The playing hall of the Kongresszentrum in Karlsruhe, Germany was bustling with players, chess lovers and officials. The third round of the GRENKE Chess Open, the biggest open event in all of Europe, was minutes away from commencing. When the arbiters announced the start of the round, it was noticed that Iranian GM Alireza Firouzja, one of the top Grandmasters in the event, was missing from his seat. Looking at the pairings, it was clear why: he was paired against Israeli FM Or Bronstein.
Iran does not recognise the state of Israel. However, it does impose sanctions on its chess players if they decide to play against an Israeli. Understandably then, players, who come from Iran, choose to forfeit a game rather than facing repercussions back home. Had he played, Firouzja could have been banned by the Iranian Chess Federation from playing international events. So much on the part of a member federation towards FIDE's motto, Gens una sumus " we are one people.
The organisers of such world-class events as the GRENKE are well aware of this. There have also been instances of making manual changes to algorithmically prepared pairings to avoid matchups of Israeli players with players of countries which boycott it. This has been observed even at prestigious events like the 2018 Women's Chess Olympiad.
Take a look at an excerpt from the first round pairings from the Women's Group of the Batumi Chess Olympiad, 2018. As can be seen, the 96th seeded Japanese team was made to play Israel while the Iraqi team " which should have played white on board 20 " was dropped down a board and pitted against Cuba on board 21 instead.
However, sometimes, especially in the final rounds of a tournament, facilitating such changes is not possible. And in such cases, Iranians are forced to forfeit due to the political stance of their state, even at the cost of missing out on title prizes and big prize checks. The arbiters at the GRENKE Chess Open, however, decided not to fiddle with the pairings even if this was only the third round.
But while playing against an Israeli attracts punishment, backing out is rewarded in the Islamic Republic. Just a few months ago, Aryan Gholami, another young talent from Iran, was hailed as a hero back at home after he refused to play IM Ariel Erenberg of Israel in the seventh round of the Rilton Cup Blitz in Stockholm. After the event, Gholami got to meet the supreme leader of the Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who lauded the 17-year-old's decision.
As per a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), "This sportsman 'checked' the dollar and 'mated' the oppression in order to land another defeat against the Zionist regime". However, talking to schaak.se immediately after his forfeit, Gholami had said he had no ill will against his opponent but if he were to play an Israeli, it would have serious consequences for him.
Firouzja's forfeit could cost him dearly in a tournament as fierce as the GRENKE Open. At just fifteen years of age, he is already the strongest active player in Iran. One of his coaches, GM Ivan Sokolov, had gone so far in one of his interviews with ChessBase India as to say that in him he sees the next Viswanathan Anand. Furthermore, he is one of the strongest players in the tournament, being seeded fourth on the starting rank. After the first two rounds, he had scored a perfect 2/2.
Besides the ¬20,000 first prize, the A-Open of the event also offers a ticket to the Classic, where the Iranian could have had the opportunity to play against the likes of Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Anand " an experience which could prove invaluable to a prodigy of his calibre. At the same time, if he hadn't forfeited, he would have risked ending the glorious career ahead of him in its nascent stages. In that sense, the forfeit was indispensable for him to continue playing chess. But the question that still lingers is if he should have been put in this place at all, where he is forced to choose the lesser evil for the sake of saving his career.
Aditya Pai is an editor at ChessBase India