Magnus Carlsen’s aura of invincibility was dented on Wednesday for the second time this month when the world champion was defeated 8.5-7.5 in the final of the $14,000 Banter Blitz Cup by the tactical skills of 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja.
The teenager left his native Iran due to its policy of forbidding games against Israeli opponents, and now plays under the Fide global chess body flag. He has lived in Paris for several months, where his talent has blossomed to world elite levels.
His speciality is one-minute bullet chess, at which he beat Carlsen on 2 April in an informal first to 100 wins match. At very fast speeds manual dexterity is important, and some blamed Carlsen’s defeat on his using a mouse while Firouzja was quicker using finger touch.
Wednesday’s final was at Banter Blitz, where players comment verbally on their moves during the game. The time limit was three minutes per player per game, without the one-second or two-second per move increment which is normal for three-minute blitz. Again Firouzja was noticeably faster. He won two games on time and in another Carlsen escaped by checkmating with just 0.2 seconds to spare. While Carlsen kept up an articulate running commentary throughout, Firouzja, whose English is weaker, made fewer early comments and was usually ahead on time after the opening.
Carlsen was the heavy favourite following his impressive 9-0 semi-final win over the strong Russian Sanan Sjugirov, whereas Firouzja had struggled to defeat the Indian Srinath Narayanan 9-6. But in the final Firouzja was sharper, continually producing tactical tricks which rarely gave his opponent the classically controlled games where he dominates. If there is a historic parallel to this match, it would be the world title matches of 60-70 years ago where David Bronstein and Mikhail Tal also used their combinative ability to disrupt Mikhail Botvinnik’s strategic rhythm.
This weekend sees the start of the $250,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the richest ever online tournament and planned as a showpiece for the world champion’s skills. After the events of 2 April and this Wednesday, however, the Invitational has suddenly become a battlefield for survival for its originator.
One can excuse Carlsen’s defeats at bullet and blitz as significantly an effect of the playing conditions and time limit which favoured Firouzja, but the Invitational has rapid time controls, 15 minutes per player per game plus a 10 seconds per move increment.
Back in December Firouzja had Carlsen close to defeat at the World Blitz and won the silver medal behind Carlsen in the World Rapid, but next month at Wijk aan Zee at slower time limits the established elite defeated the teen. Four months further on, and Firouzja is clearly improving as fast as Bobby Fischer or Garry Kasparov did in their teenage years. So the stakes will be high at the Invitational and especially next Monday. Another success for Firouzja and much of the chess world will view him as the heir apparent to Carlsen’s throne.
First round pairings starting at 3pm this Saturday, are Carlsen (Norway) v Hikaru Nakamura (US) and Firouzja v Ding Liren (China), followed on Sunday by Fabiano Caruana (US) v Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) v Anish Giri (Netherlands). Monday at 3pm is a time to remember as Carlsen and Firouzja meet over four rapid games.
3667: 1…Nf3+! draws. If 2 exf3 Qxf1+! 3 Kxf1 stalemate draw. The game ended 2 Kg2 Qxe2+! 3 Bxe2 stalemate draw. If 2 Kf2 Qe1+ 3 Kxf3?? (3 Kg2) loses to Qxf1 mate. Instead 1…Nh3+? loses to 2 Kh2! Qxf1 3 Qh7+ Kg4 4 Qh4 mate. The position comes from The Complete Chess Swindler by David Smerdon (New in Chess, £21.95), an entertaining and pragmatic guide by An Australian GM in the art of rescuing lost positions.