Skaak: Alireza Firouzja leads in Riga as he campaigns for Carlsen’s crown

Alireza Firouzja, the 18-year-old pretender to Magnus Carlsen’s world crown, is closing in on the most important victory of his short career this weekend as the former Iranian, who now represents France, leads the 108-player Fide Grand Swiss in Riga by a full point, on an unbeaten 6.5/8 with three rounds to go.

Friday’s ninth round, starting at midday and free and live to watch online, includes the critical pairing of world No 3 and top seed, Fabiano Caruana, of the US, playing the white pieces, against Firouzja, who is now up to world No 4.

The nine players who share second place with Caruana on 5.5/8 also include the current Russian champion, Nikita Vitiugov, and England’s lone entry David Howell, who has won his last three games including impressive victories over former Fide champion Ruslan Ponomariov and Russia’s 19-year-old rising star Andrey Esipenko.

Howell has shown great resilience and stamina to come back so strongly with three wins in a row following his 142-move marathon at the start and a fifth-round defeat. The Sussex grandmaster’s online commentating and interviewing roles with Carlsen and Judit Polgar have helped his game, although his Grischukian battles with time pressure remain a concern. In Friday’s ninth round Howell plays White against Ukraine’s No 1, Anton Korobov.

If Firouzja wins or draws against Caruana, he may need only to halve his last two games to finish in the top two places after the 11th and final round on Sunday (midday start). The top two finishers at Riga qualify for the eight-player Candidates in spring 2022, whose winner challenges the reigning champion later in the year.

Whether that champion will be Carlsen, a prohibitive 1-4 on in the betting, or the Norwegian’s Russian challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, will be settled by their $2m, 14-game series which starts in Dubai on 26 November.

The potential stakes are enormous. Success in Riga at such a young age would immediately install Firouzja as favourite for the Candidates, creating an opportunity to capture the title at his first attempt and so become the youngest world champion in chess history. That record has been held since 1985 by Garry Kasparov, who at age 22 defeated Anatoly Karpov in their decisive 24th and final game. The youngest world women’s champion was Hou Yifan at 16.

There are some parallels between Firouzja now and Bobby Fischer in 1962, when the American won the Stockholm interzonal by a wide margin, became favourite for the candidates, failed, and blamed it on a Soviet conspiracy. Both committed themselves to the goal of becoming champion, spending many hours a day looking to improve and studying the games of prospective opponents.

Both have had brushes with officials, in Firouzja’s case his spat with the Wijk 2021 organisers and arbiters which may have led to his name being conspicuously absent from the chess Wimbledon’s invitation list for Wijk 2022. That could yet change, as Wijk has kept one place vacant.

Even in dress there are behaviour similarities. Fischer appeared in t-shirts and trainers in his teens, which was suddenly transformed at the Leipzig Olympiad in 1960 when Miguel Najdorf boasted of his 16 suits and Fischer decided he wanted 17. Savile Row was his principal motivation for a visit to London after Leipzig and for agreeing to the BBC’s £50 fee for an eight-hour consultation game. Firouzja also used to dress in teenage casuals, but in Riga he wears a smart suit and shirt and looks a well-groomed young champion.

Fischer had a direct and classical playing style with deep opening knowledge and few errors, whereas Firouzja’s fearsome reputation has stemmed from his mazy sacrifices in the tradition of Mikhail Tal.

Egter, even this has changed at Riga. In round seven Evgeny Najer chose the Petroff 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 which he had only played once before, but Firouzja was fully prepared and followed a key game: Wesley So v Yu Yangyi from Jerusalem 2019 which favoured White.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is also in the multiple tie for second place after eight rounds. The Frenchman, whose online handle is LyonBeast, was the front runner in the last (2020-21) candidates for more than a year. He led on tie-break in Yekaterinburg when the pandemic stopped the tournament at halfway, and still finished runner-up when the tournament was resumed and finished a year later.

Vachier-Lagrave scored a good win at Riga in a game which featured a hot opening line, the improved Milner-Barry Gambit in the 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 e5 Advance French, which was discussed in this column aan 27 Augustus, along with information about the gentleman amateur who created the gambit.

Intussen, Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi will push their first pawns at Dubai just three weeks from now. Carlsen signed off his classical over-the-board preparation last Friday with a Norwegian League match against Benjamin Notkevich, rated nearly 400 points lower than the No 1.

The script was written, but Notkevich failed to follow it. Carlsen chose the Caro-Kann 1 e4 c6, which was met by the formerly popular but now discarded Panov-Botvinnik attack 2 d4 d5 3 exd5 cxd5 4 c4. The position was level for a long time, and there was a scare for the world champion at move 26, when the engine briefly showed +2.31 for Notkevich, who then slipped to defeat by passive play.

Carlsen also played some more one-minute bullet under his internet handle of Dr Nykterstein, en won 10 games in a row, for which the technical term is ‘owned’, against the speed specialist GM Andrew Tang.

3788 1 Qxf6+! Kxf6 2 Rxh7 Rxc1+ 3 Nxc1 Rf8 4 Ng4 mate.

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