again with 37.Rc1! Alireza seemed to be enjoying not capturing on c6. When Magnus missed one fleeting chance to equalise the pressure remained relentless, and he found himself in a position where Firouzja’s extra exchange should have led to the win the youngster needed. 

Instead, however, Alireza finally cracked on move 51, when he made one of the worst moves in the position, 51.Ke3?

Magnus instantly seized the chanced to play 51…h3! and suddenly the king can’t get back to stop the pawn and also prevents its own rook from getting to e2. 52.Bd5 would run into 52...Nc4!, so from a winning position Firouzja suddenly had to give up a full rook to deal with the pawn: 52.Rxg5 h2 53.Rh5 h1=Q 54.Rxh1 Bxh1, and the only way he could possibly win was on the clock. 

He actually had less time, however, and a 1-second increment was being added since move 40, so — this time without any temper tantrum — he offered a draw and the match was over. 

Alireza accepts he can't win the Armageddon | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Magnus admitted it had been more than a bit shaky! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

The difference between winning and losing Armageddon is just half a point, with Magnus taking 1.5 points and Alireza 1. Richard Rapport tops the table, though of course the standings will have a provisional feel until Ian Nepomniachtchi and Sergey Karjakin play on the rest day.

In Wednesday’s Round 2 it’s Karjakin-Rapport, Carlsen-Tari and Nepo-Firouzja, with the remarkable fact that despite all their online games, and some over-the-board rapid and blitz, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alireza Firouzja will be playing their first ever classical game. 

Don’t miss all the action right here on chess24 from 11:00 ET/17:00 CEST!

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