Alireza Firouzja beat Ian Nepomniachtchi in a playoff to complete a stunning debut in St. Louis. The 19-year-old added victory in the Sinquefield Cup and Grand Chess Tour to his crushing victory in the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, picking up $227,500 in the space of just over two weeks.
This was as dynamic as MVL-Firouzja got | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
Alireza Firouzja went into the final round of the Sinquefield Cup knowing that a draw would guarantee him the $100,000 top prize for winning the Grand Chess Tour. He had the black pieces against his compatriot Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and it soon turned out neither player was against a draw, which they completed in under half an hour.
Maxime had come into the event leading the tour, but won no games and lost two, telling Anastasia Karlovich, “I felt like I played this tournament as a ghost”. The one consolation, however, was that he still took 3rd place, while Alireza clinched first.
Alireza had followed in the footsteps of Magnus Carlsen (twice), Wesley So (twice), Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren in winning the Grand Chess Tour. He quoted Jay-Z and Kanye West.
The Grand Chess Tour is the toughest tour in the history of chess, so to win it is an amazing feeling and I cannot be more happy.
Alireza was back on track after his tough experience at the Candidates Tournament in Madrid, which he felt had nevertheless helped him.
"For sure I got some experience from the Candidates Tournament. I played there 14 very tough games against very good players and everybody was motivated, so I took a lot of lessons there and experiences there, and it definitely helped me to be at the top of my game here. In general, I think the rapid and blitz portion I played very well, and that really gave me confidence for the classical, because it’s really a boost. In general, I think the Candidates Tournament helped me a lot."
Alireza received high praise from his colleagues, with Levon Aronian commenting:
"He’s a brilliant player, and a player who doesn’t get discouraged, and he’s a great fighter, so it’s very exciting to see somebody who plays fighting chess perform well. For me personally I’m more of the romantic player, so it’s good to see somebody who’s doing something similar succeed. It gives me hope."
"You can play romantically and maybe slightly incorrectly. It means chess is not all pragmatic, so chess is still a game where you can take a risk and achieve success… I think he’s very impractical, and that is definitely setting him aside from other players, so it’s his comparative advantage."
Levon himself ended his tournament with a draw against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who felt that playing too much chess after the pandemic had left him worn out. Levon, meanwhile, explained he hadn’t recovered from the Olympiad, where a non-COVID illness had left him needing to take antibiotics.
"After the Olympiad I’m really not feeling like myself, so it’s ok. There’s a saying — it’s a cloud, it has to pass, so I’m waiting for the cloud to pass and things will be good again."
The player with most to regret at the end of the Sinquefield Cup was Wesley So, who was one or two accurate calculations against Alireza in the penultimate round away from winning both the Cup and the Grand Chess Tour.
He commented of his 2nd place in the Tour:
"Of course 2nd place is not bad, but after what I did yesterday… it was probably one of my biggest chokes in my history of choking, which happens quite a lot."
Wesley explained his loss to Alireza as a combination of factors. He cited fatigue from preparing too much on the two rest days, the knowledge that he only needed to draw what was a winning position to all but guarantee tour victory, and also his chess preferences:
"It’s not so easy sometimes for me to play irrational positions, even if they’re better for me, positions I’ve never seen before, and yesterday unfortunately was one and Alireza’s just better than me in those kinds of positions."
Wesley was generous in his praise:
"I must say I have big respect for Alireza. I hope he becomes the World Champion one day. I’m very impressed by his play so far, winning the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, and he’s only 19 years old, so I think possibly he will be the best player of his generation."
Wesley ended the tournament with a quiet draw against Leinier Dominguez, who finished unbeaten but drew all his games after missing a number of wins.
Nepomniachtchi spoilt a winning position against Hans Niemann | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
Ian Nepomniachtchi also technically finished unbeaten, after his painful first round loss to Magnus Carlsen was chalked off when Magnus withdrew. Everything seemed to be going the way of the Candidates Tournament winner when, after Firouzja had drawn, he had the chance to take the $100,000 first prize in the Sinquefield Cup by beating Hans Niemann.
Ian soon got an ending where he could press at no risk, and he got to work against his opponents’ weak pawns. In the end all he needed to do was take a free pawn on h6.
He may have feared the rook getting cut off on h6 after Rg8, but he had plenty of time to calculate that in fact he would just have created a winning passed pawn.
Instead he quickly went for 39.Rb8?! and soon had given away most of his advantage. Why didn’t he take the pawn?
Because I’m a moron! I thought it’s winning by any sequence of moves, because this position speaks for itself.
Nepo failed even to prolong the game, since he blundered a simple tactic that meant he was forced to allow a draw by repetition.
Hans Niemann, who noted he was born just a couple of days after Firouzja, had a lot to reflect on.
He hadn’t quite preserved the 2700 rating he gained by beating Magnus, but in the circumstances felt his result was still a miracle.
"I have mixed feelings about my play, because my first four games I was so happy with, and I think in the first four games I could even score 4/4, based on the chances, and I was winning every single one of those games. Then after that the pressure of playing my first super-tournament, combined with everything, was a lot to handle, and I wasn’t able to handle my nerves, and at many critical moments I just completely choked. So obviously in the second half it was very difficult to play such strong opposition under such pressure on and off the board, but
I think considering the circumstances the fact that I survived is a miracle.
So I’m very happy, maybe not with this game, but it’s over, and 50%, if you include the Magnus win, considering the circumstances, I think is a very good result. I think that if I could play with a clear mind and no drama I’m sure I would have done much better."
Hans chose not to make any further comment on Magnus Carlsen’s withdrawal, except to detail how it had upset his tournament routine. If he’d learned one purely chess thing about playing in super-tournaments he said it was that he needed to be more risk-adverse to compete with best.
It was more, however, that he was still reflecting on an extraordinary few weeks.
"The fact that I’m even playing this tournament was pure chance. There was a last-minute dropout and then I was selected, which was not guaranteed, and then I made a trip from Turkey, very far and very tiring. So the last three weeks seem like a parallel universe. It just doesn’t make any sense to me, because this wildcard to Miami, for no reason, and even there, chess speaks for itself, and that went crazy, and it’s just felt like quite crazy. But I’m very thankful, first of all, to Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield for everything they’ve done in chess. This invitation will definitely have a significant impact on my career, and we’ll see if that will be positive or a negative. That’s to be determined."
Neither Hans nor the chess world will forget the 2022 Sinquefield Cup in a hurry | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
The draw, however, meant the Sinquefield Cup wasn’t over, with the tournament winner — and who would get an extra $10,000 — still to be decided.
Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alireza Firouzja had to come back for a rapid chess playoff | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
“I didn’t expect to be in the tiebreaks because Ian was completely winning today against Hans, so it’s a miracle I think that I got into the tiebreaks,” said Alireza. The emotions were the exact opposite for Ian Nepomniachtchi, who had played for four hours only to squander a win against Hans Niemann and now had to come back a couple of hours later to play a playoff.
The format was for two 15+10 rapid games followed, if needed, by Armageddon. The first, where Ian had White, was played at a very high level by both sides. 26…c5?! was an inaccuracy.
Nepo found the reply 27.d5!, relying on the fact that Firouzja couldn’t capture the d-pawn without leaving the b6-pawn undefended. Alireza sank into a 7 minutes 46 seconds think:
"I completely missed the move, after c5. It’s a very important position, because White is getting e4 and I have to be very concrete, otherwise I get very passive. I don’t know if I found the correct way, but I think it’s ok, and I couldn’t see how he wants to break. So I was happy with my decision after all."
Alireza had lost a passive rook endgame to Ian in Round 2 of the tournament, but this time his energetic defence, starting 27…e4+! 28.Ke2 c4!, held the balance until the game ended in stalemate on move 70.
The players fought on all the way until stalemate | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
The 2nd game, however, swung Firouzja’s way early on. Nepo was in trouble as early as move 7, while 16.e4! was a pawn sacrifice that had to be accepted.
After 16…Nxc4 17.f4, with 18.e5 to follow, Alireza would be on top, but the game would still be on. Instead Ian blundered immediately with 16…Qe7?, running into 17.e5!
17…Qxe5 is hit by 18.Bf4, winning the d6-knight — a tactic you don’t need to be as phenomenally good as Nepo or Firouzja to spot. Alireza commented:
"It was shocking, yes! You have to think about e5, but he’s very tired and he was completely winning today, so he’s a bit frustrated. It’s kind of understandable, but you have to normally see e5. I think I had a very promising position instead of Qe7, but it’s a good gift. It was a very good feeling."
Ian went for 17…Nxc4 18.exf6 and stretched the game out to move 34, but there was no coming back from being a piece down. A tough ending for the world no. 3.
For Alireza, meanwhile, it meant another triumph in St. Louis.
In just over two weeks he’s picked up $227,500 — $40,000 for 1st in the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, $100,000 for winning the Grand Chess Tour, and $87,500 for winning the Sinquefield Cup on tiebreaks.
His St. Louis adventure isn’t over, however, and he could still pick up another $37,500 when Chess 9LX takes place from Wednesday, September 14th to Friday 16th. Hikaru Nakamura, Peter Svidler and the one and only Garry Kasparov join for that Chess960 event.