16-year-old Alireza Firouzja inspired French FM Yosha Iglesias to take a look at the best 16-year-old chess players in history. In Part One he looked at players starting with Mikhail Botvinnik and ending with Judit Polgar, while this Part Two begins with Peter Leko, covers such players as Magnus Carlsen and Teimour Radjabov, and finally ends with Alireza himself. Check out some of the games by some of the greatest prodigies of all time.
By Yosha Iglesias
We’ve now compiled all of the games in both parts of this series into the “tournament” below, so you can replay them all with computer analysis:
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the first part of this article.
Peter Leko (born 1979)
We ended Part 1 with Judit Polgar, the Hungarian born in 1976 who went on to become the world’s youngest ever grandmaster. We start Part 2 with her compatriot, three years her junior, who was the youngest International Master in the world at 12 years old. Peter went on to break Judit’s record and become a Grandmaster at just 14 years and 4 months old.
At 15, Peter finished joint 3rd in the Dortmund super-tournament, behind Kramnik and Karpov, level with Ivanchuk, and ahead of the strong grandmasters Lautier, Piket, Short, Bareer, Beliavsky and Lobron.
A few months later, at just 16 years old, Peter Leko impressively outplayed Vladimir Kramnik. That took place in Belgrade in November 1995. On the next rating list (January 1996) Kramnik shared first place with Garry Kasparov on a 2775 rating, while Leko was 36th in the world with 2625.
This Sicilian position with opposite-side castling really is a Leko-Kramnik game! The Hungarian unleashed the strong 19.Nf6+!, taking advantage of the fact that 19…gxf6 would be suicidal: 20.Qxh6 f5 21.g4 and Black can resign. 19...Bxf6 would still be possible, but the unpinning with gain of tempo 20.Qe4!, followed by 20...g6 21.exf6, gives White a decisive advantage. Kramnik preferred 19...Kh8 20.Qe4 g6 but Peter took full advantage of the weakening - and created some new weaknesses along the way. We’ve rarely seen Kramnik as tied up as he was in this game. Just look at the position after 29.Rhf1!
White is threatening both brutal wins like 30.Nxh7! Bxg5 31.Nxg5 followed by taking on f7, g6 or e6, as well as more prosaic wins such as 30.g4. Kramnik gave up his dark-squared bishop with 29…Bxf6, which was more or less the same as resigning.
Big Vlad should perhaps have resigned instead since it would have saved him from being hit by a tactic after he was already two pawns down:
47.Bxe6! is a nice sacrifice which defends the c2-pawn! After 47...Bxe6 48.Rxe6 Black finally did resign.
Peter Leko reached his best world ranking of 4th in 2003. He faced Vladimir Kramnik in the 2004 World Championship. Kramnik made it two wins apiece in the 14th and final game of the match, thus retaining his title.
Ruslan Ponomariov (born 1983)On January 1st 2000, the three best juniors (<20 years old) in the world were only 16 years old!
Bacrot and Ponomariov had both been the youngest grandmasters in the world. Etienne beat Leko’s record in March 1997 at the age of 14 years and 2 months, while Ruslan then beat Etienne’s record in Octboer 1997, at exactly 14 years old.
I decided to include only the one who had the best rating of the three at 16 years old: the Ukrainian Ruslan Ponomariov. To satisfy Alexander’s fans and not to be accused of bias, the following game is a demolition of Ponomariov by Grischuk during the very strong Torshvan Open in 2000, where they tied on 7.5/9.
White is a pawn down and has to play with precision to take advantage of his lead in development.
21.Bd8! Black has no good way of defending the knight, as if 21…Nd5 22.Nxd5 followed by Re1 wins quickly, while 21…Qd6 or Qd4 allow 22.Rd1. Pono played 21...Qc5 22.Ne4 Qb4 23.Ng5 Kh8 24.Qf7 Bd7 25.Bxe6 Rxd8
Ruslan allowed the classic smothered mate: 26.Qg8+! Rxg8 27.Nf7#
At only 18 years old, Ruslan Ponomariov beat his compatriot Vassily Ivanchuk in the final of the 2002 FIDE World Championship, while in the same year he finished 2nd in the Linares super-tournament behind Garry Kasparov. The negotiations for a match between the two players never came to fruition, with Ponomariov reaching his peak rating of 2764 in July 2011.
Teimour Radjabov (born in 1987)
In 1999, aged only 12, Teimour Radjabov became the European Under 18 Champion, ahead of Evgeny Postny, 6 years his elder.
In 2001, Teimour became the second youngest grandmaster in history (at the time), at 14 years and 14 days, but it was in 2003, when he turned 16, that the Azerbaijan prodigy really exploded.
In January 2003, Teimour beat FIDE World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov with the black pieces in Wijk aan Zee.
In February, during the Linares super-tournament, the 15-year-old teenager faced a former classmate of his father’s from Baku: world no. 1 Garry Kasparov. Kasparov hadn’t lost a single game during the previous five Linares tournaments!
In a complicated position arising from the French Defence,
the world no. 1 blundered with 27.Rdf1?? allowing 27...Nb3+
28.Kd1 and not 28...Qg6 29.Qf5 but 28...Bxg3! If
White captures, Qg6 is devastating. Kasparov played 29.Rf7 and
continued a dozen moves a piece down before accepting defeat. It had been seven
years since he’d lost with the white pieces and he didn’t lose another
classical game with White until the end of his career!
In July 2003 it was no longer so surprising that Teimour, then 16 years old, earned his 3rd World Champion scalp with Black that year: that of Vishy Anand. But the manner he did it was incredible.
The black queen doesn’t have a good square: if 22…Qe5? then 23.Bf4 while if, for example, 22…Qc7 then White wins with Rxf6 followed by Qxd4. No problem for Radjabov, who here sacrificed his queen with 22...Qxf2+!! 23.Kxf2
Now what? The primitive 23...Bh4+ 24.Kg1 gives nothing. Radjabov unleashed the fantastic 23...Nb5!! freeing the d4-square for the bishop. It would be mate after 24.Bxb5 Bd4+ 25.Ke2 Rf2#, or also the pretty 25.Kg3 Bf2#. Anand obviously didn’t allow that to happen and took shelter with his king with 24.Kg1, and after 24...Nxc3 25.Nxc3 Bxc3 we had what us lazy commentators qualify as “dynamic equality”.
The Azerbaijan prodigy dominated the then only one-time World Champion and delivered a final uppercut on the 36th move.
36...Rxc3! 37.Qxc3 Ng3! The unstoppable threat is d2 Qxd2 Nf1+. Anand played a couple more moves out of inertia: 38.b7 Rxb7 39.Qa5 Rb8 0-1
Teimour Radjabov reached world no. 4 with a 2793 rating in November 2012. It was with that rating that he entered the 2013 London Candidates, but he finished last with seven losses and just one win, on time against Ivanchuk. It seemed as though that was a blow from which Teimour was never going to recover, but he won the 2019 World Cup to qualify for the 2020 Candidates Tournament. As we saw, however, he dropped out at the last moment over coronavirus concerns.
Sergey Karjakin (born 1990)
In January 2002, when he was barely 12 years old, Karjakin was chosen by Ponomariov to second him in the (victorious) final of the FIDE World Championship against Ivanchuk. That same year he set the record as the youngest grandmaster in history, a record that still stands today, at 12 years and 7 months old.
Karjakin was the youngest member of the Ukrainian team that won the 2004 Olympiad in Calvia, and made a big contribution, scoring 6.5/7!
In 2005 Karjakin won the B Group in Wijk aan Zee, ahead of players like Carlsen, Mamedyarov and Nielsen. A year later, at 16 years old, he scored 7/13 in the A Group with victories over Bacrot, Mamedyarov, Kamsky and Sokolov!
26.Bxh6! This tempting move is good, but it’s difficult to see how to get more than perpetual check. 26...gxh6 27.Qg6+ Kh8 28.Qxh6+ Kg8 29.Qg6+ Kh8 Now what? 30.Re3!! f4
Should we resort to perpetual check? 31.Bd3? Bf5! 32.Bxf5 Rxf5 gives nothing. Karjakin found the incredible 31.Rxe5!! with the idea 31...dxe5 32.Qh6+ Kg8 33.d6!! and the opening of the c4-g8 diagonal is decisive!
Note that the direct 30.Rxe5?, without having provoked f5-f4 first, would have allowed 30...Qd8 and Black somehow manages to defend, since there’s no Rh5 mate.
The game continued 33...Rf7 34.Bc4
Despite being a rook and bishop up, Van Wely could find nothing and resigned after 34…Bf5 35.dxe7.
Karjakin won the World Rapid Championship in 2012, a point ahead of Carlsen, and the World Blitz Championship in 2016, equal on points with Carlsen but with a better rating performance. His victory in the 2015 World Cup qualified him for the Candidates Tournament a year later, and victory there earned him the right to challenge Magnus in the 2016 World Championship match in New York. Despite taking the lead with four classical games to go, he eventually lost in a rapid playoff.
Magnus Carlsen (born 1990)
Magnus Carlsen shot to international prominence in 2004 by winning the C Group in Wijk aan Zee with a 10.5/13 score and a 2700+ rating performance. In the same year he drew a game against Garry Kasparov in rapid chess.
Carlsen won the B Group in Wijk aan Zee in 2006, tying for first with Motylev. It was in October that year that Magnus passed Sergey Karjakin, a rival a few months older, on the rating list.
Magnus Carlsen started 2007 very badly, finishing last in the A Group in Wijk aan Zee, but he soon hit back, finishing 2nd in Linares, behind Anand, thanks to wins against Topalov, Morozevich and Ivanchuk, who he beat twice.
In August 2007 Magnus won his first super-tournament, in Biel, ahead of Onischuk, Pelletier, Polgar, Grischuk and Radjabov. He wasn’t yet 17 years old.
In the 2007 World Cup, Carlsen was knocked out in the semi-finals by the future winner, Gata Kamsky, after eliminating Cheparinov in the quarterfinals and Adams in the Last 16. The following game is taken from that match against the British no. 1.
White is a pawn up, but the lead in development, the c-file
and the possibility of infiltrating on c2 seems to give Black more than enough
compensation. Thanks to a manoeuvre of fantastic originality, however, Magnus
shows that Black has nothing.
13.Nd2! Rc2 14.Rb1! Rac8 15.Nb3! Bc4
16.Na1! Finally Magnus’ idea is revealed: to control the c2-square. Adams was forced to exchange rooks with 16...Ba2 17.Nxc2 Bxb1 18.Na1!
The knight has returned to the corner from where it prevents Rc2, cooperating perfectly with the bishop that prevents Rc1+. Black has no compensation and Carlsen went on to complete his development and ultimately convert his advantage.
Magnus Carlsen has won four classical World Championship titles, five Blitz World Championships and three Rapid World Championships. He’s the world no. 1 since 2010, achieved the record classical rating of 2882 and the record unbeaten streak. It’s difficult not to consider him the best player of all time.
Two other super-GMs were born in that same great year for top chess players, 1990: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi. Here’s a small table comparing the 4 stars:
Anish Giri made a name for himself by finishing 2nd in the Wijk aan Zee C Group in 2009, thus gaining his 3rd and final grandmaster norm.
A year later he won the B Group in Wijk aan Zee with a 2773 performance that included wins over Harikrishna, Howell, Sutovsky, Nisipeanu, Nyback and the one-year-older Wesley So. That game is the one we analyse below.
In that same year, 2010, Anish Giri was singled out by Vishy Anand to assist him in preparing for his World Championship match against Veselin Topalov.
Giri’s victory in the Wijk aan Zee B Group in 2010 qualified him for the A Group in 2011, during which, at 16 years old, he beat Magnus Carlsen in just 22 moves, with the black pieces!
White has just played 19.f3, hoping to save the piece with 19…Nxd2? 20.Qxd2 Bh5 when Black would suddenly run into e.g. 21.e6. Anish sacrificed a piece with 19...Nxe5! 20.Bf1! Qf6! 21.fxe4 fxe4 with a complex and balanced position. 5 moves later we got:
Here the computer gives 26...Bxh3 and its preferred evaluation: 0.00. Anish played the natural but flawed move 26...Rf8?! to bring all his pieces into the game. So then defended perfectly with 27.Re3! Rf2 28.Qe1! and no sacrifice works. A few moves later, it was obvious that White was totally winning:
Two pieces down, Giri tried 34...Nd1!? The idea is 35.Rxd1 Rf1+ 36.Kxf1 Qxe3 but White would still be clearly winning there. Wesley instead went astray for the first time with 36.Qc1? then gave away the game with 35...Qg3 36.Ne2??
So expected resignation, but he was the one who had to offer his hand after 36…Rf1+!
Anish Giri obtained his peak rating so far of 2798 in January 2016, ranking him 3rd in the world.
You’ll note that Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren, both born in 1992, are absent from this Top 16. Of the two the Italian-American came closest.
Wei Yi (born 1999)
Wei Yi became a grandmaster at 13 years old after achieving his final norm in the 2013 Reykjavik Open, during which he beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
In the 2013 World Cup he eliminated Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alexei Shirov.
In November 2013, Wei Yi became the youngest player ever to cross 2600.
In 2014 Wei Yi scored 4/5 for the Chinese team, who took Olympiad gold medals.
Wei Yi had his Annus Mirabilis in 2015:
In the same year Wei Yi won two of the most beautiful games in chess history: a king hunt against Lazaro Bruzon, dubbed the Game of the Century...
...and a magnificent mating attack against Anne Haast that we’ll look at now.
In a typical Sicilian, Black has just blundered with 16...Rc8? when instead it was necessary to play 16...Nf6 to avoid the following, decisive combination: 17.f6! Nxf6 18.Rxf6!! gxf6
19.Bb6! The bishop is untouchable due to mate on d7. 19...Qc6 20.Na5! Qe6 21.Nxb7 Rb8
Black is threatening not only to take on b7, but also to
exchange queens first and then take on b7! Wei Yi found (and had probably been
planning for several moves) the incredible 22.Nd5!!
A magnificent idea is 22…Qxh3 23.Nc7+! Re7 24.Bc5+! d6 25.Rxd6!!
The mate is unstoppable! For example 25...Rxb7 26.Rd1#
Anne didn’t take on h3 but on b7: 22...Rxb7 23.Qc3! Qc6 (23...Rb8
24.Nc7+) 24.Nxf6+ Ke7
In this position, where several moves win, Wei Yi played the most beautiful and efficient one: 25.Bd8+!, and if 25...Kxd8 26.Qxc6. Haast let her opponent finish off his masterpiece with mate: 25...Ke6 26.Qh3# !
Only 20, Wei Yi still has a bright future ahead of him, but
it must be admitted that since 2015 the Chinese star has somewhat disappointed.
His current rating of 2732 is barely better than at 16 years old.
Firouzja became a grandmaster at 14 years old after scoring his 3rd norm in the 2018 Aeroflot Open.
He made a name for himself amongst the general public in the 2018 World Rapid and Blitz Championship. He finished 6th in the rapid tournament with the 2nd best rating performance of the tournament: 2848. He then led the blitz with 6.5/7 before losing to Magnus Carlsen.
Firouzja is the 2nd youngest player ever to cross the 2700 mark, after Wei Yi but before Carlsen.
In December 2019, after quitting the Iranian Chess Federation to play under the FIDE flag, Firouzja finished runner-up in the World Rapid Championship. He would have had a chance of winning the blitz title if he hadn’t managed to lose with bishop + 3 pawns vs. bishop… against Magnus Carlsen.
On his super-tournament debut, in Wijk aan Zee in 2020, Firouzja was leading until the 9th round when he lost again to, you’ve guessed it, Magnus Carlsen!
As a last-minute substitute for the Prague Masters, Firouzja won after beating Vidit in a playoff.
The following game was played in the first round of the 2019 Sharjah Masters, where Firouzja finished in a 7-player tie for first place.
Firouzja knows his classics, including Kasparov-Shirov 1994, and here played the strong 12.Rb4! Nc5 13.Rxb7!, a purely positional sacrifice: 13...Nxb7 14.e5 d5
Black tries to close the position but Alireza makes it explode with 15.Nxd5!! After 15...exd5 White is one rook down and there is no forced line, but positionally White is winning! The game continued 16.Nf5! 0-0 17.Bxd5 Bc5
Black’s hopes lay in the ending, but even that’s losing after 18.Bxb7 Qxd1. He could also have struggled on after 18.Qg4 g6 19.Nh6 Kh8.
Alireza played objectively the best move 18.b4!! when if 18...Bxb4 the bishop would be trapped after 19.Qg4 g6 20.Nh6 Kh8 21.Qxb4.
Poor Zarkovic tried 18...Bb6. You can note that the b4-pawn dominates the black pieces, as in the Kasparov game mentioned above, but in this case it’s incidental since White is winning by force: 19.Qg4 g6 20.e6! Qf6 21.e7! Re8
22.Bxf7+! and Black resigned since if 22...Kxf7 White has 23.Qc4+, echoing the Qh3 of Wei Yi!
Will Alireza Firouzja be World Champion one day? It’s not impossible he’ll do it in 2022. Having said that, there have always been more “future World Champions” than there are World Champions! This article shows that the best players at 16 years old have not all attained the Holy Grail. By the time Firouzja passes Magnus and the current ruling generation he’ll also have to fight with the cadets. Karjakin’s record of becoming a grandmaster at 12 years and 7 months holds for now, but the next four youngest GMs in history were all born after Firouzja!
When Firouzja was asked what he thought about being considered a future World Champion he replied: “A lot of talents have never become World Champion. I just want to play good chess.”
Today Firouzja plays Georg Meier in the Banter Blitz Cup quarterfinals!
Is there anyone we've missed, or someone you don't think belongs among the Top 16? Let us know in the comments!
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