Reports May 7, 2023 | 11:31 AMby Colin McGourty

Superbet Chess Classic 1: So gets Firouzja revenge

Wesley So talked of “revenge” as he beat Alireza Firouzja with the black pieces to score the only win on Day 1 of the Superbet Chess Classic, the first event on the 2023 Grand Chess Tour. Ding Liren was ultimately happy to open with a solid draw against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, while the world champion’s second Richard Rapport felt Ian Nepomniachtchi was vulnerable in the French Defence, though he couldn’t prove it.

Wesley So got off to a flying start against Alireza Firouzja | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The Superbet Chess Classic began in Bucharest with the chess world’s thoughts still very much on the World Championship match. The watching Garry Kasparov felt that Ding Liren hadn’t got used to his new status.

I think Ding still doesn’t believe he’s world champion, because the moment you say “world champion” he looks around!

Garry would go on to make the first move of the game for Ding.

Ding said he was exhausted immediately after the match, but felt ok after flying to Europe. He faced a challenge on the chessboard when Maxime Vachier-Lagrave surprised him with the Queen’s Gambit Accepted and not the Grünfeld he’d expected. If Ding had been playing a match against Maxime, questions would have been asked, since he clearly didn’t realise his opponent had played the position in the game before.

Ding said of the new move 15…h6:

Maybe he’s still in preparation as he played this move within 10 minutes… I was surprised about this move, to do nothing on the queenside and to make a waiting move on the kingside.

With 16.Rc1 Rc8 17.b4 Ding confessed he “decided to make a quick draw”, which is just what happened.

He wasn’t complaining:

Today I feel much better than in the previous tournament. Normally I play very bad with the first white games, I lost many white games in the previous tournaments. Today at least I got a draw.

No more unstoppable minds... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Ding Liren’s second Richard Rapport was also in action, and he commented about his experience of the match, “Astana, it was sweet at the end, but it wasn’t really fun!” In Round 1 he was facing the man he’d spent months preparing someone else for, Ian Nepomniachtchi, and he tried to use that experience.

I was very surprised by his approach. I was thinking to take some small experience with me from the match, and I felt like he’s actually quite vulnerable in the French. [1.e4 e6 2.d4 d53.Ne2 is not of course the most dangerous line.

Richard conceded, however, that he ended up with a difficult position from the opening, with Ian the one doing Richie things.

It was an interesting struggle, but once again fizzled out, with Rapport noting, “he kind of let me off the hook very easily”.

The game you might most have expected to produce a decisive result, Caruana-Deac, was close to doing so, but Fabiano Caruana missed his best chance in the run-up to the time control.

34.g4! gains space, relying on the little tactic 34…Bxg4? 35.Rg1, while after 34…Bg6 35.Bxc5! Bxc5 36.Bd5! Bogdan-Daniel Deac would have a very bad bishop and struggle to keep hold of both the b7 and the e5-pawns.

Instead in the game 34.Rc1!? b6! came to nothing.

Fabiano Caruana was unable to get anything against the tournament's underdog, Bogdan-Daniel Deac | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Duda-Giri featured one of the most unusual positions of the day, with Jan-Krzysztof giving up a rook only to win it back with 17.b7.

Anish Giri said “the match was very inspiring” of Ding-Nepomniachtchi, but this game was something we didn’t see much of in the match: “It was one of those computer-generated variations”.

Both players knew what they were doing and Giri comfortably held a draw a pawn down. He afterwards explained how opening specialists such as himself now have less of an edge.

Nowadays it’s very hard to control the game. It wasn’t the case before. The well-prepared players, they controlled the game, but the nature of the game is such nowadays that you’ve got to get out there and fight, because you don’t really have the advantage of being well-prepared, because it’s so easy to prepare now. Anybody without understanding or skills just looks at the engine. And before the engine would give you, let’s say, five options, and if you had some better understanding you would see that the first option is not good, the second option is not good and the third option is good, or the most sound one, but now the engines are much superior and they right away put that the right one is the third, so anybody just looks and writes down the same lines, and so I don’t have that edge anymore.

Alireza Firouzja's defence of his title got off to a bad start | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The one game that did end decisively had an echo of last year’s Sinquefield Cup. Back then Wesley So was winning with the black pieces against Alireza Firouzja in the penultimate round, and with that win could have won both the Sinquefield Cup and the Grand Chess Tour, with its $100,000 top prize. Instead he blundered and lost and Alireza took the titles and money.

Wesley commented of beating Alireza this time round:

He’s very dangerous. I’m very happy to get revenge for that important game in the Sinquefield Cup, and again, all glory to Jesus for the win. He was playing very ambitiously…

The game was tense, with Alireza for choice until as late as move 36. Only 37…g5! by Wesley began to turn the tables.

After 38.hxg5 hxg5 39.Qd2 g4 40.Nh4 Qe4+ Alireza suddenly needed to play very precisely, but his 41.Kh2?!, leaving the f2-pawn undefended, was a mistake. After 41.Kg1 it seems 41…Qxd4 is just a draw, but in the game the same move was picking up a crucial pawn.

Alireza’s best hope was perhaps that Wesley would see some ghosts and decide just to make a draw. He didn’t, however, and instead of repeating moves he correctly evacuated his king, first to f8……and then shortly afterwards to e8.

…and then shortly afterwards to e8.

When queens left the board things briefly looked more optimistic for White.

But again, Firouzja needed to show extreme precision. After 54…Rd7! the best try was 55.Ng2, but Alireza instead went for the plan of 55.Kg2?! and going after the g4-pawn with his king, but it only left him with a bad position. He was unable to put up much resistance as Wesley wrapped up a 72-move win.

Alireza Firouzja resigns | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

It was understandable that Alireza was rusty after not playing a classical game since that earlier Sinquefield Cup, but if he needs a reason for hope it’s that he also started badly on the Grand Chess Tour in 2022, losing to Ian Nepomniachtchi in Round 2. That didn’t stop him winning the tour.

In Sunday’s Round 2 the leader will be challenged with the black pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, while Ding-Caruana is perhaps the other standout game. There are no dull ties, however, and Giri-Firouzja, Rapport-Duda and Deac-Nepomniachtchi might well produce fireworks.

Tune into all the Superbet Chess Classic games from 14:30 CEST!

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