A brilliant year: Alireza Firouzja’s ascent to the top

the real deal

Six years ago, in late January 2016, we reported on a 12-year-old’s surprising victory at the Iranian Championship. Alireza Firouzja, a smiling boy, had just racked up 8 points in a 12-player single round robin to become National Champion with a 2590 Tournament Rating Performance.

Two years later, Ivan Sokolov told Sagar Shah after starting his work with a large number of young Iranian talents:

Well, it was clear to me that they had great potential. I spoke to the federation president at the time and told him that they have extremely talented guys, but what they don’t realize is that in Alireza Firouzja they have world champion equipment.

Sokolov was on to something. In 2019, Firouzja started to show remarkable results in open events, joining the 2700 club in August after a strong performance in the Turkish league. However, it was still questionable whether the youngster from Babol would not hit a wall after reaching the elite – as Wei Yi had unfortunately done.

In 2020, amid the strictest coronavirus-related restrictions, Firouzja received accolades for his abilities as an online blitz and bullet player. In April, the youngster defeated none other than world champion Magnus Carlsen in an informal bullet contest. The end result? 103½-90½!

No fluke

As we discovered during the pandemic, there are incredibly strong online quickplay specialists who have failed to make a mark on the classic chess scene. It turns out that Firouzja is not one of them.

A stunning 2021 saw the child prodigy climb from a 2749 Elo rating in classic chess to a 2804 rating, meaning he is the only player other than Magnus Carlsen to be rated over 2800 at the time. The youngster was so impressive that the world champion stated that he is unlikely to play another classic World Cup match unless it is Firouzja who gets the right to challenge him.

Alireza Firouzja, Sasikiran

Alireza Firouzja opposite Sasikiran at the Grand Swiss in Riga | Photo: Anna Shtourman

But how did he do it? How did he achieve 55 rating points in 45 games in 2021?

  • Tata Steel Masters – 8/13, four wins and one loss (against Carlsen). Firouzja finished the tournament half a point behind the leaders and entered the final round with chances to win the event.
  • World Cup – 1/2, two draws. The knockout tournament in Sochi was clearly the most disappointing outing of the year for the youngster as he drew both of his classic matches against Javokhir Sindarov before being eliminated from the quick play-offs.
  • Norway Chess – 6½/10, five wins (including over Ian Nepomniachtchi and Sergey Karjakin) and two losses (against Richard Rapport and Carlsen). Firouzja finished in only second place behind the world champion after demonstrating daring play at the mixed event – classic and blitz combined – in Stavanger.
  • Grand Swiss – 8/11, six wins and one loss (against Fabiano Caruana). A top performance was almost ruined by a loss to Caruana in round 9. A win over David Howell and a draw in the last round gave the young player the victory, and most importantly a spot in next year’s Candidates Tournament.
  • European Team Championship – 8/9, seven wins and two draws. Not only did his stratospheric performance of 3,015 tournaments see him break the 2800 rating line, but Firouzja also became the youngest player ever, surpassing Carlsen’s record by six months. This was the first time that Firouzja represented France in a national team championship.

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