On Sunday, Iranian wunderkind GM Alireza Firouzja weathered a seven-plus hour barrage of worthy opponents to reach the quarterfinals of the 2019 FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship, defeating IM Nicolai Getz and GMs Ivan Salgado, Maxim Matlakov and Jan-Krzysztof Duda among a star-studded field which saw strong GMs such as Georg Meier go out in the first round.
After easily disposing of Getz in the Round of 16, Firouzja had a difficult time in the early going against Salgado, requiring a win in the second game of 10+2 tiebreaks to advance against the dangerous Matlakov.
Firouzja looked to be crashing out of the tournament in his second game against Matlakov when he orchestrated a great escape by finding a stalemated position after Matlakov played the seemingly innocuous 49. Rxa7 and handed Firouzja a lifeline in an otherwise lost game. Both Matlakov and Firouzja were smirking on camera at the artistry displayed by the young Iranian, and the semifinal headed to tiebreaks:
Firouzja again got himself into a tricky position in game one of tiebreaks with Matlakov, but time pressure put the Russian grandmaster into a complex endgame which he wasn't able to navigate, eventually succombing to a series of ill-advised rook moves to hand Firouzja a nice bishop fork and the victory:
Matlakov was shaking his head in disgust, likely still thinking about Firouzja's magic from the second game of the 15+2 mini-match. In the second game of their quarterfinal, Firouzja managed to hold a relatively sharp position in which it appeared Matlakov would be able to advance his d-pawn down the board to eventually promote. Again, time pressure got to Matlakov, who was attempting to maneuver his knight but played 88. Ng8 instead of 88. Nxd7, getting trapped in the corner and forcing repetition to lose the match:
On the other side of the bracket, relative Fischer Random newcomer Duda disposed of his opponents with relative ease, going 5.5/6 against untitled qualifier Sreyas Payyappat, GM Dmitrij Kollars and GM Rauf Mamedov before having to wait over an hour for Firouzja to defeat Matlakov. Duda rested off camera and prepared to face the winner of the other bracket as the time approached midnight in Poland.
The final between Firouzja and Duda was the expected pairing heading into the bracket. The two elite young superstars were the top-two seeds and immediately demonstrated their prowess and ingenuity in game one Firouzja once again found himself on the wrong side of the position after an untimely 32...Qg5 allowed white to kick the well-placed knight on f4 with 33. g3, but Duda instead chose to position his queen and relinquish his advantage. Eventually, Firouzja was able to find a perpetual after 47. Rd1 gave him an opening which eventually limited Duda's king's squares and led to a draw:
It all came down to game two, where Firouzja and Duda would be playing a single game for $10,000 minimum guaranteed and a spot in the quarterfinals. The game started off with Firouzja gaining the advantage from the offset. After 38. Nc7, Firouzja was able to spring a double-attack on Duda's critical b-pawn which was the only protection for the passed a-pawn. Eventually, Duda was down to seven seconds on the clock vs. Firouzja two minutes. Eventually, Duda resigned and handed Firouzja his ticket to the quarterfinals:
Duda reflected on his wait time after each round as he steamrolled opponents: "Actually, I think it's much more tiring to play than to win quickly."
Firouzja was excited at the prospect of playing against the world's best as he reflected on his stalemate trick against Matlakov: "It was very strange that he took on a7, it was very easy to see but he had no time and he's not a very good blitz player so I was happy about my chances and he didn't have much time." Asked whether he saw the trick ahead of time, Firouzja quipped, "Yeah I saw I should push a6 even, but when he took on a7 it was just much easier."
On his match against Duda, "I think I was lucky in both matches, against Duda and Matlakov, I was so lucky in both matches, Duda played much better than me today of course but I was a bit lucky at the end." Firouzja continued, "Of course, playing over-the-board in Iceland means so much to help me get some practice in. He had no real experience and I think the second match (against Duda) will be much more difficult so I won't get into such good positions."
With his win, Firouzja has secured himself a place in the quarterfinals along with a minimum guaranteed prize of $10,000. He will join Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and the other five winners of each knockout qualifier group. The next knockout qualifier is this Thursday, August 22 at 8 a.m. PDT.
You can catch all the knockout qualifier action live at Twitch.tv/Chess and Chess.com/TV on August 18, 22, 25 and 31, with the last qualifier on September 1.