Alireza Firouzja conquers Saint Louis!

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
9/12/2022 – Alireza Firouzja beat Ian Nepomniachtchi in play-offs to win the ninth edition of the Sinquefield Cup. Firouzja also grabbed an extra $100,000 for winning this year’s Grand Chess Tour. The youngster came from winning the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz Tournament a couple of weeks ago. This was Firouzja’s first trip to Saint Louis, one that he is sure to remember for time to come! | Photo: Grand Chess Tour / Lennart Ootes

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The strongest junior in the world

With a number of junior players making the news lately, Alireza Firouzja’s performance over the last three weeks in Saint Louis proves that we have entered a new chess era, with the youngster from Babol as the leading representative. Firouzja is one of five junior players rated 2700 or above, and currently stands 50+ rating points above his nearest U20 colleague. At 2785 he will surely strive to again cross the 2800 barrier in the near future.

After dominating at the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, Firouzja went on to win the Sinquefield Cup, which secured him first place at the overall standings of this year’s Grand Chess Tour.

In the interview following his victory at the rapid and blitz event, Firouzja confessed that he had promised himself to win the first event he would ever play at the famed club in Saint Louis. Not only did he manage to keep his promise, but went on to grab two more remarkable victories soon after.

Some of Firouzja’s colleagues were asked about the youngster’s victory. Levon Aronian praised the tournament’s winner and added what he considers to be his competitive advantage — a bit of impracticality seems to be serving Firouzja well:

He’s a brilliant player, a player who doesn’t get discouraged. And he’s a great fighter. It’s very exciting to see someone who plays fighting chess perform well. [...] I think he’s very impractical, and that is definitely setting him aside from other players. It’s a competitive advantage.

Seven of the Sinquefield Cup participants, including Firouzja, will join Peter Svidler, Hikaru Nakamura and Garry Kasparov in the upcoming Chess9LX Champions Showdown, a more relaxed event that might see Firouzja score yet another victory in Saint Louis!

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Alireza Firouzja

French stars Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alireza Firouzja | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Throughout the Grand Chess Tour this year, Firouzja collected no less than $172,250 plus a $100,000 bonus for winning the series. Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave came in second and third place, respectively.

Grand Chess Tour

Although it was a remarkable victory for Firouzja, he did need some luck to take first place in the Sinquefield Cup, as Ian Nepomniachtchi, who entered the final round as co-leader, could have secured tournament victory in his game against Hans Niemann. Moreover, a visibly upset Nepo collapsed in the second game of the play-offs, handing his opponent a rather easy win.

Nonetheless, kudos to Nepo, who finished the tournament with a +2 score, and was the only player who managed to defeat the eventual champion.

A rough day for Nepo

Facing Niemann with white in his round-9 game, Nepo quickly entered a favourable queenless position with his opponent’s pawn structure quite damaged — i.e. a perfect circumstance given the tournament situation, as he could freely put pressure on Niemann without risking a sudden loss in a tactical position.

Nepo’s advantage continued to grow. However, inexplicably, he rejected grabbing a hanging pawn on move 39.

 

Commentators were befuddled by Nepo’s 39.Rb8 here, when 39.Rxh6 was the way to continue making progress. The Russian saw ghosts while calculating 39...Rg8 after the pawn capture, when 40.e4 was an easy-to-find (for a GM of his level) solution to his rook being somewhat lacking space.

The World Championship challenger was quite upset when he was interviewed by Alejandro Ramirez after this missed chance, which led to a draw.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

World number 3 Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Lennart Ootes

All remaining games also ended drawn in round 9, with Firouzja getting a quick half point in his game with white against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. MVL, who won the event last year and had a tough time in this edition, played the Berlin Defence and was happy to end the tournament with a safe half point against his young compatriot.

It was time for the play-offs, and Nepo got white in the first game. He did get to put some pressure out of a Catalan, but Firouzja showed good defensive skills to get the draw.

In the second game, Nepo uncharacteristically failed to find a crucial move out of the opening after playing a somewhat offbeat system with black.

 

Firouzja’s 11.c4 was not very accurate, as it allowed Black to justify his opening play with 11...Qh5, a move the commentators analysed immediately. Nepo, however, quickly went for 11...Qe5, and had to deal with an unfavourable position after 12.dxe4 Ncxe4.

Soon after, disaster struck for Nepo, who blundered a piece after missing a rather obvious tactical shot.

 

Black’s 16...Qe7 allows 17.e5, when 17...Qxe5 loses to 18.Bf4, grabbing the knight on d6.

Nepo continued playing from a losing position until move 34, but Firouzja did not falter in conversion, grabbing the all-important win to end an outstanding performance in his first trip to the United States’ chess capital.

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alireza Firouzja

The finalists wore more comfortable draws in the play-offs | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Play-offs

 

Round 9 results

 

Final standings

 

All games

 

Links


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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