Late last April, Magnus Carlsen, a calm man of measured words, seemed unusually animated. “Truth be told, I wanted to crush him,” he admitted, after a routine victory in the eponymous Carlsen Invitational. Soon the world champion’s vengeance turned into appreciation of his vanquished opponent: “He’s very, very slippery. Never underestimate him. He is devilishly tricky.”
That slippery, devilishly tricky, can’t-underestimate-opponent Carlsen was alluding to was Alireza Firouzja (surname pronounced as Firoz-jo), a scruffy 16-year-old from Iran with deep eyes and faint moustache, who had twice punctured Carlsen’s aura of invulnerability in the space of a fortnight. First in a marathon 204-game one-minute bullet match in early April and then in an equally engrossing blitz game in the Banter Cup a week later. The second defeat shook the inscrutable Norwegian. He cracked and confided: “It’s really vexing. I’m just constantly doubting myself and it’s all a total mess.”
Though this year has seen fissures emerge in Carlsen’s game, the multi-format world champion self-admonishing himself for “silly mistakes” ever so often, the defeats to the teenaged adversary was as much a result of his erratic game as an indication of Firouzja’s bristling prowess. A grandmaster at the age of 14, the second-youngest player to reach the 2700 Fide rating, the highest-ranked teenager in the world, he won the Prague Masters in February, joining a list of select few players including Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer and Carlsen to have triumphed at that prestigious tournament while still a teenager. In the Online Fide Nations Cup recently, he scalped the established likes of Sergey Karjakin (with black) and Levon Aronian.
No wonder then that Firouzja has the chess fraternity in his thrall. Recently, Grandmaster Ivan Sokolov likened his rapid-game prowess to a young Viswanathan Anand for his speed of thought and predicted that he can become world champion one day. The latter, who had defeated him with a slick endgame at the Tata Steel Masters, reckons he’s one of the brightest talents on the circuit. “He left me really impressed and is very sharp. Him beating big names should no longer be a surprise, and he would get only better with more experience,” the Indian said.
America’s speed specialist Hikaru Nakamura considers the Iranian as one of the top three one-minute bullet chess players in the world, alongside himself and Carlsen. Some others compared his style to the late Mikhail Tal, the legendary Soviet-Latvian grandmaster. Such is Firouzja’s value and reputation that a three-way tussle for acquiring his citizenship is also simmering in the background.
Firouzja is as Iranian, in features and tastes, as he could be. His speaks Farsi with a typical Northern Iran accent. In interviews to chess websites, he frequently brings up references of the rumbling Caspian Sea that lashes onto his hometown, Babol, and the beautiful rain and oranges back there. His favourite dishes are tahchin and khoresh-e beh.
Yet, his ties with the local federation are frayed, as it has banned Iranian players from squaring off with Israelis. Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the country has refused to recognise Israel. However, refusing to play an opponent on political grounds means expulsion from the tournament, and since Israel has a fair bit of chess contingent attending every tournament, such a diktat could hamper his career.
Firouzja and his father have already left Iran and are currently living in Paris. The move, initially, was to furnish him more exposure and easy access to other European chess destinations, besides competing in the competitive French league. Recently, he admitted to a website that he could turn out for France: “I will probably play for France from now on, given that is where I live.” The French Chess Federation, meanwhile, is eagerly awaiting a firm ‘yes’ from Firouzja.
Not just France, he could also end up at St Louis in the US, receiving special coaching from Kasparov and fuelling US billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s dream of another American world champion after Fischer. The retired financier and politician, the biggest benefactor of American chess, had paid for the transfer of Fabiano Caruana from Italy and Wesley So from the Philippines in the past. Could Firouzja be the next?
Back in Babol, though, his childhood coach Mohsen Sharbaf, hopes the federation would solve the impasse and Firouzja would represent the country of his birth. “We can’t let such a talented player, easily the best we have produced, slip through our hands. It will be a shame for us,” he says.
He first saw his ward when he was 9, during an inter-club chess competition, but it was while watching a football match that he realised his genius for the first time. “Barcelona was playing some other team, and he was like correctly predicting the passage of the game, like this person would pass the ball to that person, and he would do this and that, and so on. I was really amazed because guessing the moves in football is tough even for elders. His mind was super-computing, and I realised he has great potential,” Sharbaf recollects.
The potential, obviously, was chiselled by hours in front of the chessboard and laptops. “Even when he was 10-11, he used to tune into all the big games around the world. He used to come up with interesting observations, and then there was a game between two grandmasters wherein he pointed out where one of them had made a mistake and offered a solution in minutes. He was a chess maniac. Before local tournaments, he used to practise 3-4 days without too much sleep. He might look very sleepy, but still made the right moves,” says the coach.
Firouzja once innocently admitted that he sometimes spends a whole day practising. “Since the only thing I think about is chess, maybe it’s the whole day, maybe days, until I get that perfect move.” The president of the Chartres club where he trains in Paris, François Gilles, concurred. “He’s an exceptional talent, very strong tactically and mentally. Works his bum off, and I have little doubt that he is a world champion in the making.”
Agrees Sharbaf, though he admits his ward is far from a finished product. While he excels in faster games, the results decided more by instinct and reaction than patience and perseverance, he needs to tighten his classical game, he reckons. “Then he could challenge Carlsen,” he says.
Like he already has in the shorter versions, where he has got under the world champion’s skin.
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