An incident involving 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja partly overshadowed the historic triumph of 21-year-old Jorden van Foreest in the Tata Steel Chess Masters, provoking angry reactions in comments on chess24 and social media. Last night the organisers felt compelled to make a public apology after Firouzja got visibly upset when the arbiters, preparing for a playoff, suggested moving Alireza’s game to another board while he was pressing for a win against Radoslaw Wojtaszek.
When Anish Giri secured a draw against David Anton after Jorden van Foreest had beaten Nils Grandelius, it became clear there would be a playoff between the two Dutch stars, only the second in Wijk aan Zee’s 83-year history after Carlsen beat Giri in a playoff in 2018.
That was bitter news for Alireza Firouzja, who was still playing his game against Radek Wojtaszek and could tie for first on 8.5/13 with a win, but would miss out on the chance to play for the title due to a worse Sonneborn-Berger tiebreak. Still, there was plenty to play for. With a win he would:
- tie for 1st place, matching Magnus Carlsen’s achievement in Wijk as a 17-year-old (there were no playoffs then and Magnus was declared co-champion with Levon Aronian)
- take clear 3rd place and more prize money, though Tata Steel Chess is unusual among top events in giving most of the money to players simply for taking part rather than where they finish, and
- catapult Alireza up to world no. 11, less than a point outside the Top 10
The regulations stated that the playoff would take place at 18:00 and, at least in a previous version on the website, mentioned that other games would be moved to another part of the venue. The arbiters followed that plan and suggested Alireza Firouzja and Radek Wojtaszek move, which enraged the Iranian youngster and many watching fans.
This was the position when the arbiters intervened, just after the players had received an extra 15 minutes each for reaching the final time control on move 60.
Firouzja had been winning earlier in the game, while here after e.g. 61.Be5 the computer suggests Black should probably hold, but Alireza could have tortured his opponent for another hour and might well have triumphed. Instead he spent just over 3 minutes on 61.Qf4?, threatening Qxh6+, but after Wojtaszek found the trick 61…e5! the game was drawn. It ended almost immediately 62.Bxe5 Bxc4 63.bxc4 Draw.
Alireza had once again shown he’s a huge talent and likely to remain at the top of world chess for a long time to come, but five draws at the end eventually left him in 5th place (tied for 3rd with Esipenko and Caruana).
The incident provoked instant reactions online, and not only from Alireza’s fans. His brother, covering the game live on his stream, was clearly angry.
Yesterday Hikaru Nakamura called for “justice for Firouzja”, lashing out against the organisers for the incident and calling it “100 percent wrong, and it should not have happened”.
His fellow streamer Levy Rozman asked a legitimate question.
The 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov wondered the same!
FIDE Vice President Nigel Short suggested that some arbiters are not up to the task.
But FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky defended the organisers.
Last night the organisers of Tata Steel Chess themselves apologised to both players, saying they “deeply regret the unrest around the situation”. In a statement they explained they will try to learn from the episode in order to avoid something similar happening in future:
The organisation of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament always treats the grandmasters with the utmost respect. Therefore, we deeply regret the unrest around the situation preceding the tiebreak.
The players had been briefed about the rules and starting time of a possible tiebreak. Out of respect for Firouzja and Wojtaszek the arbiter did not approach them until after the 60th move to ask them if they preferred to continue their game at a table further down the row. The decision was completely up to the players. This situation unintentionally disturbed Firouzja and we deeply regret this.
In a personal conversation with both players the Tournament Director has clarified matters and has offered his apologies. We will take the implementation of a tiebreak into careful consideration to prevent a situation like this from reoccuring in the future.
It’s not the first time that Firouzja has been involved in controversy. In the 2019 World Blitz Championship, he lost a dramatic game to Magnus Carlsen on time in an “unlosable” position.
After arguing wrongly over the rules of chess he made a controversial appeal, claiming the World Champion had disturbed him by speaking during the game. Video footage didn’t back that up and the appeal was rejected.
Regardless of the controversy in the last round, the organisers have reason to be pleased about pulling off one of the most entertaining tournaments on the chess calendar in difficult times. Chief organiser Jeroen van den Berg told ESPN that this year’s event was his most challenging tournament to organise in two decades.
Until late last year, we weren’t sure how we’d pull this tournament off, or how many players would even be willing to travel for it. When I picked up the phone to check with them, I was surprised as quite of a few of the top players jumped up to say ‘yes’. That’s perhaps the beauty of physical tournaments. One can’t stay away for too long.
There may be a few months until we will see a major over-the-board tournament again, but at least fans won’t have to wait more than a few days until the Opera Euro Rapid, the 3rd event on the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, begins on chess24 on Saturday February 6th at 17.00 CET!