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Refugees’ gambit

Top chess players from Iran are seeking asylum elsewhere, following a long history of chess talent using international events to escape persecution at home

Refugees’ gambit

Iranian chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat competes in a Four Nations Chess League tournament in Maidenhead, England. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Shohreh Bayat didn’t know how her life was about to change when she packed her bags for Shanghai, China, in January 2020. Bayat, 34, one of the top chess arbiters in the world and a former Iranian national champion, was traveling to referee the Women’s World Chess Championship. 

Iranian law requires women to wear hijabs, a law that Bayat had resented from a young age, but followed. She found subtle ways to rebel, wearing colorful scarves and styling them loosely on her head, which was usually acceptable in Iranian society. She wore her hijab loosely one day at the tournament in Shanghai, and a photographer captured her at an angle where it appeared her hijab was wrapped around her shoulders like a scarf—not on her head at all. The photo made the rounds in Iranian media. 

Bayat received a stream of text messages. One read, “Don’t come back, they will arrest you.” She told me she was so shocked she began crying and couldn’t stop. The president of the Iranian Chess Federation asked her to write a public letter in support of the hijab, and the chess federation removed her photo online. 

The next day she woke up “fed up,” she said: “I told myself, ‘Enough is enough.’” Sensing her fate was already sealed, she wore no hijab that day at the tournament. She flew on to Russia to officiate the second half of the tournament but knew she could not return to Tehran. After the tournament she flew to London and applied for asylum. 

Her lawyer told her that her asylum case was straightforward, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed processing of asylum requests in the United Kingdom. So for the last year she wasn’t able to work or open a bank account while awaiting refugee status. 

“I was reliant on the little money I [had] with me and the kindness and generosity of the people who have helped me here,” she said. 

Similar to the Olympics, chess draws players into tricky geopolitics: Top players represent their home countries through national chess federations. Players often can’t afford to travel to the gamut of international tournaments without support from the national federations, which means putting up with their politics too.

Bayat joins a long history of chess players who sought asylum because of persecution or political upheaval at home (see sidebar). Bayat was Asia’s only female Grade-A chess arbiter, which allowed her to officiate top tournaments. She was the first woman to be general secretary of the Iranian Chess Federation. But leaving her home and family—and seemingly small things like her mom’s cooking—crushed her.

Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Shohreh Bayat goes to meet friends from the chess community at a pub in London. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

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.

Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Mitra Hejazipour plays at the Chess Federation in Tehran in October 2016. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

THE SAME WORLD RAPID AND BLITZ tournament that led to star Firouzja’s break with Iran last year was decisive for another Iranian too. Mitra Hejazipour, 28, a one-time women’s chess champion in Iran and a women’s grandmaster, said the Iranian federation warned her before the championship in Moscow not to remove her hijab or officials would remove her from the tournament and kick her off the national team. 

Hejazipour had seen women in Iran protesting the hijab law by hanging their scarves in the street and decided she should do something to support them. She increasingly resented how in every aspect of Iranian media and culture, the hijab was used to place women in second-class status. So she played the Moscow tournament without one.

The Iranian federation expelled her, declaring publicly, “She has no place in the Islamic Republic’s national team anymore.” Her family suffered consequences too. A company rescinded a job offer to her sister in Iran after Hejazipour’s statement.  

She thinks the international friendships she built through chess helped her see the repression she was living under. Through one-on-one games at global tournaments, players often build friendships across national lines. 

“I was seeing how my foreigner friends were living—their traditions, their culture, their religion. It opened my eyes,” Hejazipour said. “I’m not sure other sports have the community like that.” 

After her expulsion, Hejazipour was able to get a worker’s visa in France and now lives and plays chess from Brest. The French federation has been “very supportive,” she said, but she misses her home and her family terribly. She was stranded abroad when she was expelled and wasn’t able to say goodbye to anyone. 

“I didn’t know it would be this difficult,” she said. At the tournament, “I was thinking, ‘This is the right thing to do.’ But I didn’t think of the consequences.” 

But if she had to make the decision again, “I would choose the same thing.” 

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Alireza Firouzja competes during a January 2020 tournament in the Netherlands. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

BAYAT’S FAMILY SUFFERED consequences too. After Bayat’s refusal to wear a hijab, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forced her father to quit his job as president of their local chess association, according to Nigel Short, the FIDE vice president. 

In the U.K., Bayat tried to go about her life as a chess professional as she awaited a decision about her refugee status. In May 2020, Bayat won second place in the Women’s English Blitz Championships. She officiated several top tournaments. She argued chess rules with her friends who are arbiters around the world, one of her favorite exercises: “Sometimes we argue about one sentence in the laws for days!” 

In October, the United Kingdom granted Bayat’s asylum request, and she is now working for the English Chess Federation. Bayat said she loves Britain, but there is always heartbreak underneath “when you are a refugee and won’t be able to come back to your home country anymore.” She doesn’t know when she will see her family again. But she hopes one day Iran will change and they will reunite.

A long history of chess asylum-seekers

Nazi Germany invaded Poland—starting World War II—in the middle of the 1939 Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many Jewish players on the Polish team, including chess legend Miguel Najdorf, sought refuge in Argentina rather than returning to Poland.

In the Soviet era, several high-profile Soviet chess players defected to the United States and elsewhere. Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek, one of the best in the world at the time, was playing chess in Poland when Soviet forces invaded his home country of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He realized he needed to “go West” and found his way to West Germany before finally arranging passage to the United States in 1970. Kavalek became an American citizen, won several U.S. titles, and became the longtime chess columnist for The Washington Post. He died in January in his home just outside Washington, D.C. 

BNA Photographic/Alamy

Miguel Najdorf (BNA Photographic/Alamy)

During a tournament in East Germany in 1952, top Hungarian chess player Pal Benko tried to defect to the American Embassy in West Berlin. East German officials caught him, interrogated him as an American spy, and sent him to a concentration camp in Hungary for 16 months. Five years later, he finally got permission again to play in international tournaments. 

Benko successfully defected after “strolling into the American embassy” in Reykjavik, Iceland, during a tournament there, according to The New York Times. He became an American citizen and a legendary player, while developing younger talent. He famously gave up his spot to American Bobby Fischer in the championship tour that made Fischer the world champion in 1972. 

Glimpses of this phenomenon are in popular culture too. In the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a real-life Iranian chess champion who escaped to the United States ahead of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Kamran Shirazi, appears in one scene playing chess opposite actor Laurence Fishburne. —E.B.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 04/10/2021 06:27 am

    Fascinating and intriguing! And sad. I love the imagery created by the paragraph with this sentence, "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." Many insights into the world we live in and the quest for freedom on several levels.