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Just 14 and the strongest blitz player of the continent!

by Satanick Mukhuty - 27/06/2019

It was not long ago that he became the youngest 2600 rated player in the world and now he is also the strongest Blitz player in the continent. Nihal Sarin is just 14 years old and has all the qualities to make it to the very top in the world of chess. His recent feat of winning the Asian Blitz title ahead of strong and seasoned grandmasters like Vidit Gujrathi and Le Quang Liem is a testimony to his enormous potential. In the present article we have a look at some of Nihal's best Blitz games in the recently concluded Asian Open 2019. Of course, encounters at such fast time controls aren't the most serious of affairs but they do reflect a player's intuitive feel for the game and intuition is indeed what separates the true champion from the rest. 

Nihal Sarin wins Asian Continental Blitz 2019

Nihal began by winning his very first game against the 2371 rated grandmaster Laylo Darwin. It was an unusually short miniature from a Nimzo-Indian defence where the Filipino chess player blundered twice. Nihal actually missed his first chance to seize a dangerous initiative but the second time he was spot on. The game was finished in just 15 moves.

 

Laylo Darwin - Nihal Sarin, Round 1

Position after 7.Nf3

The above was a critical moment in the opening. There is tension in the center and there are a lot of possibilities. Black can obviously choose to maintain the tension with 7...Nc6 or 7...Nbd7 or even 7...Ne4. But in the game 7...cxd4 was played.

After 7...cxd4, How should White recapture the pawn? 

8. Qxd4 would have been fine here but White chose to recapture with the knight and this, as we will see, got him into tricky waters.

8.Nxd4 is certainly a sound choice but leads to tactical complications!

The game continued 8...e5 9.Nb5 d4 and White faced a crucial choice.

After 9...d4: Where should White move his queen?


The queen is threatened and the knight on b5 too looks compromised, White has to tread very carefully here. 10.Qg3! would have been the right move, after 10...Nc6 11.Nc7+ Qxc7 12.Qxg7 White has solved his problems with the b5 knight and the position is equal. But in the game Laylo failed to see this and erred with 10.Qb4, this gives Black the opportunity to win immediately.

White has just made a serious mistake with 10.Qb4 ... Can you find the winning plan for Black?

The right move would have been 10...Ne4, stopping Qd6 ideas and ensuring the knight on b5 remains trapped and after, for instance, 11.Qb3 Nc6 12.Qd3 Bf5 13.h4 a6 Black is winning a piece!

The knight on b5 is the root of all White's troubles

In the game Nihal didn't go for this optimal idea and went 10...Na6? which allowed 11.Qd6 Qxd6 12.Nxd6+ Ke7 13.Nb5 and now White is spared!

After 13.Nb5: The white knight escapes by the skin of its teeth!

Next 13...Nc5 was played and White blundered yet again with 14.e3 and this time Nihal was ruthless!

14.e3 is a mistake ... Can you, like Nihal, find the nice tactical finish?


Well, as you might have guessed, the finish is 14...Nb3! 15.Rb1 Bf5, trapping the b1 rook! White decided to resign at this point and the game was finished in just 15 moves!

Nihal won his second round game too against Zeng Chongsheng of China and after drawing rounds 3 and 4 he went on to win five consecutive games. In round 6 he was pitted against compatriot and the highly experienced grandmaster Sandipan Chanda. It was an interesting youth versus experience match-up and the following was the critical moment of the encounter.

 

Sandipan Chanda - Nihal Sarin, Round 6

Black has played 32...Ne5, how should White continue?

The position is even but White has to be cautious as the c5 pawn is under a lot of pressure. Generating counter-play with 33.Ra4 would have been the best practical way here. In the game Sandipan erred with 33.Re4 and Nihal at once picked up a pawn with 33...Nd3 34.Rc3 Nxc5

Position after 34...Nxc5  


After the series of exchanges 35.Nxc5 Rxc5 36.Rxc5 Rxc5 37.Ra4 a5 Black had a clear extra pawn on the king-side.

Position after 37...a5

From here Nihal showed impeccable technique, converting his 4 to 3 king-side majority and bringing home the full point.

In the last two rounds Nihal was up against two very promising youngsters just like himself. It was Pragnanandhaa R. in round 8 and Alireza Firouzja in the ninth. The former had beaten GM Abhijeet Gupta and the second seed of the event Le Quang Liem in the previous two rounds. Battles between Nihal and Praggnanandhaa are always mouth watering, even if they are just blitz!

Pragnanandhaa R. - Nihal Sarin, Round 8

Position after 34...Qd7

White is slightly better here and any move like 35.Bf3 is okay here but in the game Pragg made the rash move 35.Qc2, Black immediately grabbed a pawn with 35...Bxa5 and then came the crucial blunder of the game 36.g4

Position after 36.g4 ... What is the winning continuation for Black?

The ever tactically alert Nihal pounced at the opportunity, 36...Qd2! 37.Qxd2 Bxd2 was played and now Black is winning as the c5 pawn is falling soon.

Position after 37.Bxd7 - the tables have turned on Praggnanandhaa!

Nihal soon had a huge 3 to 1 queen-side majority which was easily converted, even though the game continued to 78 moves.

In the final round of the event Nihal faced the 16 years old Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja. Widely hailed as the future world champion, Alireza is known for his speed. In some ways Nihal against Firouzja game now is like watching what the future of super elite chess holds for us! This encounter would decide the Asian Blitz Champion of the year! Nothing special happened in the opening. The critical position arose when Black played 24...Bg4

 

Nihal Sarin - Alireza Firouzja, Round 9

How do you assess the move 24...Bg4? What should White do here?

Nihal found the only move that gives White the edge here which is 25.Ne5, after 25...Bxe5 26.dxe5 Nc4 27.Bxc4 dxc4 28.Rxc4 White won a pawn with a superior position.

Position after 28.Rxc4

Fast forward few moves, White has consolidated his structure on the king-side, while Black's pawns on the queen-side look vulnerable

Next, Alireza succumbed under pressure and made a desperate attempt with 40...b4

The game continued 41.Qxb4 Bf1 42.Qd2 Qe6 43.Rxa4 and White has two extra pawns ready to march down the board on the queen-side.

Position after 43.Rxa4 - White is clearly winning!

The game was resigned soon on move 52 and with it Nihal Sarin emerged as the sole victor of the tournament, dominating the field with a convincing score of 8.0/9! 

Final rankings after round 9

Rk.SNo NameFEDRtgPts. TB1  TB2  TB3  TB4 
15
GMNihal SarinIND26548,0250545,549,50,0
22
GMLe Quang LiemVIE26747,0249446,551,00,0
37
GMNarayanan.S.LIND25977,0243538,541,50,0
43
GMFirouzja AlirezaIRI26606,5256547,050,00,0
522
GMErigaisi ArjunIND24646,5244541,546,00,0
69
GMTran Tuan MinhVIE25876,5242238,040,00,0
715
GMChanda SandipanIND25056,0260248,052,00,0
812
GMPraggnanandhaa RIND25546,0256048,551,50,0
913
IMYakubboev NodirbekUZB25156,0253344,546,50,0
1028
IMSadhwani RaunakIND24356,0252542,044,50,0
1145
GMSengupta DeepIND22996,0246443,045,50,0
1234
GMVaibhav SuriIND23966,0243942,045,00,0
131
GMVidit Santosh GujrathiIND27246,0242241,044,50,0
1462
FMAmartuvshin GanzorigMGL17635,5251140,042,50,0
156
GMLu ShangleiCHN26255,5249547,051,00,0
1659
IMQuizon DanielPHI20425,5248035,537,50,0
1717
GMJumabayev RinatKAZ24855,5244638,542,00,0
184
GMNguyen Ngoc Truong SonVIE26585,5244443,046,00,0
1918
GMXu XiangyuCHN24855,0251045,048,00,0
2010
GMGupta AbhijeetIND25655,0248344,547,50,0

How is Nihal so good at blitz? In an article in December 2018, when Nihal played really well at the World Blitz Championships, IM Sagar Shah wrote, "This happened on the last day of the Tata Steel Chess India 2018. At the end of the Rapid play where Nihal got to play against some of the best players in the world, I made my way to Nihal Sarin's room in Taj Bengal. I wanted to interview the young lad about his games at the event. I rang the bell to the room and his mother Shijin opened the door. In the room were members of team Nihal - Priyadarshan Banjan (his manager), GM Srinath Narayanan (his friend cum coach). Nihal's mother, Srinath and Priyadarshan all welcomed Amruta and me to the room and made us feel comfortable. Little Nihal was sitting right there but didn't really lift his gaze from the computer screen. He was busy crushing his opponents in online blitz. I setup my laptop and microphone and made sure that there was good lighting for the interview. Meanwhile Nihal had finished his blitz game and came next to me. As I was about to begin my interview, I noticed that there was a slight technical problem with the settings. I asked Nihal to give me a minute! The moment I said that the young boy jumped towards his laptop and started playing another game of online blitz! As he began winning he called all of us to witness his fine "cheap trap" that he had set to beat his opponent. A satisfied Nihal sat next to me once again and the interview began! While talking about his nine games against the best players in the world, Nihal was completely focused. He spoke with great enthusiasm and told us about many of the plans and ideas that he had seen in the games to hold players like Anand, Harikrishna, Mamedyarov and others to a draw. When the interview ended it was quite late in the night. We wished everyone in the room a good night and were about to leave, but Nihal insisted that we should stay back and see one of the variants of chess that he loves to play - the atomic chess! It didn't matter that atomic chess had nothing to do with the normal rules of the game. Nihal thoroughly enjoyed the pieces blasting and vanishing from the chess board and had developed his own theory for the variant! He made me, a semi-retired chess player, also take the mouse and start making moves. His enthusiasm and love for the game was infectious! As I closed the door to Nihal's room that night, I knew for sure that stopping Nihal as a chess player is simply impossible. The reason is very simple the boy just loves chess more than anything else in his life. He loves chess beyond measure and he can practice it anytime of the day and discuss it with just about anyone!"

Nihal can play chess anywhere! This was a great picture taken by Srinath Narayanan when the lads were on their way to the Asian Continental. By the way, check the clock!

During the closing ceremony, receiving the award from Miao Quansheng | photo: imsa.cn

Finally with the champion's trophy | Photo: Srinath Narayanan

Nihal's performance at the Blitz event

This victory takes Nihal's live blitz rating to 2685! Nihal is now breathing down Vidit's neck as far as blitz rankings are concerned. Vidit's live Elo is 2694. Nine more Elo points and Nihal would be India no.2 in behind Vishy Anand.

Second place went to Le Quang Liem

Third was S.L.Narayanan from India | Photo: Niklesh Jain 

In the women's section Zhai Mo won the gold, Vo Thi Kim Phung won silver and Gu Tianlu bronze.