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Candidates Tournament 2022: The Genius And Waiting For The First Victory

The chess world sees 19-year-old Iranian Alireza Firouzja as the next world champion. At the Candidates Tournament in Madrid he has initial difficulties.

Iran's Alireza Firouzja, who turned 19 on Saturday, looks as dapper as a youngster in chess can look. Slim, alert, well dressed, send glasses to see through. The fans are overwhelmed by his dexterity: where he places the figures, they are correct. Who hasn't he blown away before, soon he will dethrone Magnus Carlsen, the greatest of all world chess champions since Bobby Fischer.

The mythically shrouded King Magnus has done his part to nurture expectations. No sooner had his last challenger, Jan Nepomnjaschtschi, fallen away from him after an unprecedented chess collapse at the World Championships in December 2021 in Dubai than Carlsen announced that he no longer felt like fighting another duel of this kind. If he wanted to defend his title again, it would only be against Alireza Firouzja. Consecration from the highest authority!

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They continued to fuel the hype; at the same time criticism arose. Where are we going when the world chess champion chooses his challenger himself instead of waiting to see who proves himself worthy of him on his own? The so-called Candidates Tournament decides who has the right to challenge. Since Friday in Madrid, one of eight grandmasters has had to fight each other over 14 rounds. Alireza is among them. And public attention is initially focused on the young star: will he plow everything when he participates for the first time among the best?

"A 19-year-old genius and seven tough guys," is the headline in the Spanish daily El País in its welcome report. "You can expect almost anything from a genius," is the first sentence. If so, then yes.

Alireza is the youngest player to ever reach the 2,800 Elo rating points that separate the best grandmasters from the very best. He is currently third in the world rankings, and we know from experience how unpredictable playing strength is at a young age. In a dynamic phase, it is often even higher than on paper.

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Firouzja plays Teimour Radjabov, the underdog in the field, in the first round. At 35, Radjabov is the oldest here, an Azerbaijani with a turbulent history. Once a child prodigy like Alireza, then in 2013 a participant in the London Candidates Tournament where Magnus Carlsen wiped him off the board. It took him forever to recover from it, he was gone and not gone at the same time, an undead between resignation and comeback. If he showed up somewhere, he played strong.

To everyone's amazement, he managed to qualify for the 2020 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia, seven years after London. He didn't take part in the event because he thought it was too risky. Corona was ante portas, and what if the virus affected the tournament? The virus then indirectly affected the tournament when the Kremlin stopped all air traffic due to Corona. At half-time after seven rounds , all the candidates had to make a hasty exit in Yekaterinburg . Some escaped on the last plane allowed out of Russian airspace.

"My Intention Is To Play"

Radjabov was therefore later allowed to participate in the 2022 Candidates Tournament. In Madrid, he is therefore considered the least currently qualified, a potential victim for the other aspirants. If you see him running up at the beginning of the game, avoiding any conversation, he doesn't cut an impressive figure. The mushroom hairstyle encloses his head as if the Beatles were still in St. Pauli, and after a few hours at the board his face is so red speckled that it seems like his skin is about to flake off. He looks battered.

Against Radjabov, Firouzja plays a sharp variant of the Queen's Gambit Accepted, to show that he doesn't want to shove blocks here, but is playing for a win, although he has the black pieces in the lead. But Radjabov is doing well. He's standing. On move 18, Alireza sacrifices a rook for a bishop, the so-called exchange, which makes quite an impression on the audience. The young man shows no fear: he accepts the material disadvantage for dynamic power development!

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However, he does not penetrate. The old master claims the advantage, even his victory seems conceivable. Firouzja defends himself inventively and saves himself in a rook ending with a pawn more, finally the fight ends in a draw.

The young hero walks away without a word. Not only that he flees from journalists. His older brother, who patrols the lobby, vicariously fends off every request. An interview with the young star? Someday a portrait? "Let's talk about it afterwards" is the most you'll hear from him, and he won't even give his name, let alone his contact details.

Countless journalists, from chess clubs to major media outlets, have tried in vain to reach the Firouzjas in recent months. Hamidreza Firouzja acts as his talented son's patriarch, manager and advocate. Alireza is the capital of the family that emigrated to France from Iran. It wants to be protected. El País reports that before the tournament started, Father Firouzja asked the organizers about the location of the toilets and the quality of the carpet in the playing hall: "Will it be thick enough to absorb the creaking of the floorboards?"

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In the second round, on Saturday, his son, again with Black, finds himself at a disadvantage against the imaginative Richárd Rapport. After a balanced middle game, the Hungarian is suddenly deep in his camp on move 34. Two rooks on the seventh row and the king clipped on the edge! What a nightmare; Rapport is a pleasure to look at. Unfortunately, for him, winning is so complicated that after a long kneading it only ends in a draw. The computers involved could have pointed the way to victory, but during the game the players are on their own. Despite all the good defence, Firouzja was lucky again. After the game he disappears from the palace as if he hadn't been there at all.

The winning streak should finally begin on Sunday in the third round. Firouzja has white. Across from him sits America's most prominent master: Hikaru Nakamura, 34, who now entertains millions of viewers on screen via Twitch and YouTube and with various employees. Nakamura likes to flirt with his online popularity in interviews. He lives from streaming. The Candidates Tournament is more of a hobby that costs him a lot of money because he is offline so much.

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The flippantness of his approach doesn't appear to be entirely fake. Against Firouzja's Queen's Gambit, Nakamura once again chooses the Nimzo-Indian Defense and the ubiquitous commentators on the net mock the predictability of his openings. Nakamura is considered a high-risk gambler in the chess world, more gambler than high-risk. Firouzja would come up with ideas against him in isolation at home and pose problems for "Naka", as his fans call him.

In fact, the furious Firouzja sacrifices a knight on move 16 in order to tear open the opponent's king position. He wants to do the rest with bishop, queen and rook. The entanglements are super wild, almost impossible to overlook, while the computers calmly read "0.00" - compensation. Compensation, if you only knew how. Commentating for international audiences, the masters don't know how to assess Nakamura's prospects. Does he lose this now?

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Nakamura parried the attack, returning material and grimacing, and now perhaps the most insane game of the tournament so far enters its endgame phase. Firouzja has a bishop and two advanced passed pawns on the kingside, Naka counters with a knight and pawns in the center and on the queenside. Every move has to be on time and he only has two minutes left on the clock. Will he make move 40 before the time control? Five more moves...

Naka manages it and finds the only way to save the game in the blink of an eye on move 41. Alireza ponders his next move for a full hour, but there's nothing left to gain here. Draw again!

Shaking hands, he gives Naka a smile. So that's it. It was their first encounter on the board after a hundred fights on the net. Then the trio Firouzja – father, brother, genius – run out of the palace. Nakamura strolls out into the pedestrian zone, chatting with reporters, where the chess people hand him boards they have brought with them, which he graciously signs – an online king who still has some plans here.

"Nakamura survives Firouzja's poison," writes El País on Monday. The American was just able to save himself "when he already smelled like a corpse". And Alireza Firouzja would now learn how quickly a genius can get close to the summit and how difficult it is to climb the last few meters.

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