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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