Alireza Firouzja, at 18 the world’s best teenage chess player and in the eyes of many the heir apparent to Magnus Carlsen’s global crown, surged again this week as he reached the semi-final of the Aimchess US Rapid, checkmated Carlsen, and knocked out the other online Tour leader, US champion Wesley So.
The Iran-born talent, who now represents France, honed his skills via the internet, yet his performances on the Meltwater Champions Tour had been too inconsistent to qualify directly for the final in San Francisco later this month. All that changed in the last few days at the Aimchess US Rapid, when Firouzja checkmated Carlsen’s king in mid-board.
The teen again displayed his creative imagination when he outplayed So in the hackneyed Petroff Defence 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 with an offbeat plan first used by Russia’s Alexander Grischuk to defeat the world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, three years ago.
Firouzja has thus staked his claim for one of the two wildcard places in the 10-player Tour final, but he was beaten in Friday night’s semi-final by another Tour revelation, Russia’s Vladislav Artemiev. The 23-year-old from Omsk and the 18-year-old from Chartres were level at 2-2, 2-2, 1-1 through two rapid sets and a blitz tie-break before Firouzja, needing a draw under the rules, crumbled in the decisive Armageddon game.
Meanwhile Carlsen quickly recovered from his loss to Firouzja. The Norwegian cruised smoothly through his quarter-final against Poland’s Jan-Krysztof Duda, who eliminated the No 1 from last month’s World Cup semis.
Was Carlsen still feeling the hurt from that defeat? It seems so, judging by his comment after the first day that “I don’t take revenge by beating people once” and his later remark, after completing a 2.5-0.5, 2-5-0.5 straight sets victory, that: “I had a fairly decent day today. Generally my level of play has been very decent.”. In Carlsenspeak, the d word is high self-praise, as near to expressing deep inner satisfaction as he will get.
Carlsen continued his smooth run in his semi-final, winning 2-2, 3-1 against the world No 5, Levon Aronian, who was making his last appearance from Armenia before transferring to the US. The world champion will be a heavy favourite against Artemiev in their two-day match, which starts at 4pm on Saturday and is watchable live and free online.
Last week’s highly successful Northumbria Masters at Gateshead’s Marriott MetroCentre is already being called the “Hastings of the North” as it featured grandmaster and master all-play-alls plus a GM open won by Brandon Clarke. The 25-year-old, now based in Cambridge, had previously won several Australasian tournaments.
Ravi Haria scored his third and final GM norm as England’s currently fastest rising talent shared first with Ireland’s Conor Murphy. Haria’s 2021 purple patch has already included defeating highly rated GMs from France, Germany and Russia in the World Cup, and winning the Wood Green Invitational unbeaten.
In the final round at Gateshead, the 22-year-old University College London history graduate from Elstree won impressively with the black pieces against Matthew Wadsworth, who was also going for a GM result. This led to a sharp, unbalanced game where Haria sussed out at move 18 that exchanging bishops would give Black control of the light squares, which he exploited by 24…Qc6! and 33…e4!. The final touch was 38…Qe4! allowing White to queen with check.
As a last round must-win with Black victory, it echoed Mikhail Botvinnik’s 1939 classic against Alexander Kotov.
Right now, Haria looks to be England’s best young prospect, allowing for age, since David Howell 20 years ago, but there are problems ahead. The GM title and a 2500 rating are just the first step. His real, and very difficult, target is to reach 2600 or higher and the world’s top 100, and thus take the baton from the sextet of Michael Adams, Howell, Luke McShane, Gawain Jones, Nigel Short and Matthew Sadler, who were all 2600-2700 or even higher at their peaks. but are all now the wrong side of age 30.
The pandemic has drastically curtailed top over-the board chess, so that the British Championship at Hull in October may prove the only UK event for a while where a 2500 GM can gain significant rating points. The Fide Grand Swiss, with 100+ players and home nation wildcards, would have been ideal, but that has been moved to Latvia and Haria will not qualify for it. The situation needs a helpful sponsor, which transformed the prospects for some of England’s earlier talents.
Division two of the 150-nation Fide online Olympiad takes place on Thursday to Saturday this week, and Scotland, Ireland and Wales are all competing as promoted teams from last week’s division three. England’s top division campaign runs from next Wednesday to Friday.
There are several strong countries in division two, so the British Isles trio have little chance of further progress. But eyes will be on Scotland’s outstanding talent, 11-year-old Freddy Gordon, who scored 5/5 in division three on the under-20 board and who began this week by scoring the winning point against Norway. Scotland’s three daily matches start at 1pm.