Is Alireza Firouzja Reincarnated Capablanca?

Is Alireza Firouzja Reincarnated Capablanca?

| 108 | Strategy

These days only a lazy person doesn't speculate about the year when GM Alireza Firouzja will become the World Champion. Indeed, it is very difficult for me to imagine what kind of an event could prevent the current world #4 (he actually hit the #3 spot unofficially on November 16) from getting the ultimate chess title within five to 10 years. To be completely honest, I thought the same thing some 30 years ago. The only difference was the name: that time it was GM Vasyl Ivanchuk. Which only proves the wisdom of Yogi Berra, who famously said: "It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."

Regardless of whether Firouzja grabs the world title or not, the undeniable fact is that he is enormously talented. As a matter of fact, when I thought about any other player in chess history who had a comparable natural gift for chess, Jose Raul Capablanca was the first who popped into my mind. The more I thought about it, the more similarities between these two great chess players I could see. Let's start with the most obvious one.

The speed of play

Capablanca is considered one of the best blitz players ever. In the absence of any official results (or at least some blitz games in a database), it is difficult for me to separate truth from myth. For instance, it is hard for me to believe the story that during the famous super-tournament Moscow 1925, Capablanca was giving time odds of one minute versus five minutes to Russian masters and beat almost all of them. The only real evidence of Capablanca's strength is the result of his blitz match against World Champion Emanuel Lasker, in which he won 6.5-3.5. Also, we have records of a beautiful finish from one of those games. Can you find the only way to win in this position?

It is much easier to see why Firouzja is considered one of the best speed players in the world. You can find literary thousands of blitz and bullet games he played online. Not to be outdone by the above-mentioned Capablanca's brilliancy, here is Firouzja's masterpiece. White's position looks hopeless since he is down a whole Rook. Can he somehow survive?

Deep strategic concepts

It is a well-known fact that Capablanca won because of his superior strategical thinking in most of his games. Take for example the following well-known game, where he faced one of the best strategists of his time and author of the legendary book My System, Aron Nimzowitsch.

Now compare this game to the following gem:

There are many similarities between these two games: the same opening (the Caro-Kann Defense); both grandmasters playing White were top-10 players of their time; the black queen and rook occupied the dominating c4 and e4-squares; and finally, White could barely move at the end of both games. However, despite all the similarities, I like Firouzja's game more. First of all, GM Sergey Karjakin is well known for his defensive skills (hence the nickname "The Minister of Defense") and therefore he didn't commit any obvious mistakes (like for example Nimzowitsch's outrageous move 16. g4??).

Also, I was really impressed by Firouzja's novel concept. What do we usually do when we lose the right to castle and therefore our rook gets stuck in the corner? Right, we try to do "castle by hand" in order to bring the cornered rook back into the game. Therefore, most of us would try to prepare g7-g6 and Kg7 as soon as possible to "castle by hand." Nevertheless, Firouzja wasn't bothered one bit that he was playing essentially down a rook, so he kept improving his position on the queenside. Only after completely paralyzing White on the queenside did he remember the poor h8-rook. But he still didn't play the typical g6 and Kg7 idea. Instead, he started his attack on the kingside by playing h5 and g5! In my opinion, this is one of the best strategic games of the new millennium!

Attacking chess

In this department, Firouzja has way more games to brag about. It shouldn't surprise any chess aficionado who knows the history of our game. In his young years, Capablanca liked to attack, just like most of the players. Unfortunately, he quickly realized that due to his superior strategical play and impeccable technique, he didn't need to take any additional risks to win his games. His play became very dry and as a result, he didn't show the full extent of his talent. Here is what Kasparov says on this subject:

"Capa was let down by his old illness—a certain carelessness in his play: if it is all succeeding, why exert oneself? [...] Despite his staggering talent (or more probably, because of it), his real contribution to the creation of modern chess was inferior to that of Steinitz and Lasker. Their contribution was enormous and fundamental—they were the founders. Whereas Capablanca, by contrast, did everything possible to simplify the problems facing him, by dividing them into elementary components."

A game played by 13-year-old Capablanca is a very good illustration:

A chess engine highly praises the queen sacrifice and yet, here is what Capablanca said many years later when he was already a contender for the World Champion title: "Today, very likely, I would simply have played 29.Qd2 and won also, but at the time I could not resist the temptation of sacrificing the queen."

That is a very telling comment. Capablanca knew that the queen sacrifice was winning and yet, he would have preferred a simpler solution!

Fortunately, Alireza Firouzja is very young and doesn't have this kind of problem (yet?). Look at the following game where he sacrificed his knight for the same long diagonal, and in his case, the engine doesn't like it at all! By the way, both games are an excellent addition to the topic that we discussed not so long ago.

As you can see, Firouzja possesses a deep strategical understanding of the game, which can be compared to Capablanca's. However, Firouzja's chess is more dynamic thanks to his daily work with chess engines. We can only speculate how Firouzja's play will evolve as he gets older and more experienced, but it is absolutely clear that he has a very bright future. 

Finally, let me share my main conclusion, which you might completely disagree with. We frequently witness disputes about old masters versus today's players. You cannot refute even the most absurd opinions (like the notion that today's master would easily beat Morphy), since it is impossible to put them to the test. But I think that if Capablanca was born in 2003 (instead of 1888), his play would resemble Firouzja's.

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