Chess: at 18, Alireza Firouzja, future world number one?

Her favorite French word? ” Tremendous. » Perhaps because it is also the one he has been addressed to most often since his arrival three years ago. Kylian Mbappé in football or Carlos Alcaraz in tennis, these are the heights to climb to if we want to place Alireza Firouzja at the first non-lover of chess.

From the age of 12, he won the Iranian championship, where he was born and raised. Then he becomes the youngest player to reach the Everest of 2,800 points in the world rankings, propelling him to second place at 18 years old. He could toast an additional stage by joining the world championship, for which the so-called “Candidates” qualifying tournament begins Friday June 17 in Madrid (Spain) and runs until July 5.

“He’s the future world number one”, boasts Jean-Pierre Gorges, mayor (DVD) of Chartres and occasional wood pusher, who hosted the ” phenomenon “ in Eure-et-Loir on the recommendation of the former president of the French Chess Federation, Bachar Kouatly. Because if Iran is one of these countries of chess culture – where the thousand-year-old game has left traces of its transit from its Asian cradle to the West – its government restricts the young Firouzja, preventing him in particular from meeting players Israelis at official parties. His parents and his brother, against whom he moved his first pieces at 8 years old, will accompany his departure.

“A fiery player”

France and the quiet streets of Chartres finally receive their endorsement. Yet the city club “didn’t have the right structure” and did not appear “not even in the elite”, recognizes François Gilles, its president. Approaching the prefecture for naturalization, convincing the city’s partners to invest in the most expensive training equipment, enrolling them in tournaments: a hard core then set about integrating the Firouzja.

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The opportunity for Emmanuel Platon, licensed at “C’Chartres Échecs”, to closely observe the young hopeful by refereeing an online competition at home. “It was phenomenal,” repeats the fifty-year-old. We attempt a parallel with the spirit of play that animates the biggest names in sport. He nods: “I was struck by his mastery of time and his ability to pull off shots that no one expected. »

“Alireza is creative in the sense that he thinks outside the box to force opponents into playing difficult shots. He’s a fiery player, who complicates all matches.” also notes Kevin Bordi, who regularly comments on his games on the “Blitzstream” YouTube channel.

“The only trainer who can coach him is a computer”

Last November, the nugget gave him material for analysis, between his victory in the Grand Swiss tournament, qualifying for the Candidates, and a silver medal in the European team championship with the French team. The first of the Blues in almost ten years, won ” by himself “, laughs Maxime Lagarde, reigning French champion and teammate during the competition.

The member of the Chartres club, 28, also saw the confirmation of a gap between his generation, still trained in chess through books, and the new one, with brains modeled by computer databases. “The only trainer who has the computing power to coach him is a computer. He is the youngest player, but certainly the one who has accumulated the most online rapid games in the world. So he has seen a multitude of scenarios, and knows how to react very quickly to a very wide range of situations”, explains Jean-Pierre Gorges.

This series of seven victories in nine attempts did not go unnoticed in a discipline where a draw is the most common at a high level. To achieve this, the neo-Tricolore – he received his French papers last summer and chose not to opt for dual Franco-Iranian nationality – has built a bubble within which he borders on Stakhanovism , far from the solicitations of the press, which had already packed with Étienne Bacrot in the early 2000s, without this one succeeding in the promised career.

“Their work for his parents, and studies for his brother: Alireza’s family left everything for him, the club and the city mobilized like never before, so all of this is an immense burden for him”, understands François Gilles, who nevertheless wonders “if this lack of openness will not penalize him in the long term”.


The youngest crowned?

If he qualified against his seven competitors and then won the world long game championship next year, the queen discipline in chess, Alireza Firouzja would be the youngest winner (at 19) – after Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen (at 22) -, and the first Frenchman since Alexandre Alekhine in 1937. He would face in February 2023 the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, who judged ” unlikely “ to defend his crown “if someone other than Firouzja won (the) ‘Candidates'”. A sign that the defending champion for ten years now has no other priority than to symbolically beat the new generation.



How the Deep Blue-Kasparov Match Changed Chess

Checks, some checkmate, the computer programs had already inflicted on the wood pushers. Before encouraging the highest figures to be modest, such as the Russian world champions Anatoli Karpov and Garry Kasparov in the early 1990s, taking advantage of the advantage offered by fast game formats. But when the Deep Blue supercomputer brings down the second, the world chessboard changes, on May 11, 1997, twenty-five years ago in New York. On usual ground, the Ogre of Baku had promised, “no computer (the) will beat(it) ».

→ REREAD. In chess, is man doomed to lose against computers?

For the first time in the history of this millennial game, invested by the machine forty years earlier, the best program of the time – perfected by the care of IBM after being corrected by the same Kasparov – came to the end in the long game of the best player of the moment, still considered one of the most innovative champions in the discipline. “Not a turning point, but a starting point”, observes Fabien Libiszewski, a 38-year-old French international grandmaster.

A victory that catalyzes the research of programmers

If the match does not revolutionize the way of playing, it catalyzes the research of programmers. The databases soon expand to completeness, allowing both to democratize the game and to perfect the preparation of professionals. Because where a human touch still surfaced under the microprocessors of Deep Blue, the new programs are no longer turned towards a single goal: calculation, in the absence of play.

→ PORTRAIT. The day when “I understood that we could play chess in Morse code”

“We often play by intuition, suspecting that our move is not bad, but without knowing if it is the right one, since we are not able to calculate far enough to know if this estimate will always be valid any longer. late in the game. Not computers, which can therefore play moves that are at first sight illogical to a human eye”, explains Fabien Libiszewski.

For a player, whose strength lies more in memory than pure talent, the most accomplished analysis engines offer valuable insight into openings, those first moves that will determine the geometry of the game. Like “every player from the 1990s before Deep Blue”Éloi Relange, rising star of French chess at the time of Kasparov’s defeat, thus used the computer in his preparations, “but just to check (if he had) made no tactical error. Today, with the help of artificial intelligence, the best use it to come up with ideas that will surprise their opponent,” slips the international grandmaster, who has become president of the French Chess Federation.

The risk of smoothing the game

Shared on screens, game analyzes have gradually crossed borders. Until reaching Norway and watering the undisputed world champion for almost a decade, Magnus Carlsen. “Players can build themselves by finding opponents around the world to start and rework their games or those of others to progress”, says Fabien Libiszewski. With the risk, too, of smoothing the game, by losing in creativity what they gain in theoretical knowledge.

Observers were able to observe this, in part, during the last final of the 2021 world championship, where Carlsen broke away from the Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi, coached by one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, after five sterile and stereotyped first attempts. “It has become very hard to surprise them in the openings, it is true, but Carlsen remains extraordinary because he does not attempt an ace but continues to use it to start the game and make the difference afterwards, like at the bottom of the tennis court, remarks Éloi Relange. Way to say that Deep Blue beat Kasparov without killing the spirit of the game.