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Reports Sep 9, 2021 | 2:16 PMby Colin McGourty

Norway Chess 2: Nepo beats Firouzja with King’s Gambit

Ian Nepomniachtchi spoilt great winning chances in classical chess against Alireza Firouzja, but called it “my small revenge” to unleash the King’s Gambit in Armageddon. Alireza hadn’t studied Nepo’s Chessable course and was crushed in swashbuckling style. World Champion Magnus Carlsen almost went down in flames against Norwegian no. 2 Aryan Tari, but pulled off a great escape before winning in Armageddon. Sergey Karjakin also got out of Dodge against Richard Rapport, but couldn’t stop the tournament leader clinching victory in sudden-death.

For a while it seemed Nepomniachtchi would win in classical chess while Carlsen lost | 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. 

On Day 2 of Norway Chess all three matches were decided in Armageddon, with the points split 1.5:1 in favour of the winner — a win in classical chess is worth 3 points. 

Nepo plays the King’s Gambit on his Norway Chess debut

Shock and awe... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Ian Nepomniachtchi arrived late in Norway after visa issues but finally made his debut in the tournament in his Round 2 match against Alireza Firouzja. In fact it was the first time Ian had ever played in Stavanger — yet another illustration of how recently the World Championship Challenger broke into the Top 10. 

The classical game initially went all the Russian’s way, with Nepo describing it as “a very old line”, which is “to be honest a little bit toothless for White”, but it had the virtue of catching 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja out in an opening he didn’t know well. 

16…Rxd8?! was perhaps the first mistake (Firouzja said of 16…Nxd8, “I know it’s the best move by engine, but many lines have to be calculated), while after 19…Nc4 we got the turning point of the whole game. 

Here it turns out Ian would have had great winning chances after 20.Rxe8+ Nxe8 21.Nxb5, or the immediate 20.Nxb5!, but instead he went for 20.Bxc7, when after 20…Rxe1! 21.Rxe1 Rb7 the game fizzled out into a draw. 

Nepo explained to Judit Polgar that he “got misled by a nice idea”, which was that if Firouzja played the immediate 20…Rb7? he had 21.Rxe8+ Nxe8 22.Rd1!

It really is a beautiful and well-calculated idea, with all lines working for White, e.g. 22…Rxc7 23.Rd8 Rxc7 24.Nxb5 Rc5 25.Bxc4! Rxc4 26.Rxe8+! Kxe8 27.Nd6+. The only problem, as we saw, was that 20…Rxe1! first by Firouzja spoilt everything. Nepo summed up:

I played a very solid line and this line is probably not the main theoretical line right now, but I believe since he’s still young he’s not very experienced in all the finesses. So I managed to get an advantage quickly, but once again he proved himself a very good defender. 

That meant Armageddon, and we knew we were in for a treat when Ian played the King’s Gambit!

He explains in the video above:

First of all even someone on Twitter from the team of Norway Chess, someone who is responsible for the Twitter, posted something like, will Nepomniachtchi actually play the King’s Gambit, so ok, probably I was forced to do this…

He also pointed out, “in general it’s all about surprise, to ambush your opponent, and that’s actually what happened!”

There are some quiet responses to the King’s Gambit that try to take away all the fun, but Alireza Firouzja, to his later regret, instead went for one of the sharpest options.

Nepo elaborated later:

This is one of the critical lines. The problem with the King’s Gambit is that you should be ready to defend slightly worse endgames if the opponent is really well-prepared, and I had small concerns that maybe Alireza would buy my course or something, or at least he would spot that I played a few blitz games, but anyway that was not a reason to abandon the Gambit!

Nepo said he came to the round expecting to play Armageddon... and the King's Gambit | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

It all came down to the position after 10.Bxf4.

Alireza is up an exchange and a pawn, but it’s a terrifying position to play for Black. Nevertheless, it turns out that after 10…Bd6!, planning quickly to castle kingside, “it’s not so sunny anymore for White”, as Nepo put it. The only problem with that move is that you have to be very sure that 11.Ng6 isn’t a lethal threat — it’s not, but only because of 11…Be6! (at first Nepo suggested 11…Kd8 as another option, but that loses!) 12.Nxh8 Bxf4! and Black is close to winning. 

In the game after 11.Nc3! it was already all over, according to the computer, and indeed Firouzja was put to the sword in dramatic style. 

The game ended here with 25.Rg1+ and the black king is just too exposed to knight forks and the white heavy pieces, while the rook on h8 will drop off in many lines.

“Once again the King’s Gambit changed my mood for the better”, said Nepo, who was asked if this is his last classical event before the match.

I can’t be 100% sure, but this is most likely the only classical tournament for me between the Candidates and the match, so I should get as much practice here as I can!

Check out the detailed post-mortem with Ian Nepomniachtchi and Judit Polgar:

Carlsen’s great escape

Aryan Tari's approach was not as friendly as it seemed | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Magnus Carlsen beat Norwegian no. 2 Aryan Tari 2:0 in the recent World Cup, and in five classical games Aryan had only managed to make one draw. So the omens weren’t good when he sat down with the black pieces against Magnus, but things went the youngster’s way as early as move 9 of a Giuoco Piano.

9.Bg5?!, played after 15 minutes’ thought, seems to have been a clear mistake by Magnus, and after 9…h6 10.Bh4 g5! he was simply worse, with no sacrifices on g5 working. Magnus would later correct his move with 9.Ng3! in the Armageddon.

It was when Magnus sank into a 33-minute think after 16…Nf4 that Aryan said, “I understood my position was really good and he was spending a lot of time and that gave me confidence”. 

Judit Polgar had earlier talked about when she herself entered the very top tournaments as an underdog like Tari.

But I had a good position! And on the one hand it’s true, but the game is long and those guys are better usually because simply they understand the depths of the position, the opportunities that some middlegames can offer them, and they simply see further in strategies also…

On this occasion, however, it seemed as though Aryan was doing absolutely everything right, all the way until move 26.

It was time to unleash 26…Rxf2+! 27.Kxf2 Qg3+ 28.Kg1 Qxh4, putting huge pressure on the e1-square, and then after e.g. 29.Rb1 Aryan would have had the powerful resource 29…f3!

White has to capture on f3, Black takes on d4 with check, and Black is a pawn up with connected passed pawns while also having the chance to attack the helpless white king. It was the kind of position it’s almost impossible to escape. 

Instead Tari explained that he liked his powerful rook on b2 and went for 26…Ree2, though he’d seen that Magnus could respond 27.Qxe2! Rxe2 28.Kxe2 Qe4+ 29.Kf1 Qxd4. Understandably Tari thought Black was doing well there as well, but it turned out that the rooks were a match for the queen.

Aryan admitted afterwards that playing the World Champion might have had an effect.

It’s hard to forget about it completely, especially when you have a very good position — you become extra nervous because it’s Magnus. If I would play some 2500 player, I would probably just be very confident and think I’m going to win without problems, but you get nervous when it’s him. Also he defends really well. In such circumstances he saves a lot of points.

After dodging that bullet it surprised nobody that Magnus went on to storm to victory in Armageddon. He fixed his opening mistake and was already well on top when Tari decided to take drastic measures with 20…f4!?

Judit Polgar was full of praise for Aryan taking that decision rather than waiting to be suffocated, and Magnus thought for well over a minute before deciding to grab the pawn. After 21.Bxf4 Ng6?! 22.Be3 Nh4 23.Ng3!, however, it turned out he was already completely on top. He cruised to victory.

Aryan commented:

After he took my f4-pawn i thought I would get some compensation, but he just played very fast and well. He’s too good in these Armageddons!

Some spectators are allowed, though at a distance | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Rapport beats Karjakin, but it could have been by more

Karjakin-Rapport was an intense battle in both the classical game and Armageddon | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

2013 and 2014 Norway Chess Champion Sergey Karjakin announced his debut in the 2021 edition with 7.g4!?, a dramatic but not new move — it had, for instance, been used by Giri to beat Nepomniachtchi in the final of this year’s Magnus Carlsen Invitational.

Richard was ready and quickly replied 7…b5, before getting to play some stylish moves such as 11…Qc4!

That’s the kind of move that chess instincts cry out against, since White can now develop his e2-knight while attacking the queen. It turns out, however, that after Sergey’s 12.Nf4 (played after 21 minutes) 12…Qc7 there was no problem for Black, though Richard confessed, “I was sure at this point I’m going to lose in 25 moves or something!” 

In fact it was soon Richard who took over, with Karjakin, and particularly his queen, in deep trouble.

Afterwards Richard struggled to pinpoint where he let his advantage slip, though the computer is clear about the final moment.

38…Qd5+! seems to force a completely winning endgame, but after 38…exf5? 39.Bb4! Rg7 40.Qxf5 White had no problems at all. In fact it seems as though Richard offered a draw around here, though by now Sergey refused.

I even declined his draw offer, and it was maybe too much to do it, but I felt like anything can happen, but then somehow it all exchanged and then it was a draw.

Once again it felt as though the momentum should be on the side of Sergey, but in fact, needing to win with the white pieces, he found himself only somewhat worse, so that he jumped at the chance to give up his queen to complicate matters. 

Sergey commented:

The only thing I’m happy about is that I sacrificed an exchange in the classical game and then sacrificed a queen in the Armageddon game, so it’s not every day you sacrifice so many pieces!

Richard Rapport would have the last laugh | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Richard regretted making it an option, but the only moment he really put a foot wrong in the game was perhaps when he decided to simplify rather than keeping queens on the board with a dominant position. It worked in the end, but only after Sergey swapped off rooks and was then unable to win an opposite-coloured bishop endgame. 

It means that Richard Rapport keeps a significant lead on the score table.

It’s going to come under direct threat in Round 3, however, when Richard has the white pieces against Magnus Carlsen.

Richard did in fact beat Magnus in Wijk aan Zee 2017, though Magnus got his revenge in the same tournament in 2019. Elsewhere it’s notable that Alireza Firouzja is playing another first classical game, this time against Sergey Karjakin. Of course it’s down to the pandemic that Alireza has managed to climb to the edge of the Top 10 without yet facing a number of elite regulars in classical chess. 

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

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