The 2022 Candidates Tournament, held to determine who wins the honor of (maybe?) playing Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championship, was supposed to be a coronation for Alireza Firouzja. The 19-year-old Iran-born tactician is the third-youngest person ever to qualify for the Candidates after Bobby Fischer and Carlsen, and he’s just barely wobbled below his peak 2804 rating. The stakes for Firouzja were perhaps higher than those of his seven opponents, as Carlsen publicly said he would probably cede his title unless Firouzja emerged from the Candidates. The Norwegian has already crushed everyone from his generation, and he’s bored enough with clowning on them that he said he would only defend if “the next challenger represents the next generation.” Unfortunately, Firouzja is in the process of a spectacular flameout after acting like, well, a teen.
Firouzja currently sits in last place out of the tournament’s eight players, with only 4.5 points through 14 rounds and one single win, against the player in seventh. He’s lost with the white pieces twice, including a spectacular loss under concerning circumstances against defending Candidates champion and presumptive 2022 winner Ian Nepomniachtchi on Thursday. Firouzja played a very aggressive line against Nepomniachtchi’s Petrov, which the Russian defender easily countered. Nepomniachtchi calmly picked Firouzja’s position apart after the teenager over-leveraged himself and hung several of his pieces, forcing his opponent to resign in 35 moves. “I didn’t really understand what was going on today from his side,” Nepomniachtchi said afterward. “I would say he played in a very optimistic manner. Every game here he plays for a win, but we know sometimes the way he plays is a little bit artificial.” So why was Firouzja so off his game? It may have had something to do with his preparation, by which I mean, he might have looked sloppy because he was up all night playing hundreds of games of online speed chess instead of sleeping.
After losing to Hikaru Nakamura on Wednesday, Firouzja logged onto lichess.com around 11:00 p.m. Madrid time and started playing hyper-bullet chess. Playing exclusively 30-second games in the middle of a classical chess tournament with hours on the clocks seems like a pretty straightforwardly bad idea; doing so at the expense of sleep, 10 rounds deep into a 14-round tournament, is even worse. Firouzja played a few games, logged off until 1:00 a.m. Thursday morning, then began the true marathon element of the binge. Firouzja took on fellow grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky in a best-of-250 hyper-bullet showdown. He stopped playing at 5:43 a.m., after 337 games.
“Something is just not screwed on right for him in this tournament,” Naroditsky said on Friday morning’s Chess.com broadcast, as Firouzja missed a potentially winning line in his game against Jan-Krzysztof Duda in Round 11. Duda’s imprecision helped Firouzja rescue a draw, though Firouzja’s still at the very bottom of the standings. He’s had to learn a number of lessons in this tournament, and falling so far short of his tremendous promise has earned him some harsh criticism. “He is not a very experienced player. He is super gifted and super strong, but he hasn’t played in this event before, and it is a different event from the ones he’s played in,” American grandmaster Fabiano Caruana said. Carlsen even started clowning on him.
With Firouzja out of contention and Nepomniatchi guaranteed at least a tie for first place, the most interesting fight will be for second place. The runner-up slot is a significantly bigger prize than usual, as Carlsen’s abdication will clear the way for the top two Candidates finishers to play for the vacant Championship. Nakamura and Ding Liren are tied for second place with 6.5 points apiece, while Teimour Radjabov and Caruana sit half a point behind them. Ding and Nakamura will meet in the final round, while Caruana and Radjabov will play each other in Round 13. Both Ding and Caruana have games against Firouzja, though his poor performance doesn’t mean he’s going to roll over in the final two rounds. Should be a spicy finish, though it could have been even better if Firouzja truly showed up.