Meet the candidates: Firouzja, Caruana, Lei book chess title tourney slots

Alireza Firouzja has been tipped as a future world champion contender since he burst on the scene by winning Iran’s national championship in 2016 at the tender age of 12, earning his grandmaster spurs two years later.

Now we know the 18-year-old Iranian-born, naturalized French GM will be in the mix for the next title cycle after he secured a spot in the 2022 Candidates Tournament by winning the super-strong FIDE Grand Swiss Tournament Sunday with a tremendous 8-3 score. His only loss in the event was to U.S. No. 1 GM Fabiano Caruana, who finished in a tie for second and grabbed the other Candidates’ invitation on offer because of better tiebreaks over Russian GM Grigory Oparin.

On the women’s side, Chinese IM Lei Tingjie won the event going away, while earning her third and final GM norm in the process. She thus qualifies for the Women’s Candidates tournament also to be held next year.

In a tournament filled with fascinating endgames, the climax of the Caruana-Firouzja Round 9 battle was one of the best, a textbook illustration of the power of connected passed pawns. We pick things up from today’s diagram, where Black, who has just played 45…Re7-e8, is up a piece for two pawns but still can’t hold back the White onslaught.

Typically, a rook is worth far more than two pawns, but not when those two pawns are tag-teaming their way down the board: 46. Kxg4 Nc6 47. Kf4! (the beginning of a remarkable sequence in which Caruana repeatedly leaves his rook under attack or subject to a fork, since all he needs are his pawns for the win) Ne7 (Nxe5 50. Kxe5 Rh8 51. f7 Rh5+ 52. Kd6 Rf5 53. Ke7 and wins) 50. Kg5! Nf3+ 51. Kf4 Nd4 (Kd4 52. f7 Rf8 53. Rf5 Nh4 54. Kg5! Nxf5 55. Kxf5 Kd5 56. Kf6, winning again) 52. e7 Nc6 53. f7! (yet again ignoring the attack on his rook, this time for the win) Rxe7 54. Rd5+! — one last finesse; White doesn’t fall for 54. Rxe7?? Nxe7 55. f8=Q Ng6+, and Firouzja resigned.

Firouzja showed his mettle by bouncing back against veteran English GM David Howell in the very next round, though the fight had some excruciating moments before the point was secured.

After a fair amount of positional shadow-boxing in this Giuoco Piano, Black’s risky central break with 22. Bxc4 d5!? is punished by Firouzja’s alert 27. Bd4 Be5?! (tougher was 27…Bxg3 28. Nxg3 Nf4 29. Rec2 Qb3) 28. Nxh6+!, winning a pawn by removing the defender on 28…gxh6 29. Bxg6 Bxg3 30. Rxe8+ Rxe8.

But in deep time trouble, Howell finds a remarkable resource and almost pulls out the draw: 31. Qf3?! (more clarifying was simply 31. fxg3! fxg6 32. Bxf6 Qb3 33. Qxb3 axb3 34. Rc7 Bf5 35. g4, with a clear pawn to the good) Qc6!!, an unexpected variation on the old back-rank mate trick.

A flustered White regrouped and managed to find 32. Bc2! (Rxc6?? Re1 mate) Bb8?! (White still faces a long slog to get the point after the clever 32…Qxc2! 33. Qxg3+ Qg6 34. Bxf6 Kh7) 33. Qxf6 Qxf6 34. Bxf6 Rc8 35. Bc3 d4 36. Bd2 Kg7 37. Bd3 Rxc1+ 38. Bxc1 h5 39. h4, and White has (just barely) kept his extra pawn and avoided the dreaded opposite-colored bishop ending.

With fine technique, Firouzja slowly unwinds his position, while Black’s four isolated pawns prove too hard to defend. After 51. fxg3 Ba5+ 57. Kc1, the unstoppable 58. Bf4+ will drive the Black king from the defense of the h-pawn; Howell resigned.

—-

Lei’s path to victory was considerably smoother, as the rapidly improving 24-year-old from Chongqing clinched the women’s tournament with a round to spare. She broke smartly from the starting gate with a 23-move dismissal of Indonesian WGM Irene Sukandar in the very first round.

White’s 8. a4?! looks premature against Lei’s Ruy Lopez Arkhangelsk set-up, and already by 12. Be3 Bxf3 13. gxf3 c6, Black has attacking targets on White busted kingside and a queen ready to redeploy via c8. A misguided White queen foray only makes things worse.

Thus: 18. Qc1 Qh3 19. Qg5? (c4!? 0-0 20. cxb5 cxb5 21. Qg5 Nd7 22. Bd5 Nc5 and at least White is still fighting) Ke7! (the king unexpectedly volunteers for spot defensive duty, rendering White’s maneuver pointless in the process) 20. c3 h6 21. Qd2 Nh5, and now either a Black knight on f4 or the opening of the g-file will prove disastrous for White.

It’s over quickly on 22. Ne2 (Nxh5 gxh5 32. Bd1 Rg8+ 24. Kh1 Qg2 mate) g5! (Lei’s attacks with a minimum of force, but White’s defenders are in even worse shape) 23. Qd1 (Ng3 Nf4 24. Nf5+ Kd7 25. Ne3 Qxf3 26. h3 Bxe3 27. fxe3 Ne2+ and wins) Rg8, and now 24…Nf4 is a killer threat. Sukandar resigned.

Firouzja-Howell, FIDE Grand Swiss Tournament, Riga, Latvia, November 2021

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. OO Nf6 5. d3 x6 6. c3 d6 7. Re1 OO 8. x3 a5 9. Nbd2 Be6 10. Bb5 Ba7 11. Nf1 Ne7 12. Ng3 c6 13. Ba4 b5 14. Bc2 a4 15. d4 Ng6 16. Be3 Re8 17. Bd3 Bb6 18. a3 Qc7 19. Rc1 Ba5 20. Re2 Qb7 21. c4 bxc4 22. Bxc4 d5 23. Bd3 exd4 24. Nxd4 Bd7 25. Ndf5 Bc7 26. exd5 cxd5 27. Bd4 Be5 28. Nxh6 + gxh6 29. Bxg6 Bxg3 30. Rxe8 + Rxe8 31. Qf3 Qc6 32. Bc2 Bb8 33. Qxf6 Qxf6 34. Bxf6 Rc8 35. Bc3 d4 36. Bd2 Kgx 37. Bd3. Bxc1 h5 39. h4 Bc6 40. g3 Bd7 41. Kf1 Be5 42. Ke2 Bg4 + 43. Kd2 Bd7 44. Kc2 Be6 45. Bb5 Bb3 + 46. Kd3 Kg6 47. Bd7 Bd1 48. Bd2 f5 49. Bf4 Bg7 50. Bd6 Bf 51. Be8 + Kh6 52. Bc5 f4 53. Bxd4 Bd8 54. Kd2 Bb3 55. Be5 fxg3 56. fxg3 Ba5 + 57. Kc1 Black resigns.

Sukandar-Lei, FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss Tournament, Riga, Latvia, November 2021

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. OO Bc5 6. Nc3 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. a4 Bg4 9. axb5 Nd4 10. d3 axb5 11. Rxa8 Qxa8 12. Be3 Bxf3 13. gxf3 c6 14. Bxd4 Bxd4 15. Qa1 Qc8 16. Ne2 Bb6 17. Ng3 g6 18. Qc1 Qh3 19. Qg5 Ke7 20. c3 h6 21. Qd2 Nh5 22. Ne2 g5 23. Qd1 Rg8 White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]

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