16-year-old Alireza Firouzja defeated top seed Jan-Krzysztof Duda in Round 7 of the Prague Masters to move back into joint second place. Vidit remains a full point ahead of Firouzja and last year’s winner Nikita Vitiugov, while Sam Shankland joined Duda and David Antón on 50% after finally ending a series of missed chances by beating Nils Grandelius. Hannes Stefansson continues to lead the Challengers, though Andrey Esipenko and Jorden van Foreest are just half a point behind.
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Alireza Firouzja’s breakthrough into the 2700 club at the age of 16 has inevitably made him the talk of the chess world, and he’s impressed even the very best observers. Vishy Anand, who beat Firouzja in Wijk aan Zee, talked about his impressions on Ben Johnson's podcast:
What struck me was how easily he wins games. He won four games and it has to be said that till the point that he started losing them it didn’t look like he was going to lose an awful lot of them. He just won. He would play a game, I would think, “he has no particular advantage and it’s just a normal position”, and I’d come back later and then boom, suddenly he was winning. It obviously shows his huge talent - the very fact that you win these games, it seems effortlessly, means that you are very talented indeed.
Although Firouzja has had his ups and downs in Prague he’s again shown an ability to beat very strong grandmasters – Harikrishna and now Jan-Krzysztof Duda, while he was just a move or two away from beating Nikita Vitiugov.
Boris Gelfand, who joined the live commentary for Round 6, also talked about the kid:
He’s very strong. He has amazing results. He’s very young and you saw last round (the loss to Vidit) that he still has a lot of weaknesses, but definitely he’s ambitious, he will work, but the question is how quickly he will overcome these weaknesses. Some of them come from immaturity, some probably require more work, but definitely he has huge potential. If you look, let’s say, at the rating list of young players he’s definitely showing the best results, and his games and results suggest that he’s extremely strong, but also so far he didn’t have much experience playing against the best players. You saw in Wijk aan Zee he had to play in a row against Carlsen, Caruana and Anand, and he didn’t manage, but of course it’s just a matter of time and the work he would put in. He is extremely strong already and if you take into account his age, we can say that he’s already very strong and has amazing potential, there’s no doubt about it. It’s very good he’s invited to play here because each such tournament will give him more and more experience, food for thought, let’s say. Each mistake like he made in the last round I’m sure he will learn from it and go further.
Does Boris think Alireza is a World Championship contender, or is that still too far away to judge?
We are too far, but of course he’s one of the guys who may do it. I looked at the rating list for example Under 20. In the Top 50 there are just two players aged Under 20 (Jeffery Xiong is the other, though on the live list Maghsoodloo is now no. 42 after a good Gibraltar and start in the Aeroflot Open), in the Top 100 there are just 6. All other guys are 18 or 19. Maybe Esipenko is the youngest, who is playing in the B Group (17-year-old Esipenko has climbed 34 places to world no. 59 after his performance in Gibraltar and Prague).
Firouzja combines both that he’s much younger than the other stars and he’s much higher-rated than other front players, big talents from his generation. Last year he really made a big step forward and it’s a pleasure to enjoy his games.
So expectations are already high, but so far Firouzja doesn’t seem to be struggling under that burden. After the debacle against Vidit (he was lost in 12 moves) he drew an interesting game against David Navara in Round 6 and then took down the top seed in Round 7:
It has to be said that Polish no. 1 Jan-Krzysztof Duda gave his opponent some assistance, since he repeated the 7.Qc2!? he’d played against Robert Hovhannisyan in the 2018 World Rapid Championship. Back then his opponent played 8…Bg4 instead of Firouzja’s stronger 8…e4!, and Duda was able to get in a couple of tricks that gave him a totally won position, though in the end he drew in 105 moves.
This time Duda spent 45 minutes in total before offering the same piece sacrifice he’d offered in that game, but in much worse circumstances:
Firouzja later commented:
Qc2 is a bit dubious, I think. He played it once before, but he tried it again. I think he mixed up some move order, but ok, after that it was a very interesting game. He played the interesting idea Ng5, h4, which I cannot take, I think, but of course I can play slowly and he should go back with his pieces and then I have a good position, of course.
Alireza was correct that taking the piece is bad, since after e.g. 10…hxg5?! 11.hxg5 Nh7 12.f4! Black is in deep trouble, with d5 set to fall and the looming threat of mate on h7. He was also completely correct, however, that after the quiet 10…Re8! White had nothing. The sad retreat 11.Nh3 saw Duda switching to a fight for survival, and it wasn’t pretty:
20.Kf1!? Bf5 21.Kg2!? is an appealing way to “complete development”, but a better chance may have been to play 21.Nb2 and later Nc4, since after 21…Rad8! the pressure on d2 made it too late for that manoeuvre and 22.Nc3 was necessary. Alireza pointed out how bad the knight is on c3, and though he thought his opponent could have posed him more problems he didn’t see any path to equality.
The remaining hope for Duda was that both players reached the critical positions with just 6 minutes on their clocks:
If Firouzja had played the natural 34…Qb2 here, hitting the a3-rook and the f2-square, the game would go on after 35.Be2!, when White is ready to take on h6. In that line Black soon needs to play Bd7 to defend when the white rook comes to c7, but Firouzja took four minutes and spotted that it’s much more powerful to play 34…Bd7!! immediately.
One of the strengths of that move is that if you play e.g. 35.Rb6 suddenly 35…Rxf2+! is winning, since the f-file is open for Black to give a check with the other rook.
It was clear Duda knew it was over as he played 35.Rg6+, when 35…Kh7 left Black out of options, with the g6-rook now en-prise if the white bishop moves. There followed 36.Qc1 (played with 4 seconds to spare) 36…Be8! (once again the “quiet” bishop move is lethal) and if not for time trouble Duda would probably just have resigned, but instead he went for 37.Rxa5 Qxa5 38.Qc4 allowing Firouzja to finish in style:
Almost everything wins by this stage, but 38…Rxf2+! 39.Kxf2 Qf5+ was the most emphatic finish.
So in a position where Duda might have escaped against many other players Firouzja had demonstrated that trait Anand pointed out of making winning games look easy. That took Alireza back up to 4/7, but Vidit is out in front on 5/7 after draws in Rounds 6 and 7. The game with Black against Nikita Vitiugov, who would have caught him with a win, featured a nice defence after 27.Na2:
The knight wants to reroute to b4, but Vidit took full advantage of it leaving the centre to play the little combination 27…e5! 28.dxe5 Nc5! 29.Ra3 d5! and with the black pieces suddenly hyperactive it turned out to be a comfortable draw.
David Antón would have joined Firouzja and Vitiugov in second place if he hadn’t fallen for a brilliant trick by Markus Ragger in Round 7 time trouble. 36…Nxd5!! looked like desperation:
It was, in a way, but with a brilliant point. 37.Nc4! here was still winning, but 37.Rxe5? ran into 37…Ne3! 38.Rxe8 (38.Rxc5!! is a tough move for time trouble, but would still have left White a pawn up with some winning chances) 38…Qa1+! 39.Kf2:
Black is currently two rooks down, but 39…Nd1+ 40.Kg2 Ne3+ was a draw by perpetual check.
That was a second escape for Markus in two days, as he’d been outplayed by Sam Shankland in Round 6 but then managed to hold a tricky rook ending. That was just the latest disappointment for Sam, who was winless despite feeling he was playing well, but fortunes turned for the US star in Round 7. Nils Grandelius got down to under a minute to Sam’s 27 minutes when he played 33…Be7?
34.Rc7! was pinning and winning, at least after Nils replied 34…Bxd6? (34…Nxd6 and the game at least goes on) 35.Rxf7 Bc5+ and Black would be winning if not for the saving 36.Rd4, blocking the d-file and leaving the black king surprisingly helpless against the coming attack. Sam went on to win in 45 moves.
That leaves the standings as follows with two rounds to go:
Meanwhile in the Challengers 47-year-old Icelandic GM Hannes Stefansson is still the surprise leader. Top seed Nijat Abasov had suffered his first loss in 54 classical games in Round 5, but bounced back in Round 6 to beat Andrey Esipenko, who had gone unbeaten in Gibraltar and Prague apart from one Armageddon game.
17-year-old Esipenko shrugged that off to win again in Round 7 and trail Stefansson by only half a point, with Jorden van Foreest joining him after ending a sequence of five draws with two wins in a row. Stefansson faces Kacper Piorun and Jorden in the final two rounds.
Meanwhile the Masters could be decided in the penultimate round, when Vidit has White against Navara while Firouzja and Vitiugov are White against Shankland and Duda. If the tension is preserved to the final round Vidit faces a tricky test with Black against Duda.
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