Superbet Classic: Firouzja inflicts Ding’s first defeat

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
5/11/2023 – Alireza Firouzja grabbed his second consecutive win at the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest — and what a win it was! The youngster beat Ding Liren with white, thus inflicting the Chinese grandmaster’s first defeat during his reign as world champion. In another remarkable development, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave got the better of Ian Nepomniachtchi after the latter misplayed an advantageous position out of a Sicilian Alapin. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Both World Championship contenders lose

Find expert commentary — video and game annotations — by well-known coach and author IM Robert Ris at the end of the article.

Two games, lasting 52 and 58 moves, saw both contenders from the recent World Championship match in Astana losing at the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest. Ding Liren was defeated by Alireza Firouzja, while Ian Nepomniachtchi lost to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Coincidentally, both Ding and Nepo had better positions in the middlegame.

As demonstrated by these games, elite-level chess is not all about opening preparation. The two protagonists from the memorable match got the upper hand out of the opening, but fatigue and perhaps a lack of motivation prevented them from converting their advantages — or at least keeping the balance once they lost the thread.

Round 5’s results left Fabiano Caruana in the sole lead with 3½ points, while allowing Firouzja to join the 3-player chasing pack a half point behind.

Firouzja’s win over Ding was not only the latter’s first defeat after winning the world title, but also Firouzja’s first-ever win over any world champion. A chirpy Firouzja later told commentator Cristian Chirila:

I feel really happy, and for sure it’s an easier world champion than Magnus. Of course, Ding is very strong, and I’m really happy to get this victory because now I moved to plus one, and it’s really important.

The 19-year-old kicked off the event with a loss against Wesley So, but his consecutive wins in rounds 4 and 5 have left him well in the fight for first place. Additionally, his performance so far has allowed him to leapfrog both Ding and Nepo in the live ratings list, as he has retaken the second spot only behind Magnus Carlsen.

After a rest day, Firouzja will face leader Caruana with black in the tournament’s sixth round.

Alireza Firouzja

World number 2 Alireza Firouzja | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Firouzja 1 - 0 Ding

A theoretical variation of the Ruy Lopez saw both players beginning to take their time at around move 10, although even later in the game (on move 18) they reached a position that had been seen in an encounter between Vishy Anand and Vidit Gujrathi back in 2019.

Firouzja handled the strategic position brilliantly, giving up a pawn for the bishop pair and activity. However, his 24th move gave Ding a crucial tempo to completely regroup his army.

24.Ng5 all but gave away White’s advantage, when the prophylactic 24.Ba2 was the way to go, dealing with the threat of ...Nd6 (placing the bishop on b3 would allow ...Nc5). Firouzja lamented not having found this move afterwards.

Ding took his chance, as he did not take long to gain the upper hand. On move 30, though, already in time trouble, the world champion jumped to the centre with the wrong knight.

It turns out that 30...Nde4 is winning here, instead of Ding’s 30...Nfe4. The idea is that after 31.Nxf7, Black has the counterintuitive 31...Rxd1 32.Rxd1 Nf2 (diagram), crucially getting the initiative in a double-edged position.

White has nothing better than 33.Re1, allowing Black to infiltrate via 33...Qe4+ 34.Qf3 Nd3, and defending the position will be extremely tough for White even after the queens are traded.

None of this was seen in the game, as following Ding’s 30th move, Firouzja found 31.Bxd6 Nxd6 32.Bxf7 Nxf7 33.Rxf7+

As noted by Firouzja, Ding probably entered this line thinking that the ensuing endgame was drawn — but his assessment might have been mistaken due to a particular miscalculation.

The game continued with 33...Qxf7 34.Nxf7 Rxd1 35.Qxd1, and here is where Firouzja speculated that Ding most likely missed that 35...e2 does not work.

Pushing the passed pawn to the second rank fails spectacularly to 36.Qd7 e1Q 37.Ne5, blocking the e-file with a discovered check — which actually is a forced mate for White! 37...Kh6, for example, would be followed by 38.Ng4+ Kh5 39.Qh7+ Kxg4 40.Qxg6#

Black’s queen, rook and bishop are mere spectators!

Ding found this forced sequence and correctly went for 35...Kxf7 instead. However, perhaps feeling disappointed at his entering this whole variation, he blundered the game away on the very next move, as after 36.Qe2 he needed to play 36...Kg7 instead of 36...Ke7, leaving the weak pawn on g6 unprotected. 

Had the world champion placed his king on g7, Firouzja would have still been in the driver’s seat, but the position would have certainly been defensible for Black. The rest day before round 6 is likely to help Ding to recover his usual level.

Ding Liren

Ding Liren suffered his first loss as world champion | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Nepomniachtchi 0 - 1 Vachier-Lagrave

This game was a case of White getting a positional advantage out of a Sicilian Alapin (which surprised MVL) but failing to convert it into a more tangible edge in the middlegame.

Nepo underestimated Black’s counterchances on the h-file, as he was trying to play quickly to put pressure on his opponent on the clock.

White has full control over the open d-file and has a space advantage on the queenside. Nepo’s 32.g4, played after less than 30 seconds, permanently weakened his king tough, as the black rooks were swiftly transferred to the h-file by MVL.

Much like in Ding’s game, Nepo’s position was not lost after he mishandled his advantage, but similarly to the world champion, the Russian failed to adjust to the new situation on the board and saw his opponent take over the initiative.

MVL made the most of Nepo’s careless manoeuvres, and got to play a nice exchange sac to all but secure the victory.

48...Rxf1+ 49.Kxf1 Rh1+ 50.Kf2 Ne4+ (the point!) 51.Kxf3 Nxd2+ followed.

Black went on to grab the b3-pawn, and the passed a-pawn decided the game in his favour.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

Results - Round 5

Standings - Round 5

All games

Middlegame Secrets Vol.1 + Vol.2

Let us learn together how to find the best spot for the queen in the early middlegame, how to navigate this piece around the board, how to time the queen attack, how to decide whether to exchange it or not, and much more!


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.