Grenke Open: Iranian star hands free point to Israeli

by Aditya Pai
4/20/2019 – After starting off with two straight wins at the GRENKE Chess Open, Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja decided to forfeit his third round game as his opponent was an Israeli national: FM Or Bronstein (pictured). The laws of Iran forbid Iranian players from playing against Israelis. Had Firouzja played, he would have risked facing sanctions back in his home country. But forfeiting a game also cost him dearly — as ADITYA PAI reports from Karlsruhe — Firoujza seemed to have lost his composure in the next round as he simply left his rook en prise against 1945-rated Antonia Ziegenfuss (pictured). Surely one of the biggest upsets we'll see this year!

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Iranian GM Alireza Firouzja forfeits game

This article was originally published on Firstpost

The playing hall of the Kongresszentrum in Karlsruhe, Germany was bustling with players, chess lovers and officials. The third round of the GRENKE Chess Open, the biggest open event in all of Europe, was minutes away from commencing. When the arbiters announced the start of the round, it was noticed that Iranian GM Alireza Firouzja, one of the top Grandmasters in the event, was missing from his seat. Looking at the pairings, it was clear why: he was paired against Israeli FM Or Bronstein.

Firouzja during the first round of the Grenke Chess Classic

Firouzja during the first round of the Grenke Chess Classic | Photo: Georgios Souleidis

Iran does not recognise the state of Israel. However, it does impose sanctions on its chess players if they decide to play against an Israeli. Understandably then, players, who come from Iran, choose to forfeit a game rather than facing repercussions back home. Had he played, Firouzja could have been banned by the Iranian Chess Federation from playing international events. So much on the part of a member federation towards FIDE’s motto, "Gens una sumus" — we are one people.

The organisers of such world-class events as the GRENKE are well aware of this. There have also been instances of making manual changes to algorithmically prepared pairings to avoid matchups of Israeli players with players of countries which boycott it. This has been observed even at prestigious events like the 2018 Women’s Chess Olympiad.

Take a look at this excerpt from the first round pairings from the Women’s Group of the Batumi Chess Olympiad, 2018:

Excerpt of the first round pairings from the Batumi Chess Olympiad

As can be seen, the 96th seeded Japanese team was made to play Israel while the Iraqi team — which should have played White on board 20 — was dropped down a board and pitted against Cuba on board 21 instead.

However, sometimes, especially in the final rounds of a tournament, facilitating such changes is not possible. And in such cases, Iranians are forced to forfeit due to the political stance of their state, even at the cost of missing out on title prizes and big prize checks. The arbiters at the GRENKE Chess Open, however, decided not to fiddle with the pairings even if this was only the third round.

But while playing against an Israeli attracts punishment, backing out is rewarded in the Islamic Republic. Just a few months ago, Aryan Gholami, another young talent from Iran, was hailed as a hero back at home after he refused to play IM Ariel Erenberg of Israel in the seventh round of the Rilton Cup Blitz in Stockholm. After the event, Gholami got to meet the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who lauded the 17-year-old’s decision.

As per a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), “This sportsman ‘checked’ the dollar and ‘mated’ the oppression in order to land another defeat against the Zionist regime”. However, talking to immediately after his forfeit, Gholami had said he had no ill will against his opponent but if he were to play an Israeli, it would have serious consequences for him.

Firouzja’s forfeit could cost him dearly in a tournament as fierce as the GRENKE Open. At just fifteen years of age, he is already the strongest active player in Iran. One of his coaches, GM Ivan Sokolov, had gone so far in one of his interviews with ChessBase India as to say that in him he sees the next Viswanathan Anand. Furthermore, he is one of the strongest players in the tournament, being seeded fourth on the starting rank. After the first two rounds, he had scored a perfect 2/2.

Besides the EUR €20,000 first prize, the A-Open of the event also offers a ticket to the 2020 GRENKE Classic, which could allow the Iranian the opportunity to play against the likes of Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Viswnathan Anand — an experience which could prove invaluable to a prodigy of his calibre. On the other hand, if he hadn’t forfeited, he would have risked ending the glorious career ahead of him in its nascent stages. In that sense, the forfeit was indispensable for him to continue playing chess. But the question that still lingers is if he should have been put in this place at all, where he is forced to choose the lesser evil for the sake of saving his career.

Editorial postscript

The Rilton Cup incident mentioned above prompted the European Chess Union to condemn this sort of boycott action as delegates to the General Assembly unanimously agreed on the following resolution published on March 28th:

To request of the FIDE Presidential Board:

  • A statement that such individual boycotts will no longer be tolerated.
  • A resolution from the Board banning the practice of  ‘special pairings’ at the Chess Olympiads, FIDE tournaments and in all FIDE rated events. This refers to the practice of deliberately keeping players or teams from certain countries apart by adjusting the pairing software.
  • If required, to take such steps at the next General Assembly to ensure the two points above are on the agenda for the next FIDE GA.

These incidents reflect poorly on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its individual players are as often victims as perpetrators.

In a small bit of irony, both rounds 2 and 3 (when the forfeit occurred) of the Grenke Open couldn’t be broadcast live due to regional regulations related to Good Friday religious observance. This has been the case in prior years as well and it always provokes some international surprise and confusion among chess fans. Easter holidays remain a big deal in Germany, even as roughly a quarter of the country is "religiously unaffiliated" and another half of the population of 82 million self-identifies as "non-practicing Christians" (Pew Research Center, 2018).



Aditya Pai is an ardent chess fan, avid reader, and a film lover. He holds a Master's in English Literature and used to work as an advertising copywriter before joining the ChessBase India team.


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wok wok 4/22/2019 10:55
How will Firouzja pursue a successful chess career if he can't play certain opponents? Suppose he qualifies for the candidate tournament and faces Gelfand. In some sense his career has come to an end with this forfeit.
Green22 Green22 4/22/2019 06:49
What a joke! "Iran does not recognise the state of Israel. However, it does impose sanctions on its chess players if they decide to play against an Israeli. Understandably then, players, who come from Iran, choose to forfeit a game rather than facing repercussions back home. Had he played, Firouzja could have been banned by the Iranian Chess Federation from playing international events."
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 4/22/2019 03:01
Tournament organizers should never alter pairings for a such a reason. I'm not sure there are any legitimate reasons for altering pairings, it leads to all kinds of controversy like the Hou Yifan case. Plus in this situation it is an acquiescence to political factors. Regarding proposed ban on the player, how does it make sense? What if an emergency came up and he could not make it to the round? We are now looking at motives for forfeit? How about this: if a player touches a piece, let's look at the motive behind it, whether it was accidental or intentional. Much better than if the opponent said j'doube. And making a forfeit of a game mean forfeit of the tournament? Really? Things do happen that are unavoidable, why punish players who are already trying to make a living if something unfortunate happens during a tournament?
Jason Nunn Jason Nunn 4/22/2019 10:18
If FIDE want a quick and easy measure, simply say that from now on there is no such thing as 'forfeiting' a single game. You forfeit a game, you forfeit the whole tournament along with any rating points you may have earned up to that point. Thank you, goodbye, go home.
genem genem 4/22/2019 09:00
Firouzja could have played the better 36. c23 .
Doe111 Doe111 4/22/2019 06:06
These things,are simply too bad
Jason Nunn Jason Nunn 4/21/2019 09:18
"Had he played, Firouzja could have been banned by the Iranian Chess Federation from playing international events."

Er, surely it is FIDE who decides who is and is not 'banned' from international events?! Are they forced to recognise all tinpot national 'bans', irrespective of cause? Just keep on inviting him to every tournament and say you won't invite any other Iranians until he's allowed to come.
Dorado Dorado 4/21/2019 08:33
Iran should not be banned for 2 years as suggested by some in the thread they should be banned permanently as long as they refuse their players to play against a player from israel.
Politics should be keept out of chess period!
Until Iran acknowledges that they should be put on ice by FIDE and the same goes for all their players including Firouzja.
hansj hansj 4/21/2019 06:56
"A '2 year ban' on the federation which makes such things happen would be more appropriate."

That is not enough for Israel. They should be banned until they stop occupying foreign territories, destroying the homes of palestinians and so on.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 4/21/2019 06:24
and them to be 'gifting' Israelies with free points! Like they are helping them...that would really get under the skin of the 'powers that be'..."Are the Israelies paying you to make your players intentionally lose to them?". Sophomoric...but strangely effective.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 4/21/2019 06:19
A '2 year ban' on the federation which makes such things happen would be more appropriate. That and the world at large should gently 'shame' the federation with things like: "So, you are afraid to possibly lose to someone from a certain country? Why are you afraid? Do you find your players inferior? Do you not want to show your players to be superior?", etc, etc...taunts work in a way that other things, frankly do not. Of course, nothing may work...but then you are back to square one. 'Official protests' and such of course never do anything...
Jason Nunn Jason Nunn 4/21/2019 05:49
If FIDE wishes to operate a laissez-faire policy on 'boycotts' at the Olympiad, that's up to them- it's very much their own tournament with national teams competing. But they can't allow the cancer to spread to individual tournaments.

Minimum 2-year ban on the individual, perhaps suspended if they publicly apologise & promise never to do it again.
Philip Feeley Philip Feeley 4/21/2019 05:22
I agree with those who say FIDE should no longer tolerate this Iranian nonsense. They, and any other country, should be banned from international events if they don't cut this out.
hansj hansj 4/21/2019 02:44
I find it understandable if Nazi-Germany was submitted to a boycott. And similarly I do find it understandable that a similarly imperialist and racist nation like Israel is submitted to a boycott.

However there is a problem. Who knows, maybe Or Bronstein is a dedicated opponent of the ruling regime in Israel? Maybe he is a very nice guy?
hurwitz hurwitz 4/21/2019 02:17
I wonder whether people like "Dorado", "Setne007", "fixpont", would still suggest banning an entire nation because of a stupid government if they were born somewhere like Iran ...
r-r r-r 4/21/2019 12:51
its a common phenomenon,even in olympiad so many countries get forbidden pairings against israel(i.e iran yemen saudi arabia uae...)because they don't recognize israel as a country.chess tournaments are full of this stories, from ban on israeli player in 2004, tripoli, to trump's immigration law(zherebukh case) arbiters usually avoid this controversy by taking forbidden pairings into account because this is all they can do to avoid this things.
Iron_Monkey92 Iron_Monkey92 4/21/2019 12:46
Indeed, what arbiter did in Grenke open is correct, the result of the tournament should be fair to others as well.
We can't blame Firouzja, as he was courted in the situation. Imagine how does Iran chess progress in the future will issue, let said if Firouzja becomes world champion?! what if the challenger is Boris Gelfand? or if any player included Iranian and Isreal player in candidates tournament?

I think is time for FIDE or Iran Chess Federation to come out a solution for this, as this is a matter of time before happen.
Lilloso Lilloso 4/21/2019 09:37
"The arbiters at the GRENKE Chess Open, however, decided not to fiddle with the pairings even if this was only the third round". And they are right !
finrod1975 finrod1975 4/21/2019 09:03
Fide, and also the organizers fault, they should immidiatly ban for 3 years every player who refuses to play anyone.
fixpont fixpont 4/21/2019 07:40
Even though Firouzja has my sympathy, Iran should be banned from international events.
Rambus Rambus 4/21/2019 06:13
To quote Raheem Stirling, "If you walk off, they win". Difficult to blame Alireza as well, facing the threat of severe punishment back home. Should sanction Iranian Chess Federation.
Setne007 Setne007 4/21/2019 12:15
FIDE should sanction the player and the Iranian Chess Federation.
Dorado Dorado 4/20/2019 11:26
I wonder why the organisers invite players from Iran knowing this problem.
Maby FIDE should also ban players who refuse to play other players because of religion and FIDE should certainly not let Iran host international chess events.
Ty Riprock Ty Riprock 4/20/2019 11:16
A difficult problem. It is outrageous that chessplayers are being forced to be part of a political boycott, against the principles of chess. For instance, both the Virginia US & South Carolina US state federations were founded in the 1930s & hosted racially integrated tournaments during the era of Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation. Black players could not eat in white restaurants & were o9ften kept from their right to vote, but were welcomed in those Southern chess tournament. Chess should be bringing Iran closer to the rest of the world, not cooperating in secular boycotts.

But how to punish the Iranian regime, which has also been permitted to host international events where they imposed their religious laws upon foreign contestants, without harming the players who are caught in the middle?