Alireza Firouzja wins Prague Masters in blitz playoff

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/22/2020 – After an exciting final round in which two key encounters finished decisively, five players ended up tied in first place on 5 out of 9. Vidit and Alireza Firouzja had the best tiebreak scores and decided the championship in a blitz playoff. 16-year-old Firouzja won both quick-play encounters to take the title. Jorden van Foreest got clear first place in the Challengers and qualified to next year's main event. | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

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The ascent continues

The chess world cannot but continue to be stunned by 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja. The youngster from Babol has made a strong impression in the last year and a half or so. Back in December 2018, Thorsten Cmiel sent us an article praising the prodigy when his Elo at the time was "a mere" 2607. Thirteen months later, Firouzja is the 21st highest-rated player in the world and already got a tournament victory in an event with an Elo average over 2700.

Firouzja's performance in Prague was not out of this world, as a series of rather unexpected results meant 'plus one' was enough to tie for first, but this comes soon after the youngster had a strong showing in Wijk aan Zee, when he even got the sole lead before suffering in consecutive games against Carlsen, Caruana and Anand. Seeing him get a 2:0 victory in the playoff over Vidit is no surprise, however, as he is already well-known for his blitz and bullet skills — he consistently shows impressive results online and had a remarkable performance at last year's World Rapid and Blitz Championships.  

Will he reach the Candidates Tournament in the next cycle? It's certainly plausible!

Vidit Gujrathi, Alireza Firouzja, Jan-Krzysztof Duda

Top three finishers in the Masters — Vidit Gujrathi, Alireza Firouzja and Jan-Krzysztof Duda | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

Vidit falls at the final hurdle

Going into Thursday's eighth round it seemed like only an extraordinary occurrence would prevent Vidit from winning the second edition of the Prague Masters Tournament. And that is precisely what happened. David Navara beat the Indian after surviving a completely lost position. Subsequently, a staggered Vidit lost his final encounter against Jan-Krzysztof Duda, when in hindsight a draw would have been enough to get first place outright.

In typical style, Duda fought for the initiative from the get go:


White's opening strategy is simple — he wants to build a direct attack against the king. Thus, 18.g4 h6 19.xc6 bxc6 20.e4 was the game continuation. Soon enough, Duda pushed his h-pawn while Vidit stumbled trying to find the most appropriate defensive manoeuvres. By the time White got to double his rooks on the h-file, it seemed all but impossible for Black to survive:


Duda only needed to be careful not to blunder his advantage away from this point on. There followed 29.eh3 f8 30.xa6 and Black got himself in deeper trouble with 30...xf2 — the game came to an end after 31.f3 (31.♖f1 was stronger) ♛xd4 32.xg6 f4 33.f6 e4+ 34.d3 and Black resigned.

With this win, Duda had caught up with Vidit in the standings table, but the fight for the title was very much undecided, as David Anton and Alireza Firouzja — two of the chasers after round eight — were in the midst of a sharp struggle. When Vidit resigned, Anton had a clear edge over the wunderkind...


Vidit Gujrathi

Vidit proved he has what it takes to fight for first in a strong event | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

Firouzja bravely played the King's Indian Defence, much like in his game against Caruana from Wijk aan Zee. Anton, a very classical player, accepted the challenge to enter a sharp struggle by playing 12.g4 out of the opening and later confirmed his intention to build up an attack on the kingside by castling long.

The Spaniard showed both strong positional understanding and good calculation abilities to handle his initiative, even pushing his young opponent to give up an exchange on move 26. Ten moves later, the black king's position was highly vulnerable, and Anton missed a chance to effectively wrap up his attack:


Much like in his game against Markus Ragger two rounds ago, Anton failed to put the last nail in the coffin. The direct 36.♖xg6 ♚xg6 37.♕h4 is lethal, while opting for 36.h4 first — as played by Anton — gives Black a chance to create more obstacles to his opponent. The game continued 36...f8 37.h1 g7 38.h4 and now 38...xe4 releases the tension and opens up lines for Black's pair of bishops.

This was the position after move 41:


Black is going to gobble up the a-pawn and will regain an exchange anytime he wants. The computer in fact finds some lines to get a favourable endgame for Black, with two pieces for a rook, but for humans it is difficult to see the subtleties that differentiate one line from another, especially with both kings weakened and queens still on the board. When Firouzja finally decided on a specific line, Anton found a perpetual check. 

In the meantime, the last player that still had a chance to get first place without needing tiebreaks, Nikita Vitiugov, actually lost against Sam Shankland — thus, it was the American who ended up sharing first place. Pentala Harikrishna also won, as he took down David Navara with the white pieces.

So five players scored 5 points. The best tiebreak scores were achieved by Vidit and Firouzja, which meant they would decide who would get the title on a pair of 5'+3" blitz encounters. In case of a tie, an Armageddon decider would settle the matter.


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Alireza Firouzja, David Anton

An astounding final round battle — David Anton v Alireza Firouzja | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

Firouzja 2:0 Vidit

Coming from two painful losses, Vidit had to face a player known for his amazing speed in blitz. The Indian grandmaster kicked off with the white pieces and was doing fine out of the opening. Soon enough, however, Firouzja's tactical alertness gave Black a slight edge. Both kings had been weakened, and Vidit suddenly got a chance to double his rook and queen on the back rank:


This is the kind of situation in which a player of Vidit's calibre would probably find the solution in a classical game, while getting it right in a five-minute encounter has more to do with luck. White chose 36.e8, when 36.♕a8 was the winning move — easy for us to point this out with the engines on. 

The sharp tactical struggle continued, and Firouzja was the one who showed better reflexes when the position simplified into an ending with bishops of opposite colours and rooks still on the board. Vidit resigned on move 47, and now needed to win on demand — with Black, after suffering three straight losses.

In the rematch, the queens were exchanged as early as move 10. Vidit tried to grind out a win, but Firouzja did not make any big blunders during the manoeuvring battle. On move 48, Vidit's flag fell and the winner of the event had been decided.

Let us not forget that the champion was a late replacement for Wei Yi! 


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Alireza Firouzja, Vidit Gujrathi

Time to decide the winner! | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

Final standings - Masters


All games - Masters


Jorden van Foreest wins the Challengers

The organizers of the Prague Chess Festival are emulating the traditional Wijk aan Zee tournament that is played every January. As part of their effort to create a strong tradition, they have put forth a Challengers Tournament which, much like at the Tata Steel event, grants a place in next year's Masters.

Jorden van Foreest, who in fact had a strong showing at this year's Tata Steel Masters, ended up taking clear first place. The Dutchman won three out his four last games to finish ahead on 6 out of 9. Nijat Abasov from Azerbaijan and Andrey Esipenko from Russia shared second place a half point behind.

Jorden van Foreest

20-year-old Dutch grandmaster Jorden van Foreest | Photo: Vladimir Jagr

Final standings - Challengers


All games - Challengers



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.


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