The Iranian-Israeli game

Since 1983, Iranian athletes must not compete with Israeli athletes. Now Iran may have tacitly lifted this ban.

In the blitz tournament in Sitges, part of the Sunway Sitges chess festival, young Iranian grandmasters Parham Maghsoodloo and Amin Tabatabaei played against Israeli FM Ido Gorshtein earlier this week. Knowingly? Accidentally? The exact circumstances are unclear.

Amin Tabatabaei. (Photo: Amruta Mokal/ChessBase India)

According to Radio Farda, a US-funded Persian news channel, „it is likely that both Iranians had coordinated this with the authorities at home.“ FIDE Vice President Nigel Short spontaneously congratulated both players for their „brave decision“. Short later made it clear on Facebook that both „certainly not“ would have played against an Israeli without the blessing from Iranian authorities. However, an official from the Iranian chess association said, according to Farda, that Maghsoodloo and Tabatabaei were not aware of their opponent’s nationality.

Back in October at the World Junior Championships, an affair about Iranian-Israeli pairings evolved around Tabatabaei. He and a compatriot had not shown up for games against an Israeli. Both presented a certificate attesting health problems, and both were disqualified from the tournament. After a protest by the Iranian delegation Tabatabaei was allowed to continue playing – provided that a doctor appointed by the organizer examines him should there be another health problem.

Banned for playing without a headscarf

So far, Iranian athletes have to deal with their federation’s threat to be banned from chess should they play an Israeli. This had lead to countless losses by default in recent years. At the 2019 Grenke Open, for example, Alireza Firouzja, Iran’s number one, lost his third-round game to an Israeli without a fight. Had he played he would have risked his very existence at home.

Alireza Firouzja during the Grenke Open. (Photo: Georgios Souleidis/Grenke Chess)

Sometimes not even a game against an Israeli is required to be penalized draconically. In 2017, a ban from the Iranian Chess Federation hit 18-year-old WGM Dorsa Derakhshani, who (in Gibraltar!) had played chess without a headscarf. Because she wasn’t allowed to play under Iranian flag anymore, she now plays for the United States and lives there.

The same rules for everyone

A little later, the accusation of „harming Iran’s national interests“ hit her 14-year-old brother Borna. He had played against the Israeli grandmaster Alexander Huzman at the same Open in Gibraltar without knowing that Huzman is an Israeli. Borna Derakhshani now lives in and plays for England, and Iran has lost two smart citizens over this.

In chess, many organizers have avoided Iran versus Israel pairings for decades in order to save everyone involved from the consequences of such a pairing. FIDE used this practice es well, most recently at the Chess Olympiad in 2018, when, according to the seeding list, Iran should have played against Israel in the first round of the women’s tournament. The drawing was changed to avoid this encounter.

Iran should have played Israel in the first round of the Chess Olympiad 2018, Women’s section. FIDE changed the pairing.

Short said on Twitter that this practice had been introduced in the time of FIDE President Florencio Campomanes in the 1980s. It was abolished under Arkadi Dvorkovich (which led to the Tabatabaei affair during the Junior’s World Cup 2019, see above). The new fide policy, according to Short, has nothing to do with an anti-Iran policy. Instead, the same rules should apply to everyone.

„Solidarity with the Palestinian people“

It is not yet known whether the pairings in Sitges were made by mistake or knowingly. This page’s inquiry with the organizer has yet to be answered.

The Ayatollah’s kiss: When IM Aryan Gholami refused to play an Israeli during the Rilton Cup 2019, his Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was delighted. He invited the young chess master in order to snuggle him. (Photo: Iranian Media) 

According to Radio Farda, a  political decision at the highest level in Iran made this development possible. „We had a meeting with the Secretary of State, the chairman of the Supreme National Security Council and security officials,“ said Farda Reza Salehi-Amiri, chairman of the Iranian National Olympic Committee, on Tuesday. A committee was set up to explore how to overcome the problems resulting from the ban on competing against Israelis.

The ban is in effect since 1983 when it was enacted out of „solidarity with the Palestinian people“.

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