Chess: Magnus Carlsen to face Alireza Firouzja as No 1 battles dip in form

The 10-tournament online $1.5m Meltwater Champions Tour resumes todayon Saturday at 4pm, free and live online, with the $200,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational, and another testing day for the below par world No 1. Carlsen has missed out on first place in four successive events since his 30th birthday in November.

Online, Carlsen has twice finished behind America’s Wesley So and once behind Azerbaijan’s Teimour Radjabov; while over-the- board at Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee, Carlsen trailed in sixth place, his worst placing at the “chess Wimbledon” for more than a decade, The shock Netherlands winner at Wijk, Jorden van Foreest, 21, was rewarded with a wildcard place on the Tour.

The Invitational starts with a 16-player all-play-all spread over three days, qualifying its top eight for the knock-out stage. Carlsen’s first four pairings are all awkward. The world champion begins with Van Foreest, for whom victory over the No 1 would evoke distant memories of 1935 when Max Euwe captured the world crown from Alexander Alekhine.

Carlsen’s next three opponents are France’s No 1, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the halfway leader in the world title candidates due to resume in Ekaterinburg next month, the fast rising star Alireza Firouzja, 17, who is on the verge of breaking into the world top 10, and is widely regarded as heir apparent to Carlsen’s throne; and finally the Norwegian’s long-standing arch-rival, verbal and social media critic Anish Giri, who was within touching distance of winning Wijk in January until faltering in the last seconds of his Armageddon game with Van Foreest.

The early years of world champions are always interesting to examine for clues to special factors sparking a surge in form which their later followers can try to emulate. Bobby Fischer and His World by John Donaldaon (Siles Press, 644 pages, £26) and Vasily Smyslov: The Early Years 1921-1948 by Andrey Terekhov (Russell Enterprises, 556 pages, £33) are highly readable books based on impressive research, and both highlight such critical moments.

Donaldson claims that Fischer’s quantum jump from age 12, when he was an also-ran in the bottom half of the US Junior and US Amateur, to age 13 when he played his famous Game of the Century, is the fastest ever improvement for a high level player. In current rating terms Fischer advanced around 700 points, from 1700 to 2400, in around 12-15 months.

One secret was his concentrated high-class activity, both as a player and as a student of the game. Fischer was exceptionally elected to membership of New York’s prestigious Manhattan Club. where the normal age limit was 18. He played incessant five-minute blitz against strong opponents, and he even acquired international experience on a high board for the Log Cabin club’s visit to Cuba.

At that time professional players in Britain and Western Europe were preparing openings with the aid of Chess Archives, edited by Euwe in the Netherlands, and were starting to add Soviet publications like Schachmatny Bulletin for up-to-date theory. Fischer knew them both, taught himself sufficient Russian to understand tournament bulletins from Moscow, and absorbed it all with his fast and accurate memory.

By mid-1956 he had advanced from the bottom half of the US Junior to winning it with a near-maximum score, and was already finishing high up in the US Open. Donaldson analyses and chronicles both Bobby’s rise and his later fall as his anti-semitic fixation took over his life.

Smyslov also had an unusual career start. He was coached by his father, a strong master who had once defeated the legendary Alexander Alekhine in a tournament, and only began play outside his family at 14.

There was a lucky break at 18, when he was called up for military service in 1940 during the Soviet invasion of Finland and rejected due to poor eyesight. That may have led, decades later, to his habit of peering at the board, then making a move to a new square with an individualistic screwing motion.

Smyslov had luck, too, in the mid-1940s when he had rivals in the race to become No 2 in the USSR behind Mikhail Botvinnik. Soviet officials wanted reliable team players, so were impressed when Smyslov scored 7.5/8 in the radio and over-the-board matches against the US and Britain in 1945-47, helped by a critical time pressure moment in his second game against Samuel Reshevsky, who blundered by 39 Ne4?? when 39 Nb7! Ra8 40 Bd6 Bf5 41 Qe5! (a discovery of the deeply researched new book) is winning.

3714: 1…Kb4! 2 a4 Kc5! 3 a5 Kd6! 3 a6 Ke7! 4 a7 Be4 and wins (5 a8Q Bxa8 6 Kg6 Kf8).


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