A brilliant year: Alireza Firouzja’s rise to the very top

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
1/9/2022 – In a year that saw Magnus Carlsen defending the Classical World Championship title for a fourth consecutive time, a young player became the most dangerous potential challenger for the Norwegian. 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja climbed to the second spot in the world ranking by showcasing incredible results throughout 2021. We look at how the Iranian-born grandmaster gained 55 rating points in 12 months. | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit

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The real deal

Alireza FirouzjaSix years ago, at the end of January 2016, we reported on the surprising victory of a 12-year-old at the Iranian Championship. Alireza Firouzja, a smiley kid, had just obtained 8 points in a 12-player single round robin to become national champion with a 2590 Tournament Rating Performance.

Two years later, Ivan Sokolov told Sagar Shah after beginning his work with a host of young Iranian talents:

Well, it was clear to me that they had great potential. I did, at the time, speak to the federation’s President and told him that they’ve got extremely talented boys but what they don’t realize is that in Alireza Firouzja, they have world champion material.

Sokolov was onto something. In 2019, Firouzja began to show remarkable results in open events, joining the 2700 club in August after a strong performance at the Turkish League. Still, it remained to be seen whether the youngster from Babol would not hit a wall after reaching the elite — like Wei Yi had done, unfortunately. 

In 2020, amid the most strict coronavirus-related restrictions, Firouzja gained praise for his abilities as an online blitz and bullet player. In April, the youngster defeated none other than world champion Magnus Carlsen in an informal bullet match. The final result? 103½-90½!

Not a fluke

As we found out during the pandemic, there are incredibly strong online quickplay specialists who have failed to leave a mark in the over-the-board classical chess scene. As it turns out, Firouzja is not one of them.

An astounding 2021 allowed the wunderkind to climb from a 2749 Elo rating in classical ches to a 2804 rating, which means he is the only player other than Magnus Carlsen with a rating above 2800 at the time. The youngster has been so impressive that the world champion stated that it is unlikely for him to play another Classical World Championship match unless it is Firouzja the one who gains the right to challenge him.

Alireza Firouzja, Sasikiran

Alireza Firouzja facing Sasikiran at the Grand Swiss in Riga | Photo: Anna Shtourman

But how did he do it? How did he gain 55 rating points in 45 games throughout 2021?

  • Tata Steel Masters - 8/13, four wins and one loss (against Carlsen). Firouzja finished the tournament a half point behind the leaders, and went into the last round with chances to win the event.
  • World Cup - 1/2, two draws. The knockout tournament in Sochi was clearly the most disappointing outing of the year for the youngster, as he drew both his classical games against Javokhir Sindarov before being eliminated in the rapid playoffs.
  • Norway Chess - 6½/10, five wins (including over Ian Nepomniachtchi and Sergey Karjakin) and two losses (against Richard Rapport and Carlsen). Firouzja finished in sole second place behind the world champion after showcasing bold play throughout the mixed event — classical and blitz combined — in Stavanger.
  • Grand Swiss - 8/11, six wins and one loss (against Fabiano Caruana). A tour-de-force performance was almost spoiled by a loss against Caruana in round 9. A victory over David Howell and a final-round draw gave the youngster tournament victory, though, and most importantly, a spot in next year’s Candidates Tournament.
  • European Team Championship - 8/9, seven wins and two draws. Not only did his stratospheric 3015 tournament rating performance allowed him to cross the 2800-rating barrier, but Firouzja also became the youngest player to ever do it, surpassing Carlsen’s record by six months. This was the first time Firouzja represented France in a national team championship.

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.
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Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 1/14/2022 12:36
"quoting his win against Carlsen??? " Carlsen was just studying his opponent and was eager to show his weak side...

But Carlsen just observed Firouzja...even if Carlsen lost..in a friday evening blitz game fest , it doesn't mean anything. Carlsen was studying Firouzja ;) and was even happy to lose the match....
Aighearach Aighearach 1/11/2022 06:36
He's at a huge disadvantage in the Candidates, though; everybody else gets to skip the Candidates and will be playing for the WC already! Only Firourzja would have to go on to defeat a much stonger player in a match afterwards.
Stupido Stupido 1/11/2022 11:11
@holaamigo - Firouzja is currently working with Cheparinov. Tkachiev mentioned somewhere in a live stream that Alireza also had training sessions with Kramnik. Telling from the vids published during the European Team Championship and the blitz WC, he's getting along fine with MVL (who isn't?). It is well known that Alireza's father has also settled in France in Chartres and takes care of his career. The last questions are nonsense.
HolaAmigo HolaAmigo 1/11/2022 03:22
Pues si, malo parece que no es. Pero eso ya nos lo habíamos imaginado.
El artículo se queda más que corto. Como es su vida en Francia? Quien le entrena? Como se lleva con MVL? Donde están sus padres? Su novia lleva burka? Hablaba francés antes de ir a Francia? Se le dan los idiomas?
Theochessman Theochessman 1/10/2022 10:00
How is that even possible in this Corona year?
Did I miss something?
Were there even tournaments played!?
Jacob woge Jacob woge 1/10/2022 09:34
@ Frits

Nah, I got nothing apart from having read a newspaper piece or two on the subject a few years ago, and a couple of other Iranian teenagers having troubles representing their country some time before that. Nothing concrete. Of course it’s a career issue.
Stupido Stupido 1/10/2022 07:19
@raymond labelle - That is also what came to my mind when reading this article. At least the word France eventually appears at the bottom :D

More generally it does not seem that complicated to simply accept that he is both French and Iranian and just focus on his games. They're interesting enough ;)
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 1/10/2022 05:43
iRAN HAS MANY TALENTED MEN AND WOMEN ..... IF ONLY IT TAKES A LIBERAL STAND ......
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 1/10/2022 05:42
ALI REZA ... A FISHER IN THE MAKING .....
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 1/10/2022 02:20
Jacob,
Firouzja represents another country due to Iran's policy, not against Israeli players, but against Iranian players (or him personally), who can't compete in tournaments because they would be expelled from them if they would comply to this rule. The last was the immediate cause for Alireza to move. He had refused to play Israeli players before, accepting the loss of a game.
I have tried to find interviews where Firouzja gives his motives, but found none. That may be understandable, but up till the moment he speaks out about it, I think we should see it just as a move to continue his career, instead as of some kind of protest against the boycotting of Israelian players.
But maybe you have sources I don't know about.
Jacob woge Jacob woge 1/10/2022 01:32
Firouzja represents another country due to Iran’s policy versus Israeli players. If he wanted to pursue his career, he really had no choice. Still, to make that choice at such young age is not something you see every day.

Amidst the turmoil of abandoning your home country and changing citizenship, his performance stands out as even more impressive.

That’s why it is worth mentioning, perhaps not every time but definitely in a background feature like this.
adbennet adbennet 1/10/2022 04:57
"But how did he do it?"

We still don't know. Not even one game?
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 1/10/2022 01:23
Is it always that important to mention that he is not born in France? It looks very insistent article after article.

Do you insist as much on players who represent Germany and who are not born in Germany?
Dan Durham Dan Durham 1/10/2022 01:11
Firouzja is a patzer. I was better when I was 13.
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