Firouzja Falters But Maintains Lead
Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Firouzja Falters But Maintains Lead

| 26 | Chess Event Coverage

The 2022 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz continued on Saturday with rounds four-six of the rapid segment taking place, and GM Alireza Firouzja is holding onto the top spot by a single point. An early scare against GM Fabiano Caruana almost saw his lead evaporate, but a decisive result in round six against GM Leinier Dominguez allowed Firouzja to recover.

GMs Jeffery Xiong and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave became the main chasers on 3/5 after three draws each as well as GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who scored his first win of the event against GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov on the white side of the Catalan Opening.

The event will continue with rounds seven-nine of the rapid portion on August 28 at 11 a.m. PT/20:00 Central European.

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Of the 15 games, 80 percent were drawn on the second day, giving a significant advantage on the leaderboard to the three players who won a game each. Despite the many draws, the round-four games never lacked excitement and a few close shaves were had. GM Levon Aronian almost became the victim of a GM Sam Shankland masterclass, which was marred by a moment of greed.

Shankland very nearly ruined Aronian's day. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

On the white side of a Nimzo-Indian Defense: Ragozin Variation, Shankland forced Aronian to sacrifice his queen for a rook, knight, and pawn. The resulting position left the world number-eight with serious coordination issues; however, the impulsive 36.Qxa6 and several inaccuracies from Shankland afterward left him just short of a conclusive blow.

Caruana also had a better position against Dominguez in round four and later said that his opponent "was in danger" due to a ruined pawn structure in a rook-and-pawn ending. The Cuban-born American was both active and resourceful in his defense and claimed a half point for his efforts. Meanwhile, the battle of the youngest players in the field ended in a draw after a relatively incident-free clash.

GM Hikaru Nakamura looked set to fire after a disappointing first day but was held to a draw in 70 moves after Vachier-Lagrave showed off an ambitious pawn sacrifice in the Sicilian Defense, Open, Prins Variation. Nakamura expressed his disappointment on stream after the game by saying, "If I had spent my time, I probably would've won this," in reference to a moment when the ending was winning.

The game of the round and the day undoubtedly belongs to Nepomniachtchi who overcame Mamedyarov with a Catalan, an opening in which he maintains a 70 percent win rate in some lines on GM Rafael Leitao has provided his expert analysis on this game below.

The first five minutes of the fifth round would have had Romantic players of old turning in their graves, with two Berlin and two Petrov's Defenses forcing symmetry across the evaluation bars for four of the games. Nakamura and Mamedyarov's game was the only skirmish that featured an alternate opening, but pieces flew off the board quickly until a knight and kings were all that remained.

A lonely knight was all that remained after a balanced duel. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Caruana's choice to play solidly with Black against Firouzja proved to be a masterstroke, with the experienced Berlin Defense exponent needing only 11 moves to garner a strong advantage against his opponent. Caruana later stated that Firouzja was "on his own" early, which was one of the factors that led to the Iranian-born GM blundering a pawn and the bishop pair out of the opening. 

All that Caruana needed were 26 moves to topple the tournament leader and reinstate himself as one of the favorites after a shaky first day.

Firouzja (left) and Caruana shake hands after the short-lived game. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

The other three games ended in draws with rock-solid defense from Black. For those interested in the art of sound defense with the black pieces against e4,'s recent documentary "The History of Chess: A Reflection of Us" covers some of the greatest defensive players of all time, including GM Vladimir Kramnik (one of the pioneers of the openings seen in round five) and GM Tigran Petrosian.

The final round of the day was headed by one decisive result, Firouzja's win with black against Dominguez. Firouzja, who has played a wide variety of openings so far in the event, was rewarded for his creative play out of the Caro-Kann Defense and confidently castled queenside in order to launch a barrage down White's kingside. Dominguez wanted to play on but failed to move before his clock ran out of time. 

It is not often a super GM runs out of time with an increment. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Once his knight reached an e4 outpost on move 22, Firouzja began to take control of the game. Dominguez's play was also suboptimal and aided Firouzja in deconstructing his opponent's position in 32 moves, which led to the flagging.

Nakamura managed to hold Nepomniachtchi to a draw in the Catalan with Black, a result GM Peter Svidler deemed "newsworthy" due to the world championship challenger's formidable record with the opening. In a recap entitled "Dear YouTube, It's A Good Thing This Isn't My Day Job," Nakamura remarks that "no one is really running away with the tournament" and that "one or two wins" on the final day could catapult him to the top of the standings.

A final-round draw for wildcard Xiong would have left the American GM feeling elated having not lost a single game among the elite field. As of the sixth round, Xiong has gained 13 rating points and leaped into the top-15 rapid chess players in the world. His attempt to break down Vachier-Lagrave's Grunfeld Defense is also one of the best games of the round, ending in a draw after a series of brutal shots by both players. 

The remaining two games of the round ended in peaceful draws with little influence on the scoreboard given that the relevant players are all positioned fifth or lower after the second day.

Tension in the room is still present as the day comes to a close. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Heading into the final day of rapid chess, it is anyone's guess as to which player will emerge as the victor. Firouzja has certainly shown flair so far but was rocked by Caruana's solid approach in round five. Tune in tomorrow to find out if any of the chasers can catch up to the young superstar!

All Games Day 2


# Fed Player Rating Pts
1 Alireza Firouzja 2778 8
2 Jeffery Xiong 2690 7
3 Ian Nepomniachtchi 2792 7
4 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2757 7
5 Fabiano Caruana 2776 6
6 Leinier Dominguez 2754 6
7 Sam Shankland 2720 6
8 Levon Aronian 2775 5
9 Hikaru Nakamura 2768 5
10 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 2758 3

The 2022 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz is the fourth leg of the 2022 Grand Chess Tour and the last of its speed chess events. Players compete in a 10-player rapid (25+10) round-robin and a 10-player blitz (5+2) double round-robin for their share of a $175,000 prize fund. 

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