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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 8 March 2021

Chess prodigy who snubbed Iranian flag wins silver at Moscow championship

Move to France or US may be next for rising chess star after rift with Iran

File Photo: Iranian officials wanted to bar Mr Firouzja from the $1m championship over the participation of six Israelis in the competitionVictor Besa for The National.
File Photo: Iranian officials wanted to bar Mr Firouzja from the $1m championship over the participation of six Israelis in the competitionVictor Besa for The National.

Iran’s top-rated chess player, a 16-year-old prodigy, has won silver at the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Moscow after snubbing the Iranian flag.

Alireza Firouzja competed at the Russian tournament under the flag of the International Chess Federation, a move that has been seen as a rejection of Iran’s ban on its players competing against Israelis.

The decision by Alireza, who is touted as a rising star in the chess world and lives in France, could be the start of a larger break between him and his native country.

The president of Iran’s chess federation, Mehrdad Pahlavanzadeh, told the country’s Tasnim news agency that Alireza indicated he wanted to “change his nationality”.

There are signs that the chess grandmaster, ranked the world’s second junior player, could in the future compete for France or the US, The Guardian reported.

The rift between Alireza and the Iranian Chess Federation was sparked by disagreements over the Moscow championship and whether the young star would compete against Israelis.

The highly lucrative championship, which is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, is also known as the King Salman Championship.

Iranian officials wanted to bar Alireza from the $1 million championship because of six Israelis in the competition, led by the former world title challenger Boris Gelfand.

Iran has for decades enforced a policy of not allowing its sportsmen and women to compete against Israeli opposition.

In April, according to Iranian media, Alireza refused to play an Israeli competitor at a tournament in Germany.

In the past, the world chess body sought to avoid matches between Israel and nations hostile to it.

But as in the case with judo, the governing body has now shown that it will take a far harder line against players refusing matches on the basis of politics.

But there have been indications that Alireza’s misgivings towards Iran run deeper than just its policy towards Israel.

Iranian grandmaster Sara Khadem said this month that Alireza was not getting any support and the Iranian chess federation was “making problems for him”.

“It’s not only that they are not pushing him forwards, they are also kind of moving him backwards,” Khadem said.

The governing body's vice president, Nigel Short, praised the teenager on his performance in the championship and admonished those standing in Alireza’s way.

“Congratulations to Alireza Firouzja on a fantastic silver medal. And shame on all those who seek to thwart his career,” Mr Short wrote on Twitter.

Observers have raised the possibility that the Iranian master’s next move could be to the US and St Louis to receive special coaching and revive the nation’s hopes of another American champion.

Alireza was unable to get a visa to compete in the US in 2017.

But for now, a permanent move to France could be more practical.

Most major chess tournaments are played in Europe and the pairing of Alireza with world No 4 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave would make France one of the strongest chess nations in the world.

Updated: January 1, 2020 03:31 AM


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