General Jun 2, 2020 | 10:20 AMby IM Nima Javanbakht

Alireza Firouzja & Iranian Chess Heritage

Iran is deeply embedded in the history of chess, as attested by a number of Persian-derived phrases such as "checkmate". It's not just distant history, however, since in recent years Iran has followed India as one of the countries producing the greatest young talents. Parham Maghsoodloo won the 2018 World Junior Championship while 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja is widely acknowledged as a World Championship contender. IM Nima Javanbakht takes a look at Iranian chess in the 12th installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.


Shams Tabrizi, the spiritual instructor of Mawlana (Rumi), portrayed in a 1500 painting on a page of a copy of Rumi's poem in the Works of Shams of Tabriz | image: Wikipedia

The origin of chess has always been controversial; nevertheless, one thing is acknowledged in the literature, Iran (Persia) played an essential role in the evolution and expansion of chess to other countries. Chess, or "Chatrang" in Persian, which transformed to "Shatranj" in Arabic due to the lack of the "ch" and "ng" sounds, has been integrated into Iranian lives and literature for over a thousand years. The Persian heritage can be seen in some chess terms that we still use nowadays, including:

  • “Shah mat”: “Checkmate” in English, “Schachmatt” in German
  • “Rokh”: “Rook” in English, “Roque” in Spanish
  • “Farzin”: “Alferza” in Spanish, “Ferz” in Russian, which is the Queen
  • “Pil”: “Alfil” in Arabic and Spanish, which is the Bishop

Chess has come on a long journey in Iran to be what it is right now. In this article, we will briefly discuss how Iran's professional chess evolved and transformed its heritage from the middle of the 20th century to this day. I could write a dissertation about this evolution, since many invaluable male and female players, coaches, arbiters, policymakers and journalists have contributed to chess in Iran, so much so that without them, this evolution would never have happened; however, as this is just an article, I will allude to some of them and try to connect the dots.

Iran, a Middle Eastern country with a size of 1,628,550 km and a population of around 83 million in 2020 | image: Worldometers

Although FIDE, the World Chess Federation, was founded in 1924, Iran did not have an official chess federation until 1950. In 1952, the Iranian Chess Federation became a FIDE member. This can be considered the birth of professional chess in Iran. Yousof Safvat (1931-2003) was the first Iranian Chess Champion in the late 50s and also played in the first Olympiad that Iran participated in, the 12th Chess Olympiad, Moscow 1956.

Yousof Safvat (1931-2003), the first Iranian Chess Champion| photo: Wikipedia

In addition to Yousof, Abdolhossein Navabi (1920-2010) also played for the Iranian team in that Olympiad. Abdolhossein Navabi is known as the father of professional chess in Iran since as the President of the Iranian Chess Federation from 1968-1978, he was able to widen the chess horizons for Iranians by organizing tournaments and providing opportunities. As a result of these efforts, Iran was able to gain its first International Master in 1975, IM Khosro Sheikh Harandi (1950-2019), who won a gold medal in the zonal FIDE championship which was held in Tehran. For the first time, you could talk about a chess heyday in Iran.

Abdolhossein Navabi's impact did not end after his presidency. He wrote two substantial books, a translation of "Think Like a Grandmaster" by Alexander Kotov, which I believe almost all of the top Iranian players have read, and "Iran's Chess Course in the World", which he gifted to some major players and presidents, such as Florencio Campomanes, the 5th FIDE President from 1982 to 1995.

Abdolhossein Navabi (1920-2010) gifts his book, Iran's Chess Course in the World, to Florencio Campomanes (1927-2010) | photo: achmaz.ir

Shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the black and white squares and pieces of the chessboard were overshadowed by a situation in which Iranian players and fans became chess pieces in zugzwang, rather than active players themselves. Chess was declared a form of gambling and a “haram” game, which means everything related to chess, such as chessboards, books and tournaments, was forbidden from 1981 to 1988. Recovery from this 7-year void was not simple. The Iranian Chess Federation was only able to become a FIDE member again in 1990 thanks to the positive relationship between Abdolhossein Navabi and Florencio Campomanes. This decade was probably the darkest period for chess in Iran and ruined the careers of many young and gifted players.

Events demonstrate how history can change abruptly in only a decade. Following the amendments, the Iranian team was able to play in the 29th Chess Olympiad, in Novi Sad 1990, 14 years after their previous participation in the 22nd Chess Olympiad, in Haifa 1976. While the Iranian team travelled to Israel in 1976, a few years later they were banned even from playing any Israeli player, let alone participating in a tournament held in Israel. Despite chess advances in Iran from the 90s until now, these shadows have not completely faded away. Players have always faced various challenges throughout their careers such as political considerations, visa requirements, a lack of sponsors and permanent coaches, and sluggish and filtered internet.

If not for those dark years, how far would chess have developed in Iran by now? | image: wallpaperflare.com

Although chess in Iran started to recover gradually from 1990 onwards, the circumstances prevented capable masters such as IM Khosro Sheikh Harandi from achieving what they truly deserved as players. However, I am proud to designate him as the father of two generations of Iranian chess professionals, since almost all of our top players have learnt at least one valuable concept under his coaching or supervision, helping shape their future.

IM Khosro Sheikh Harandi (1950-2019), the influential mentor of almost all Iranian professional chess players since the 90s | photo: Reza Mahdipour

Meanwhile, we often forget about the importance of journals and publications as credible sources and for networking in the chess community. Kazem Mortazavi publishes a monthly magazine named “Mahname Shatrandj”, the only useful source for many players since 1990 to follow recent news, events and new chess material. Moreover, he was a compassionate advisor to many children aged 6-12 that are now top players, including GM Alireza Firouzja.

Kazem Mortazavi (born 1946) and his monthly magazine, “Mahname Shatrandj” with 12-year-old Alireza Firouzja on the front cover | photos: achmaz.ir and pedaropesar.com

At the beginning of the 21st century, GM Ehsan Ghaemmaghami became the first Grandmaster (in 2001) and, a few years later, WGM Shadi Paridar became the first Woman Grandmaster (in 2004). This began a new era for Iran as their achievements captured the attention of the national and international media, enabling Iran to become a chess hub in the Middle East. That brought sponsors and international tournaments, events and super leagues, which many foreign players joined, sharing their priceless experience. Furthermore, Ehsan and Shadi had an impact on the authorities, with national competitions, festivals, training camps and Olympiads held not only for eminent players but also for students from primary schools to universities, making it possible to attract and find chess players at an early age. This boosted the entire chess community, and Iranian teams became a cornerstone of the Asian and World Youth Chess Championships, gaining dozens of medals. Unfortunately, given the shrinking of the Iranian economy and hyperinflation, these changes were temporary. After 2012, many foreign grandmasters stopped playing in the super league or tournaments, and even national Olympiads and festivals were postponed or cancelled.

GM Ehsan Ghaemmaghami (born 1982), the Iranian Chess Championship record holder, is speaking about one of the biggest simultaneous chess festivals, in Tehran in 2011 | photo: Mazyar Nikkholgh, bultannews.com

WGM Shadi Paridar (born 1982), the first Iranian Woman Grandmaster | photo: borna.news

Thanks to the advent of technology and the internet, the chess community could be connected more easily and faster. Reza Mahdipour created the Achmaz website in 2007, which quickly became the primary resource for all Iranian chess players and fans to follow anything concerning chess. The Achmaz website is still the main Persian professional online chess journal, which has become not only a daily habit or task for players to check, but also an archive of the memories of the current generation.

Reza Mahdipour (born 1984), FIDE arbiter and the manager of Achmaz.ir

In spite of the success of young players the federation usually did not risk utilizing them in the national team. This approach began to alter drastically in 2014 and accelerated when 16-year-old GM Parham Maghsoodloo got his grandmaster title in 2016. His rating skyrocketed and he surpassed the rating of Ehsan, the top-rated Iranian player for many years, to become the number one on the rating list. Within a short period he won the 2017 and 2018 Iranian Chess Championships and also the 2018 World Junior Championship, with astonishing scores and performances. Nowadays the national team consists of a vibrant generation of 15 to 25-year-old players. Parham, with a 2676 rating, is currently the top-rated player in Iran and the 61st on the world rating list. He has a very bright future ahead of him as he is just 20 years old.

GM Parham Maghsoodloo (born 2000), the current top-ranked player in Iran on the FIDE list | photo: Vysotsky, Wikipedia

Although there was a preconceived notion that chess is masculine and a sport only men can be good at, IM Sarasadat Khademalsharieh disproved that with her world-class achievements. Sara got her WGM title in 2013, and since then has been the Iranian no. 1 for a long time. She got her IM title in 2015 and now, with a 2494 rating, is ranked 13th in the world on the women’s list. Sara is Iran’s female chess star and we believe she will achieve more and become a GM soon.

IM Sarasadat Khademalsharieh (born 1997) won silver medals in the 2018 FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Championships and also received the special award as the top woman | photo: tehrantimes.com

Alireza Firouzja

On top of all these extraordinary players, GM Alireza Firouzja, who was born on June 13th, 2003 and raised in Babol city, Mazandaran province, Iran, has been considered a chess prodigy since 2016. Personally, I played with him in the Iranian Super League in September 2015, when he was just a 12-year-old 2300-rated player. I lost the game, but beyond the result, I liked the game and the way Alireza played, which encouraged me to publish it in the “Mahname Shatrandj” magazine a month later. That was the first point at which I started to realise that Alireza was an inimitable player, and I provide the game here as well. In general, in addition to Alireza's powerhouse dynamic playing style, one of his unique traits is a strong desire to win against anybody, i.e. a “no draw” rule, which means that neither the opponent’s age, rating nor title intimidates him, even if he comes up against the current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen.

1. d4 ♘f6 2. c4 g6 3. ♘c3 d5 4. ♘f3 ♗g7 5. h4 I chose this line to surprise my opponent; however, the idea behind it is illogical, especially when you are playing with a young, brilliant and future top player you have just identified! As we see in the coming moves, Black can get a slightly better position thanks to his two bishops.

5. cxd5 ♘xd5 6. e4 ♘xc3 7. bxc3 c5 This could be the main line.

5... c6 6. ♗g5 dxc4 7. ♗xf6

7. e4 ♗e6 8. e5 ♘d5 9. h5 ♘xc3 10. bxc3 ♘d7=/+ With an edge for Black.

7... exf6 8. e3 ♗e6 9. ♘d2 b5 10. a4 b4 Rather than defending, Alireza correctly pushes his pawns and continues to play dynamically. Having the initiative is critical.

11. ♘e2 f5 12. ♘f4 c3 13. bxc3 bxc3 14. ♘f3 ♗d5 A quick comparison between the pieces shows that the black pieces are well-organized and ready for the middlegame whereas the white ones should still find a strategy to regain the sacrificed pawn.

15. ♖c1

15. ♘xd5 ♕xd5 16. ♕c2 O-O 17. ♕xc3 c5= With equal chances for White.

15... O-O 16. h5

16. ♖xc3 ♕a5 17. ♕d2 ♕xa4

16... ♕a5

16... c5⌓=/+

17. ♗d3?

17. ♕c2 ♘a6 18. ♕xc3 ♘b4 Black has the initiative, but White can still hold.

17... ♘d7 18. h6 I offered a draw with this move, but regardless of any team, rating or age considerations he went on to win the game, which demonstrates his solid character and eagerness to progress in chess in the long term.

18... ♗f6 19. O-O ♘b6 20. ♘e5 ♖ac8

20... ♗g5 21. ♘xd5 ♘xd5 (21... cxd5? 22. ♗b5!= ) 22. ♘xc6? ♕b6 23. ♘e5 ♘xe3−+

21. ♕c2 ♗xe5 22. dxe5 ♖ce8 23. ♗xf5 ♖xe5 24. ♗d3= Even though White could equalize at this stage, during the game Black seemed more comfortable thanks to the harmony of his pieces and the weak h6-pawn.

24... ♖fe8 25. ♖a1 It is your turn! Try to find the best idea for Black to challenge White.

25. ♕xc3 Considering the time trouble I was in, Qxc3 was essential to exchange and simplify. 25... ♕xc3 26. ♖xc3 ♘xa4 27. ♖a3 ♘c5 28. ♗e2+/=

25... ♕b4! Qb4-Qf8-Qxh6 and an attack on the h-file was the troublesome idea I had missed.

26. ♖fb1 ♕f8 27. a5 ♘d7 28. ♘xd5 ♖xd5 29. ♕xc3 ♕xh6 30. ♕xc6

30. ♗e2= The only move by which White can hold the position together by securing the h1-a8 diagonal with the Be2-Bf3 manoeuvre.

30... ♖h5

30... ♖xd3 31. ♖d1 ♕g7! Black could win without giving any chances with the subtle Qg7. 32. ♖ac1 ♖xd1+ 33. ♖xd1 ♖e7 34. ♖xd7 ♕a1+ 35. ♔h2 ♖xd7 36. ♕xd7 ♕xa5−+

31. g3 ♖xe3! Regardless of the moves and computer evaluations, this position is in Black's favour, since Alireza is on the attacking side while White suffers from serious time pressure.

32. ♗e4 ♘e5 33. ♕c8+

33. ♕f6 White's last chance to get a draw with the help of the 8th rank. 33... ♖xg3+ 34. fxg3 ♕e3+ 35. ♔f1 ♖f5+ 36. ♗xf5 ♕f3+= With perpetual check.

33... ♔g7−+ Black will soon win. As we can see, Alireza's dedication and eagerness to fight for a win plus a harmonius dynamic strategy to make trouble for his opponent earned him the full point.

34. ♖b8 ♖xg3+ 35. fxg3 ♕e3+ 36. ♔f1 ♕xe4 37. ♕f8+ ♔f6 38. ♕d6+ ♔f5 39. g4+ ♕xg4

0-1

Just 5 months after this game, in February 2016, he won the Iranian Chess Championship even though more experienced players such as Ehsan and Parham were playing in the tournament. This was a remarkable event, not only for his aspirations in chess but also for the country to get over some age-related misconceptions. Alireza got his IM title in 2016 and finally his GM title in 2018 at 14 years old, becoming the youngest Iranian GM ever and one of the youngest in the world. Although Parham and Alireza, and other young players, were rivals during these years, their relationship was more friendly than fiercely competitive, leading to chess improvements for all of them, and specifically Alireza. Indeed, whether they were sitting in a vehicle to get to the playing hall, or in a restaurant to eat a meal, they could not stop talking about chess. A common dialogue would be something like, "That position/opening is bad/good because of..." and in response "No! It cannot be, I will prove it...".

Alireza credits two of his coaches, IM Mohsen Sharbaf, the builder of his dynamic style, and GM Ivan Sokolov, who taught him numerous concepts such as chess openings and strategic planning. Nonetheless, none of this would have happened without two critical factors, Alireza's diligence and his parents' dedication. After years of hard work, he won the Iranian Chess Championship again in 2019, passed the unprecedented 2700 rating mark and, at this moment with a 2728 rating at the age of 16, is ranked 21st on the latest FIDE rating list. Ivan Sokolov has compared his talent to that of Bobby Fischer, the 11th World Chess Champion, and nominated him to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship title. Alireza recently beat Magnus in the chess24 Banter Blitz Cup.

However, in winter 2019 he changed from the Iranian flag to the FIDE flag, and he currently lives in France with his family, presumably due to the aforementioned issues and restrictions in Iran. If we suppose that mid-2013 was the starting point of his chess career, then over these 7 years his rating has increased roughly 110 points on average each year, which shows how fast he was, and still is, developing. Right now Alireza has become a pillar of Iran's chess heritage, and we will definitely hear more about him in the years to come.

Alireza Firouzja on the way to winning the 2020 Prague Masters | photo: Vladimir Jagr, official website

Mount Damavand, the highest peak in Iran and the Middle East, with the Milky Way galaxy overhead | photo: Majid Ghohroodi

In conclusion, even though chess has had a turbulent history in Iran, generations have passed their heritage on to the next ones with the hope of a bright future, making Iran one of the world’s top 30 chess countries. Without even one of the cited individuals, Iran would never have had the stars we have today, but I want to acknowledge all of the chess family. They deserve much more, because if becoming a top chess player is analogous to climbing a mountain, then Iranian players have tried to reach the peak without adequate equipment. They only have two things, their diligence and perseverance, and their parents' dedication and patronage; their achievements should therefore be all the more appreciated since they have paved the way for future generations.

There are two final words, one to Alireza Firouzja, the Iranian star representing the Persian heritage on the tour, and one to Iran, his home country:

To Alireza: Irrespective of nationality, religion and race, we are all humans with identical hearts; thus we all wish you success wherever you are. A shining star in the universe can be seen from the east to the west and the north to the south, without any borders.

To Iran: Dozens of gifted chess players have left you, from IM Kamran Shirazi and GM Elshan Moradiabadi to WGM Mitra Hejazipour and IA Shohreh Bayat and the potential future World Champion, GM Alireza Firouzja. I am sure none of them left their home country comfortably and painlessly. Iran, instead of allocating blame, find the “root causes” for this trend and “initiate friendships and stability, spread love and take care of your human capital”. The chess family have made their moves with integrity; now the future of our chess heritage is in your hands. The clock is ticking, Iran, it's your move.


IM Nima Javanbakht

Nima Javanbakht (@NimaJavanbakht) is an International Master from Isfahan, Iran who is currently studying for a PhD at the National University of Singapore.


How did you get into chess? Share your experiences in the comments or using the hashtag #HeritageChess!

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