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France’s Firouzja leads four teens with eyes on Carlsen’s crown

After retaining his world title in 2021, Magnus Carlsen declared that he was only interested in future challenges from much younger players. That comment highlighted the status of Alireza Firouzja, the ex-Iranian turned French prodigy. The 18-year-old jumped to world No2 last autumn and is now among the favourites for the eight-player Candidates at Madrid in June which will decide Carlsen’s 2023 opponent.

Success in Madrid is far from a done deal for Firouzja, as teenage grandmasters lack experience at the very top. Bobby Fischer (twice), Boris Spassky, and Carlsen himself all tried and failed to become challengers before their 20th birthdays. The youngest world champion is still Garry Kasparov at 22, followed by Carlsen at the same age and Mikhail Tal and Anatoly Karpov at 23.

Firouzja faces three major opponents from the generation aged around 30. Fabiano Caruana’s 2018 challenge failed only in speed tie-breaks, while Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, who will play under the neutral Fide flag, was heavily beaten. Ding Liren’s career has been hampered by the pandemic, but the Chinese player has recently regained his world No2 position from Firouzja.

Carlsen, by his own account, is unlikely to be playing formal world title matches in future, and the No1 reiterated his stance in a new interview this week. His decision could create confusion at the top, as occurred after 1993 when Garry Kasparov broke away from Fide, but it also implies more opportunities for rising talents.

This month three teen talents have surged, and all of them are on course to reach at least the world top 10 in the next few years. India’s Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa is the best known. The 16-year-old has already beaten Carlsen in an online tournament game, finished first in last week’s Reykjavik Open, and is scheduled to take on the champion again in this weekend’s Oslo Esports Cup.

Dommaraju Gukesh, 15, has a lower profile than his fellow Chennai teen, but could yet surpass him. Gukesh’s international career began controversially due to his celebration when Nigel Short, in a winning position, forgot to press his clock.

That incident was four years ago, and Gukesh has matured since. He should have won Reykjavik but for blunders in a winning position, took first prize this week at La Roda, Spain, with impressively fast wins, and advanced into the world top 100 players.

Then there is Abhimanyu Mishra of the US, the youngest grandmaster ever at age 12, who finished joint second in Reykjavik and seems to be starting a fresh advance at 13. Serious Californian money is backing this boy, as American enthusiasts still remember the glory years of Bobby Fischer.

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