Chess

Forbidden pairings

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

Put yourself in the shoes of Aryan Gholami, the teenage master from Iran who was paired with an Israeli opponent in Sweden in January 2019. It’s a blitz tournament, so you’re due to begin in minutes. For political reasons, your country expects that you will refuse to play the game, and there may be repercussions if you do play it. Gholami duly forfeited the game. His ‘virtue’ of omission was celebrated back in Iran, where he was photographed with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and General Qasem Soleimani (the latter was killed in a drone strike earlier this year).

Recent years have seen a spate of incidents in which Iranian players boycotted their games with Israelis. It is a paradox that this regrettable practice attests to a flourishing chess scene in Iran. The current generation includes Alireza Firouzja and Parham Maghsoodloo, the 2018 world junior champion. These young players, and many more, are active on the European tournament circuit, so it is no surprise that they encounter players from Israel, a country with a strong chess tradition.

Fide, the international governing body, turned a blind eye for many years. ‘Forbidden’ tournament pairings were rare, and could be averted with an arbiter’s sleight of hand. But fiddling pairings is a non-starter in knockout events, while forfeited games affect other participants too. A high-profile dispute is only a matter of time. And the situation damages the prospects of Iranian players, whose federation cancelled their participation in some events where such pairings were likely. That was unacceptable for Firouzja, who now lives in France and plays under Fide’s flag.


The Iranian chess federation appears to endorse the boycotts in domestic media. In June, Fide president Arkady Dvorkovich formally requested them to clarify their position, pointing out that discrimination (of all forms) directly contravenes the Fide charter. The Iranian federation insisted that it does adhere to these statues, but athletes bear responsibility for their own decisions.

Matters may soon come to a head. Fide’s general assembly, which meets on 6 December, will consider a resolution brought by Nigel Short, a Fide vice president, and Malcolm Pein, the English delegate: ‘That failure of the Iranian Chess Federation to request their players compete against all countries in Fide before the next [general assembly], or any future boycott by an Iranian player, will automatically result in the Iranian Chess Federation’s suspension from all Fide activities.’

This is not a case of using chess to score political points against Iran — on the contrary, the goal is to stop chess being used for political purposes. But since the boycott policy in Iran goes right to the top, it remains to be seen whether the Iranian federation can carry any more political clout than its players on the domestic front. Last year, the Iran Judo Federation was suspended by their international body in similar circumstances. For the sake of sparkling miniatures like this one, I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Alireza Firouzja–Mila Zarkovic
Sharjah Masters, March 2019

1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 Nc3 a6 4 g3 b5 5 d4 cxd4 6 Nxd4 Bb7 7 Bg2 Nf6 8 O-O e6 9 Re1 Nfd7 10 a4 bxa4 11 Rxa4 Be7 12 Rb4 Nc5 13 Rxb7! The sacrifices begin. Nxb7 14 e5 d5 15 Nxd5! exd5 16 Nf5 O-O 17 Bxd5 Bc5 (see diagram) 18 b4!! 18 Bxb7 allows a queen exchange prematurely. 18…Bb6 Now e7 is unprotected, and Bc1-b2 could be useful. Instead 18…Bxb4 19 Qg4 hits b4 and g7. 19 Qg4 g6 20 e6! Qf6 20…Qxd5 21 Ne7+ 21 e7 Re8 22 Bxf7+! Black resigns If 22…Kxf7 23 Qc4+ or 22…Qxf7 23 Nh6+

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