Sara Khadem - a portrait

by André Schulz
1/30/2023 – With Sara Khadem Iran has lost another top chess player. The 2018 rapid and blitz vice world champion has moved to Spain with her family, but plans to continue playing under the Iranian flag. The well-known Spanish journalist Leontxo Garcia met with her and published a portrait of the young Iranian woman in the Spanish newspaper "El Pais". | Photo: El Pais

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The precursor to the game of chess was invented in India in the 6th century. Persian sources report that an envoy of an Indian raj brought a game of chess as a gift to the Persian court during the Sassanian Empire (until 642 AD), after which the game became highly popular in Persia. A rich chess literature emerged. The oldest recorded game dates back to the 10th century. Over the years, the game spread throughout Asia and Europe through various means and its rules changed, resulting in different chess variants in different countries.

After the "Islamic Revolution" of 1979, chess was banned in Iran as "gambling" because the Quran prohibits any form of gambling. The then-top Iranian chess players Sharif and Shirazi left the country. However, shortly before his death in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini lifted the ban, leading to a new chess boom in Iran that produced many talented players.

The Iranian Chess Federation organized a number of prestigious tournaments: in 2000, the final of the FIDE World Championship between Viswanathan Anand and Alexey Shirov was held in Tehran. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Iranian Chess Federation organized a number of Asian Youth Championships. Tehran was the host of a Women's Grand Prix tournament in 2016 and the Women's KO World Championship in 2017. However, participants in both tournaments were forced to "adhere to the local customs" and wear headscarfs in public during the tournament. Most women acted "professionally" and followed this rule, but some women declined to participate in the tournaments due to this coercion. The pros and cons were extensively discussed in the chess world at the time.

In Iran's "state of God", an all-powerful "morality police" monitors compliance with religiously based regulations and also this commandment with brutal force. After the 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died on 16 September 2022 in hospital after having been in the custody of the morality police, violent protests erupted throughout the country, which were ruthlessly put down by the country's rulers. Although Iran is largely sealed off from the rest of the world, news of the countless deaths and executions leaked out. More than 18,000 Iranians are reported to have been arrested in the course of the protests.

The young chess talents of yesteryear have now matured into top players. The best-known young chess grandmaster from Iran is Alireza Firouzja, but there are still many other strong players such as Parham Maghsoodloo and M. Amin Tabatabaei who are currently playing with the world elite at the Tata Steel tournaments in Wijk aan Zee.

The chess world mostly holds its tournaments and competitions peacefully, despite many political conflicts. One of the very few exceptions is caused by Iran. Whenever an Iranian player meets a player from Israel in a tournament, Iran forbids the player to play and the Iranians have to give their opponents a point by default. Some time ago, FIDE had asked the Iranian Chess Federation to desist from this practice, but the federation claimed against its better knowledge that this was always a decision of the players and not an order "from above". However, the Iranian players are forced to obey the order, or they have to face reprisals against themselves or their families.

Until the "Islamic Revolution", Iran and Israel, which have no common border, maintained friendly relations. This changed when the mullahs came to power. Israel was declared the "little Satan" alongside the USA, the "big Satan". The origins of the reignited conflict go back to the biblical age.

As a result of the oppression of the population, an exodus of the "intelligentsia" can be observed in Iran for decades, including in chess.

Alireza Firouzja, the greatest chess talent from Iran, left the country together with his family a few years ago. He now lives in France and has joined the French Chess Federation. Other grandmasters have also looked for a new home where they are not permanently harassed by the state.

The most recent example is Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, or Sara Khadem for short. In 2014, she became the runner-up at the U20 World Championships though she was only 17 at that time. By the end of 2018, Sara Khadem was ranked among the top 20 women players in the world in classical chess and was runner-up in the women's rapid and blitz chess championships. After Alireza Firouzja left Iran and was opposed for doing so, Sara Khadem made a video in support of him. As a result, she was not granted an exit permit for the 2019 Gibraltar tournament.

After a Ukrainian plane was "accidentally" shot down after take-off from Tehran on 8 January 2020, killing 176 people, Sara Khadem resigned from the Iranian national team in protest and retired from chess for a while. Her son was born and Sara Khadem took a baby break.

At the 2022 World Rapid Chess and Blitz Championships in Almaty, Sara Khadem played again. She competed in Almaty under the Iranian flag, but played without a headscarf.

Sara Khadem at the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Almaty 2022 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Playing without a headscarf made it clear that she wanted to leave her home country or had already done so. After all, the case of Iranian Shoyeh Bayat, who was refereeing the world championship match between Ju Wenjun and Aleksandra Goryachkina in early 2020, made headlines around the world. Her headscarf had slipped and she was publicly attacked by a mullah in Iran because of it. She did not return to her home country for fear of being arrested.

In fact, Sara Khadem has since moved to Spain with her family. She has been married to Iranian filmmaker, TV presenter and businessman Ardeshir Ahmadi (32), who also has Canadian citizenship, since 2017. Their son is now 10 months old. Ardeshir Ahmadi has personal experience of state violence in Iran. In 2015, he spent three months in the notorious Evin prison after a TV report about an Iranian underground music group and was interrogated there.

From Spain, Sara Khadem wants to continue her chess career and also wants to continue playing under the Iranian flag. She hopes that conditions in her home country will change: "Iran will soon be a better place."

The well-known Spanish journalist Leontxo Garcia met Sara Khadem in Spain at a secret location and published a portrait of the top Iranian player in the Spanish newspaper "El Pais".

Portrait in El Pais (English)...

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.