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

The real deal

Six years ago, at the end of January 2016, we told you about the surprising victory of a 12-year-old in the Iranian championship. A smiling kid Alireza Firouzja had just scored 8 points in a 12-player round robin to become National Champion with a tournament rating performance of 2,590.

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

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

Sokolov was on to something. In 2019, Firouzja started showing remarkable results in open events, joining club 2700 in August after a strong performance in the Turkish League. Still, it remained to be seen if Babol’s youngster wouldn’t hit a wall after reaching the top flight – as Wei Yi had, unfortunately.

In 2020, amid the tightest coronavirus restrictions, Firouzja was praised for his abilities as an online blitz and ball player. In April, the youngster beat none other than world champion Magnus Carlsen in an informal bullet match. The final result ? 103½-90½!

Not a fluke

As we discovered during the pandemic, there are some incredibly powerful online fast-paced specialists who have failed to make their mark on the classic over-the-board chess scene. It turns out that Firouzja is not one of them.

An astonishing year 2021 saw the prodigy go from an Elo rating of 2749 in classic chess to a rating of 2804, meaning he is the only player other than Magnus Carlsen with a rating above 2800 at the era. The youngster has been so impressive that the world champion has said he is unlikely to play another classic world championship game unless Firouzja has the right to challenge him.

Alireza Firouzja, Sasikiran

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

But how did he do it? How did he earn 55 ranking points in 45 games throughout 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 of winning 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 in his two classic games against Javokhir Sindarov before being eliminated in the quick playoffs.
  • Norwegian Chess – 6½ / 10, five wins (including against Ian Nepomniachtchi and Sergey Karjakin) and two losses (against Richard Rapport and Carlsen). Firouzja finished second behind the world champion after showing boldness throughout the mixed event – classic and blitz combined – in Stavanger.
  • Grand Swiss – 8/11, six wins and one loss (against Fabiano Caruana). A tour de force was almost marred by a loss to Caruana in the 9th round. A win over David Howell and a draw in the final round, however, gave the youngster the tournament victory and, more importantly, a place in next year’s Candidates tournament.
  • European Team Championship – 8/9, seven wins and two draws. Not only did his stratospheric 3015 tournament performance push him through the 2800 barrier, Firouzja also became the youngest player to do so, surpassing Carlsen’s record by six months. It was the first time Firouzja represented France in a national team championship.

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