Alireza Firouzja, the 17-year-old fast rising star of international chess, is currently improving at a rate which could even surpass landmarks set by the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, more than a decade ago. Firouzja’s second prize behind Carlsen at Stavanger last week was arguably already the best or second best performance in chess history by an under-18 player.
The snag for the teenager, who quit Iran because of Tehran’s policy of banning games against Israeli opponents, is that while there is an unprecedented boom in online tournaments, over-the-board play has shrunk to a catastrophic extent, by a margin of over 90% at almost all levels ranging from local chess club meetings up to open tournaments with masters and grandmasters.
Firouzja’s hope must be that world-class elite events, with their small numbers of participants, will continue to survive better than most. He led early at Wijk aan Zee 2020, then took first prize at Prague in the last major completed events prior to lockdown. His Stavanger performance put him up to No 17 in the live ratings, less than 20 rating points short of the top-10 place which he will expect to claim in his next high-class test.
Firouzja’s Stavanger rating performance on the Fide scale was 2880 at 17 years three months, higher than the 2830 which Carlsen achieved at 17 years 11 months when sharing first at Wijk 2008. However, there are offsetting factors which allow for argument in comparison not only with the Norwegian’s result but also with peak performances by the other legends, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, at age 18.
Long standing traditional events scheduled for the Isle of Man, London, and Hastings in the next few months have all been cancelled, while Gibraltar, in place of its normal high-class open, will stage the final leg of the Fide women’s Grand Prix.
Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands, sponsored by Tata Steel and the strongest and most famous elite event on the global tournament calendar, intends to go ahead on 15-31 January. Carlsen and Firouzja met for the first time in a classical game there in 2020. and a rematch looks sure to happen.
There will be careful Covid precautions. One advantage for Wijk is that its venue, a small windswept North Sea coastal town of less than 3,000 inhabitants, is the type of location where virus numbers are often low. Despite Stavanger’s own careful plans, a Covid case emerged after the tournament and all the players, including Carlsen, had to take tests and go into isolation.
Carlsen became the youngest player ever to be rated 2800, the recognised level of a global title contender, when he won at Pearl Spring in Nanjing, China, in November 2009, a few weeks before his 19th birthday. His tournament performance rating there was 3002, at that time arguably the best ever at any age. It has since been surpassed by the 3098 of the US world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, at the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis in 2014.
In April 2008, Carlsen at age 17 years and four months was ranked fifth in the world and rated 2765, while Firouzja at the same age after Stavanger is ranked 17th and rated 2748. Carlsen’s Pearl Spring result put him at 2801 and No 2 in the world behind Veselin Topalov in the November 2009 rating list one month before his 19th birthday.
If Firouzja does follow the pattern at age 17-18 of Carlsen and other all-time greats, he can hope for a surge in the next year. Garry Kasparov was just 18 when he finished tied second behind the then world champion Anatoly Karpov at Moscow 1981, while Bobby Fischer was aged 18 years and five months when he finished second to Mikhail Tal at Bled 1961, beating the then world champion in a brilliant game and scoring 3.5/4 against his Soviet opponents.
After Bled and Moscow, the chess world regarded Fischer and Kasparov as firmly established in the world top two or three. Firouzja has not achieved that eminence yet, and to do so he probably needs to finish at or very near the top at Tata Steel Wijk or another tournament of similar length and stature.
A problem with considering Firouzja’s Stavanger as an achievement in the same league as Bled 1961, Moscow 1981 or Carlsen’s first great success, tied first at Wijk 1998, is that it only had six players, where Firoutzja’s performance was boosted by the presence of an outclassed player, Aryan Tari of Norway. Firouzja scored all his four wins against Tari and next to last Jan-Krzysztof Duda, and had a minus score, five draws and a loss, in his classical games against the super-elite of Carlsen, Caruana, and Levon Aronian.
Meanwhile, elite chess on the internet continues almost non-stop to compensate for the absence of over-the-board play. Next up is the US Championship, to be played over four days from 26-29 October and featuring Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So as its top seeds.
3694: 1 Rd1+! 2 Kxd1 Qd3+ 3 Kc1 Rc4+ 4 Kb2 Rc2+ 5 Kb1 Qb3+ 6 Qb2 Qxb2 mate is quickest. Full credit also for the game finish 2…e2+ when White resigned due to 3 Kd2 exf1N+ 4 Kc2 Qa4+ 5 Kc3 Qxa3+ 6 Kc2 Re2+ 7 Kd1 Qd3+ 8 Kc1 Qc2 mate.