Freestyle Challenge: Firouzja beats Carlsen, Abdusattorov beats Ding

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/12/2024 – The first (classical) games of the quarter-finals at the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Chess Challenge took place on Sunday. World number one Magnus Carlsen and world champion Ding Liren both suffered defeats with the black pieces, as they were outplayed by Alireza Firouzja and Nodirbek Abdusattorov, respectively. The one ‘veteran’ to score a win was Fabiano Caruana, who got the better of Gukesh D, while Vincent Keymer and Levon Aronian signed a draw after a wild, entertaining struggle. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

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Disparate heart rates

Besides presenting an innovative format and a luxurious environment, the organizers of the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Chess Challenge decided to replicate a couple of features from other super tournaments. As the classical games began at the Weissenhaus Resort, players were invited to share their thoughts in a ‘confessional’ room (like they do at the Norway Chess event) and their heart rates were monitored (like in the World Chess Armageddon series).

The first games of the quarter-finals saw three players getting ahead on the scoreboard by scoring wins with the white pieces: Nodirbek Abdsuattorov (who beat Ding Liren), Alireza Firouzja (Magnus Carlsen) and Fabiano Caruana (Gukesh D). The one draw of the day was signed in the game between Vincent Keymer and Levon Aronian.

Curiously, Abdusattorov and Firouzja reacted very differently to getting superior positions against the world champion and the world number one, respectively. While Abdusattorov’s heart rate of 72 beats per minute (b.p.m.) demonstrated amazing calmness, Firouzja’s heart rate went up to 139 b.p.m. when it was clear his pawn-up position in a rook endgame was clearly winning — granted, Firouzja had less than 3 minutes to make 6 moves when his heart rate went up dangerously!

So, Carlsen, Ding and Gukesh will all be in must-win situations in their games with white on Monday. Note that the players who are knocked out from the quarter-finals will continue playing in a ‘lower’ knockout bracket for 5th-8th places.

Freestyle Chess GOAT Challenge

Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Fabiano Caruana, Vincent Keymer

Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Fabiano Caruana and Vincent Keymer analysing the day’s setup | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Knight to h3 on move 3

The starting position of the first classical game prompted sharp opening battles, with Ding considering his second move already a serious mistake and Carlsen spending around 20 minutes on his third move.

It is quite clear that playing b2-b4 is a good idea here, pushing a pawn standing in front of a rook while opening up the dark-squared bishop — moreover, weakening that side is not a big deal since castling short or keeping the king in the centre seems to be the most logical alternatives in this setup.

In fact, all boards saw the white players going for 2.b4 right after starting the game with either 1.e4 (Firouzja, Abdusattorov) or 1.c4 (Caruana, Keymer).

Carlsen praised Firouzja’s approach: i.e. to opt for quick kingside development with 3.Nh3, 4.f4 and 5.0.0

Abdusattorov also played an early Ng1-h3, as both he and Firouzja left the opening stage with strategic advantages in queenless positions.

The two remaining battles led to sharper middlegame play, with queens remaining on the board and bigger structural imbalances. Keymer sacrificed a pawn early on, but was clearly in the driver’s seat (as Aronian also noted in the confessional).

Black is a pawn up, but his pieces are rather stuck. Aronian’s creative — albeit imperfect — opening approach granted him a clear advantage on the clock, though, which prompted Keymer to falter in a critical position later on.

21.e7, as played in the game, looks tempting, but the more natural 21.Rxg4 or even 21.h4 are better alternatives for White here.

From this point on, Aronian showed his usual resourcefulness (and made the most of his time advantage) to turn the tables and get a slight edge. Fortunately for Keymer, the ensuing simplified position was manageable enough, and a draw was signed after White’s 41st move.

Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian | Photo: Amruta Mokal

In the Caruana v. Gukesh battle, White also sacrificed a pawn, but unlike in the Keymer game, the compensation did not seem to be sufficient.

Nonetheless, Caruana, who is a magnificent calculator, ended up prevailing in the messy struggle that ensued. By move 26, both contenders had less than 15 minutes on the clock, and Gukesh failed to find a subtle idea that would have kept his advantage.

Engines suggest 26...a6 as best for Black here — playing such a committing pawn push is not at all easy, though, especially with 12 minutes on the clock (without increment) to make 14 moves. The more human 26...Rxc6 was also good, getting two outside passers on the queenside that might be very valuable in the long run.

Gukesh instead played 26...Qf5, 27...Re6, 28...Qg6 and 29...Qh6 in the next four moves, manouevres that turned out to be a bit artificial, as Caruana skilfully demonstrated.

Once he recovered the initiative, the U.S. grandmaster was ruthless in conversion. GM Daniel King analysed the game on the popular Power Play YouTube channel

Returning to the games featuring Carlsen and Ding — surely the biggest figures participating in the event — it was their younger rivals who got the upper hand in quieter, strategic battles.

Firouzja’s conversion from this position with an extra pawn was not flawless, but as noted by commentator Peter Leko, it never seemed likely that Carlsen would manage to escape with a draw in the double-rook endgame.

Meanwhile, Abdusattorov showed the same cold-bloodedness that he had shown in round 7 of the rapid — when he converted a strategic edge into a win in his game against Carlsen — to beat a seemingly out-of-sorts Ding.

27.f6 at once shows just how confident Abdusattorov is feeling at the Weissenhaus Resort after having won the rapid stage. The more cautious 27.Rg1 is also strong, but the Uzbek star knew that he was winning, and decided to go for the more direct approach.

Ding continued playing until move 45, but it seemed all but impossible for the world champion to escape with a draw during a significant portion of the game.

Alireza Firouzja

Alireza Firouzja | Photo: Amruta Mokal

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.