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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