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Magnus Carlsen shows superior understanding of the Ruy Lopez to beat Alireza Firouzja

by Sagar Shah - 21/01/2020

Alireza Firouzja versus Magnus Carlsen - It was touted as one of the most exciting games of the Tata Steel Masters 2020. However, what happened was nothing short of carnage. Magnus Carlsen with the black pieces showed excellent understanding of the Ruy Lopez structure and took advantage of every small error committed by his opponent. By move no. 14 Carlsen had already equalized, by move 25 he was calling the shots. Before the time control on move 40, the game was already over. With this win Magnus Carlsen is now half a point behind the leader Fabiano Caruana. This victory of Carlsen shows how strong the World Champion is and how comparisons drawn between Firouzja and Carlsen are still quite premature. Complete analysis of this high voltage encounter.

It was one of the most anticipated games of the tournament - Alireza Firouzja vs Magnus Carlsen. The 16-year-old prodigy was leading the Tata Steel Chess 2020 along with Fabiano Caruana with a score of 5.5/8. Magnus Carlsen was not in the best form as he had drawn his first seven rounds of the event. But in the 8th round he had come back with a powerful win against Nikita Vitiugov. On one hand you had Firouzja, who was playing really well and had the white pieces, and on the other you had the reigning World Champion, who is always a dangerous opponent to face after he has won his previous round. Who would come out on top was the question on everyone's mind!

Carlsen or Firouzja - the most exciting game of the Tata Steel Masters 2020 | Photo: Alina l'Ami

Things between Carlsen and Firouzja had started to heat up right from the World Blitz 2019, when Firouzja lost on time after having three extra pawns in an opposite coloured bishop endgame. The arbiters had given a win to the World Champion. Thoroughly dismayed, Firouzja had hurled his water bottle in anger and also made an appeal on the fact that Magnus had disturbed him during the game by speaking in Norwegian. The appeal was not upheld and Carlsen's win stood. However, it was clear that Firouzja wanted to beat Carlsen at all costs.

The entire episode of Firouzja vs Carlsen controversy captured by ChessBase India

Step by Step breakdown of the Tata Steel Masters 2020 game:

Firouzja vs Carlsen, Tata Steel Masters 2020, Round 9

Firouzja began the game with 4.d3 system. Speaking after the game, Carlsen said, "I was happy to see d3. That's what I was hoping out of the opening, just to get a position with a bunch of pieces on the board!" Magnus' choice of ...d6 also showed that he just wanted to play something non confrontational.

Although the game began as a Berlin, we are now firmly in Ruy Lopez theory - the Zaitsev variation because White tempo loss of d3-d4 is compensated by the fact that the bishop moved from a4 to c2 in one move.

Nc6-b8!? is one of Carlsen's favourite manoeuvres and also the most common one in such Ruy Lopez structures. You put your knight on d7 and basically free the c-pawn to move to c5!

d4-d5 by Alireza was clearly an inaccuracy. The point is you would like to play this move in general as White, but not with the inclusion of the move a3. Having played a3 it is simply a loss of time as we shall see later in the game.

Alireza anyway played a3-a4. This loss of tempo is the difference between White trying for an advantage and Black getting comfortable equality. The interesting thing to note about the above position is that White has reached this position with his move and has played Ba3 here. But in the game it was Carlsen's move and he played Rfc8 immediately putting latent pressure on the c2 bishop.

This position is enough to convince you how Black is clearly better. Look at the activity of each of Black's pieces. It's simply tremendous!

Kg8-g7 is one of those uncomfortable moves to face as White, where your opponent is improving his position and also throwing the ball back in your court! Carlsen asks Alireza what he would like to do. The youngster had no real plan and kept shuffling his knight between f1 and e3.

Finally Alireza blinked and played the move g3, but it only hastened the end. After hxg3 fxg3, White's second rank was opened up, the white king was also slightly exposed and his pieces had no real good squares to go to. 

Within a couple of moves after this position was reached White resigned! The power of two bishops on a6 and h6 is immense.
Analysis by IM Sagar Shah of this critical encounter

If you would like to improve your understanding of the Ruy Lopez from white, there is no better chess literature out there than Fabiano Caruana's DVD on navigating the Ruy Lopez part 1-3:

"I am obviously very happy. As happy as you can be beating a 16-year-old and moving into plus two in round 9!", said a jubilant Magnus after the game!
Carlsen's interview after his win over Alireza Firouzja

With four rounds to go Magnus is just half a point behind the leader! It seems as if this event will end in another Magnus Carlsen domination! We will wait and watch.


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