This past weekend, 21-year-old Dutch grandmaster Jorden van Foreest took home first place at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, the first major tournament of the year, over a stacked field featuring some of the best players on the planet. One of those competitors was Alireza Firouzja, a 17-year-old Iranian-born player who competes under the French flag and won his first major at 16. With respect to Andrey Esipenko, Firouzja is the highest regarded teenager in chess, and he showed out at Tata Steel with a fifth-place finish, one spot higher than Magnus Carlsen. However, Firouzja might have tied for first if not for a bizarre, controversial imposition by officials.
Firouzja entered his final game of the tournament with a chance to tie Anish Giri and van Foreest with 8.5 points if he beat Radoslaw Wojtaszek. Although even a win wouldn’t have put Firouzja in a playoff for the title due to a worse tiebreaker, he still had plenty to play for: more prize money, the chance to push his way to the world No. 11 rank, and the honor of tying Carlsen’s record for youngest player to share a chunk of first place at Tata Steel. But that’s not what happened.
Firouzja outplayed Wojtaszek with the white pieces, and was pressing what looked like a game-winning advantage when both players were granted 15-minute extensions for reaching time controls on the 60th move. Event organizers then came over and asked the two players to kindly move to another table so Giri and van Foreest could start their playoff final. Firouzja was clearly flustered by the disturbance, arguing with the officials and refusing to move. Timekeepers kept his clock running through the argument, then he immediately blundered and opened the door for Wojtaszek to manufacture a draw.
In chess, breaking a player’s concentration to get them to relocate is a no-no. Doing so at the end of a tournament, in order to make way for a playoff that said player missed out on by the skin of their teeth, is borderline cruel. The interruption inarguably affected Firouzja’s chance to tie for first. His brother Mohammedreza, who streamed the event, was furious. He earned united support from the chess world, including FIDE VP Nigel Short.
The arbiters were in a tough spot here, since they had to choose between disturbing Firouzja-Wojtaszek and making sure the playoff final could be played under ideal circumstances. Organizers apologized in a statement and promised a smoother procedure in the future.
Firouzja has now found himself on the losing side of a second notable recent controversy. In December 2019, he was three pawns up on Magnus Carlsen with an easy chance to defeat the world’s best player, only to run out of time, claim Carlsen had spooked him by speaking to him, and lose on appeal.