IRAN HAS PRODUCED a number of top chess stars in recent years, but many have fled the country. In addition to the hijab law, Iran forbids Iranian players from competing against Israelis.
Many experts predict 17-year-old Iranian Alireza Firouzja will be a world champion one day. He dazzles the chess world because, at his young age, he is strong at all forms of professional chess: classical, rapid, and blitz.
But in late 2019, Iran forbade Firouzja from competing in the World Rapid and Blitz Championships because he might be paired with an Israeli. Firouzja made a clean break, abandoning the Iranian federation and playing the tournament under the flag of FIDE, the international chess federation. He had a stunning tournament, winning second place, and did not return to Iran. He lives in France now.
“For Iran … it’s a massive loss,” said Elshan Moradiabadi, 35, who was the top chess player in Iran before he left the country in 2012. He is now an American citizen. “How often do you get such a phenomenal talent in a country? … You win the jackpot and give it to someone else?”
“I was seeing how my foreigner friends were living—their traditions, their culture, their religion. It opened my eyes.”
Moradiabadi was one of the first big Iranian chess stars in recent decades to leave, although he left to pursue higher education in the United States rather than because of an explicit conflict with the Iranian regime. But he recalled the frustrations of Iranian rules as a chess star. In 2005, the year he became a grandmaster, he was excited to play at a major tournament in Germany. But then he was paired with an Israeli and had to forfeit.
“I had to, to make sure nothing happened to my family,” he said. He has since become friends with Israeli players in the United States.
Though Moradiabadi did not participate in the protests that followed Iran’s 2009 elections, they made him realize he needed to leave the country. Many Iranian stars like Firouzja go to France, but Moradiabadi recalled that when he visited the French Embassy, staff were condescending about having certain paperwork. When he went to the U.S. Embassy, the woman helping him kept saying “okie dokie” and told him she would help with any copies of forms he forgot.
In 2012 he obtained a U.S. green card and in 2017 became an American citizen: “That was a happy day for me.” Moradiabadi was delighted to see an Iranian women’s grandmaster, Dorsa Derakhshani, playing for the United States a few years ago, after the Iranian federation expelled her for not wearing a hijab at a tournament. She was a student of his in Iran as a young girl.
“Actors are leaving, artists are leaving, it’s everything. Chess is one of many things,” said Moradiabadi.