[imagesource: Chris Watt]
Chess is an acquired taste.
With everyone seemingly suffering from a shortening of attention spans (how else could TikTok exist?), a sport that is often a battle of concentration and attrition may not be popular with too many teenagers.
It is popular with Alireza Firouzja, a 16-year-old Iranian exile, and his rivalry with Magnus Carlsen (above) could be one for the ages.
Carlsen has been nicknamed the ‘Mozart of Chess’, and the world champion’s domination of the sport is unparalleled. He has been world number one for a decade, and world champion since 2013.
In addition, he is unbeaten through 120 classical matches played in person, but that’s no longer an option due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The game has now moved online, with a number of variations played, and it’s there that Firouzja has thrown a real spanner in the works.
Having played Carlsen in person, and lost, it’s a case of sweet revenge. Over to the Telegraph:
One such variation is bullet chess where all matches have a total time limit of one minute. The pieces are a blur of motion on the board with results decided more by instinct and reaction.
It was in this format that Carlsen, still just 29, and Firouzja tangled on April 2 and over the course of nearly 200 games, the teenager came out on top, 103½-90½. Some assigned blame for Carlsen’s defeat to his use of a mouse while Firouzja was deploying the quicker finger touch.
That defeat sent shockwaves around the chess world, and heaped attention on Firouzja.
Last week, the pair met again in the final of the Banter Blitz Cup, with Carlsen cruising past his semi-final opponent in a 9-0 drubbing.
The clash was another sensational one:
Carlsen found himself frazzled and discombobulated by Firouzja’s daring tactical manoeuvres. Losing the first game, Carlsen conceded, “That’s why you never underestimate Alireza – he’s devilishly tricky.” Soon appreciation for his opponent spilt over into self-admonishment as he castigated himself for playing “nonsense” chess.
“It’s really vexing,” Carlsen said in another defeat in game seven. “I’m just constantly doubting myself and it’s all a total mess. I cannot think. I also cannot not think, because what I’m doing without thinking is just really bad. I have no instincts right now – just none, they’re all gone.” Firouzja eventually came out on top, 8½-7½.
Fans of the sport were astounded to see Carlsen lose again, although he did enact revenge on Monday, beating Firouzja 2½-1½ in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational.
Firouzja himself has quite a backstory, as the NZ Herald reports:
Firouzja became a grand master at the age of 14 — and was crowned Iran’s chess champion at the age of 12.
However, Firouzja last year announced he would no longer be playing under Iran’s flag after the country’s ban on Iranian athletes competing against Israeli competitors.
Despite living in France since he was eight years old when his family fled from Iran, Firouzja has elected to compete as a stateless competitor that doesn’t represent any country.
Iran has only ever produced two grandmasters, whereas Russia has produced 156, Germany 61, and the US 60.
Firouzja now competes under the flag of FIDE, the game’s governing body.
Chess fans are hopeful that, after such a period of unrivalled dominance, Carlsen’s battles with Firouzja will attract new fans to the sport, which has seen a huge spike in online interest following the lockdown.
The Magnus Carlsen Invitational saw the eight grandmasters that took place competing for a $250 000 prize pool, so there’s certainly money to be made.
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