The four losers from day one of the quarterfinals squared off for a last shot at continuing towards the World Fischer Random title. This unusual route to the semifinals has been adopted to create three semifinalists from this stage of the event—because “defending champion” Magnus Carlsen will join the competition to make up the fourth finalist.
Things started solidly in the slow-rapid stage with four draws. Although the games were tense and hard fought, a sense of the slower games being more balanced is emerging. Of course, we are in the early days of Fischer Random. Some suspect that the weight of the first pair of games—wins are worth three points—encourages caution. I am not quite convinced because a loss at any stage means greatly increased pressure to start delivering wins. Another possible factor is that Fischer Random is a lot “chessier” than most people believe—with enough time to think, balanced chances and results are far more likely.
Either way, the start of the fast-rapid control of 15 minutes plus two-second increments is the signal for violent action to commence. Both white players embarked on optimistic raids on the obvious weak point (g7) of the start position, and in both games this strategy looked likely to boomerang. As Peter Svidler grabbed some material and fastened his helmet, Wesley So unleashed what looked like a ferocious attack, but the Russian’s protective gear weathered the storm.
The return games featured a more classical approach for the white pieces. This time Wesley’s steady pressure allowed him to even the match at once.
In his first fast-rapid game Alireza Firouzja, like Svidler, embarked on a very ambitious and risky storming of the soft spot, g7. This approach eventually cost him material, but Vidit Gujrathi couldn’t find a way to break his opponent down while living off seconds and increments.
The recurring pattern of a dominant Vidit thwarted and tortured by the clock appeared in yesterday’s duel with Fedoseev, and Firouzja’s youthful resilience and reflexes turned this trend into a nightmare for the Indian GM. The second fast-rapid game saw Vidit complete a long, gradual uphill battle from an ugly opening, but this time the Iranian prodigy’s resistance managed to extract the full point and put him on the brink of rejoining the main competition.
In the blitz section, So’s pressure in the first game resulted in an ending with an exchange ahead—though there was a weird double blip en route. The commentary team wondered if a Svidler slip in the ending was the result of a pre-move gone wrong, but Wesley clearly earned his point.
Svidler’s must-win blitz game never got off the ground as So demonstrated his knack for remarkable positional control even in the bizarre settings of Fischer Random opening setups. When Wesley alertly walled in the most “Fischer Random” bishop of all time, even Peter managed a crooked smile to show his rather resigned amusement and soon offered the draw that ended the match.
Firouzja booked his return ticket to the quarterfinal’s conclusion in a familiar style, one that certainly left Indian fans as wracked with frustration as Alireza fans were jubilant. The 16-year-old blitz tornado spent most of the game under constant pressure, then broke free, and finally survived a breakneck finish when Vidit had to blunder a piece to allow the final escape.
The final blitz game was played, even though it could not affect the qualification.
In this age of universal complaint and debate, I wonder how the unusual quarterfinal format will be judged. Being able to play one’s way into the event after having lost on day one provides an undeniable element of excitement. Presumably the cost of this extra effort will mean the winners on the first day have some kind of nebulous advantage from their victories, though So and Firouzja gave the impression that they welcomed the extra experience gained from playing even more Fischer Random.
The comeback clause must be comforting before the event, but if one or more of the revenants advance to the semis, I imagine anyone eliminated after having lost once might experience some delayed disgruntlement. It will be interesting to see how the players weigh all this when this stage ends.
For now, we don’t have long to wait before learning whether the returnees will be zombified from their exertions or will be the terrifying, indestructible types who wander back with an axe stuck in the head and come unstoppably after us.
The day two broadcast is here and features concluding interviews with revived quarterfinalists So and Firouzja. Play on the third and final day starts at 7 a.m. Pacific (16:00 CET) and promises more entertainment and drama.
The random draw means that one of the seeded quarterfinalists—Hikaru Nakamura or Fabiano Caruana—will definitely not make the trip to the semis in Norway. Firouzja gets a replay of his day-one match against Ian Nepomniachtchi—which went to armageddon—and underdog Vladimir Fedoseev gets comeback player So.