Thursday, 6 September 2007

Chinese Cracker in Liverpool

One of my oldest chess friends chided me over my overlong silence here at the BCM Blog, so I thought I would write something of my Tuesday trip to the UK vs China match at St George's Hall, Liverpool.

First of all, I was impressed by how easy and convenient it is to get to Liverpool by train and then find the venue. 2½ hours direct from Euston to Liverpool Lime Street, and then you cross the road ... and you are at the venue. Couldn't be simpler. The train ran to timetable. And, thankfully, the Northern line of the underground was unaffected by the tube strike so that part of the journey worked like a dream too.

At two o'clock we had the opening ceremony, which was a very informal affair in which the Lord Mayor of Liverpool was presented to the two teams. The local press photographer dragooned all the players into position either side of a long table at which the Lord Mayor (who had apparently been promoted to board one for the UK) faced China's youngest (and already most famous) player, 13-year-old girl prodigy Hou Yifan. Then of course the photographers urged the Lord Mayor to make a move, which he promptly did - 1 h5. Yes, he had the black pieces and made the first move. If Hou Yifan was surprised by this remarkable TN, she didn't show it but continued to smile sweetly. In fact, after further languageless gesturing from the assembled press corps, she was persuaded to continue this chessboard travesty with a white move. I thought this demonstrated considerable sang froid and flexibility of mind on her part. The abundant evidence that she had travelled halfway round the planet to be confronted by people who appeared not to have the slightest clue as to how to play chess did not faze her one iota.

We then moved to the speeches, with the Lord Mayor (Councillor Paul Clark), organiser David Robertson, ECF chief executive Martin Regan, UK captain Jon Speelman and the Chinese head of delegation (whose name I did not catch) all speaking. Jon Speelman told us that he had arrived on the Sunday expecting to be match commentator but, in the absence of a room suitable for commentary, he had instead been appointed the UK skipper. This reminded me of the frequent occasions on which I have turned up to various chess competitions thinking merely to spectate and then being induced to stand in for a missing player, or generally help out in some administrative capacity. Of course, GM Speelman is a kindly and solicitous soul and it was good to see him busily ministering to his charges, whilst also finding some time to explain to us less gifted occupants of the back room what was really happening on the boards.

The opening ceremony and photo-shoot dragged on rather and, at its close, the Chinese team begged leave to put the start time back by half an hour: a perfectly reasonable request which was agreed to by the organisers, though it may have nonplussed the web audience somewhat as they settled down to watch.

St George's Concert Hall is a splendid venue for a prestige event such as this, and the organisers had laid on supplementary lighting so that we were bathed in light (it was noticeable that pro photographers dispensed with their flash guns when taking pictures - a very good sign). One awkwardness was the lack of room on the stage. Though it accommodated the eight boards of the match perfectly easily, the space required for the Open meant that a few boards from the Open were placed at the back of the stage which left insufficient room for the match players to move about. I wasn't present for rounds two and three but I imagine this has since been sorted out.

But I'll cut short any quibbling about the arrangements and minor niggles about the set-up - none of it matters in the general scheme of things and what will be remembered in the years to come will be the chess. And the chess has been excellent. The match has lived up to its advanced publicity. The first two rounds were a wake-up call for the British squad, with the Chinese squad playing a brand of feisty, fighting chess which rocked them back on their heels. To be fair, the British probably knew what they were in for and saw themselves as underdogs before the start - though the Chinese claimed this status for themselves. Anyway, round three came as a welcome shot in the arm for British chess. Mickey Adams played like... Mickey Adams. He is the rock around which British chess is currently founded and one gets the impression that his team-mates derive inspiration from his calm countenance gazing impassively at the board as he gradually throttles the life out of his opponents. Nigel Short has been having a bad trot recently but he was back to playing a real opening today and the juices seemed to be flowing again. Bu Xiangzhi tried to loosen his grip by stirring up a big mess but Short is perfectly at home in a tactical quagmire and emerged with the point.

Not everything went swimmingly for the Brits. Jonathan Rowson was up against the most Adams-like member of the Chinese team, Wang Yue, and on the wrong end of a grind. Nick Pert became the first British player to find out why the Chinese had brought along the shy, sweet-faced little girl with the hair grips. It is still hard to believe that this 13-year-old moppet (who looks more like about 8) packs a 2500-rated punch but the baby-faced assassin gave poor Nick a bloody nose in this encounter. Hou loves ya, baby.

ECF selectors, please note: England could have the makings of an Olympiad team if Adams and Short manage 2/2 and Jones and Howell can then chip in with 1½/2 as happened today. Nice going, against opposition of 2681, 2685, 2624 and 2649. Jones and Howell both had long and bruising encounters but both came through pretty well. This is all excellent team chess experience.

The women's match so far is now +2 in favour of the British women, with both wins coming from the Arakhamia-Shen Yang mini-match. Ketevan seems to have too much experience for her 18-year-old opponent, despite a slightly lower rating. Ding Yixin is both younger and lower rated than her teammate but is proving a tougher nut to crack. The British team may be relying on its apparent superiority in this component of the overall match to get a result.

All hugely enjoyable: the match isn't over yet, and already I want to see another one. We've had 24 games of which 14 produced decisive results, and most of the draws have been mighty battles too. All credit to David Robertson and his team for setting up the match and chasing after the money, to the Chinese squad for being a really classy squad of chess fighters, and to the British team for rising to the challenge. More!


  1. Nice report, John, but read this link for the true story of why the 1st round was delayed 30 minutes

    It's been a fabulous occasion so far - a few snags, but otherwise the stuff of dreams. And the chess has been mano-a-mano!


  2. Three ludicrous decisions though:

    1) overcrowding the stage: I never sanctioned that. The stage was meant for the match alone!

    2) the draw in the tournament: in some rounds, there's been 700-1000 ELO points separating players in several games. Absurd!

    3) the time limit: it's ruined several games and distorted results. No players want this time limit, only well-lunched controllers.

    Things must improve - and will


  3. Thanks for those points, David. Here's the relevant text taken from organiser David Robertson's blog (URL given earlier):

    The trouble began when the BBC informed us they wanted to film a one-minute game with Hou Yifan at 1.00pm. The highly biddable Chinese team turned up as ever on time, but the BBC TV crew didn't! They ambled in just before 2.00pm, colliding with the Lord Mayor's arrival, and scuppering my careful choreography of the opening event. By the time all the meetings and greeting were done, it was 2.40pm and I then discovered our poor Chinese guests hadn't eaten and were starving. Meanwhile the BBC crew wanted to film the opening of the match at 3.00pm. Well tough!

    My only comment is that it is best to try and get this sort of thing (TV filming etc) organised for the day before the match if possible, and also hold the formal opening on the evening before the day of round one. Not always convenient, of course.

    I agree with all three points made by David in his further comment (surprising and refreshing to hear an organiser criticise his own event in such bald terms!). The time limit is, of course, completely daft. There seems no good reason why standardplay or an incremental version thereof could not have been used. Unless, of course, the Chinese team negotiated it. I'm sure David would have told us if that had been the case. Not quite clear if he is referring to the match or the open, but I think the same time limit is being used in both.

    The only reason I didn't raise the issue of the time limit in my original blog is that I have had to write about dodgy time limits so often that I have started to bore myself. It really is time we all collectively got together to scream the word 'dunderheads' in the general direction of FIDE headquarters.

  4. Sure, it might be a good idea to hold the opening part the night before - but I couldn't. Key players were only about to arrive late. In any event, this has not much to do with the BBC TV crew's late arrival. They specified 1.00pm; outlined what they wanted to film (interviews & a one-minute live blitz game with Hou Yifan); and then the start of play. Arriving at 2.00pm meant we'd all been kicking our heels for an hour.

    And I'm not so much criticing my own tournament as criticing those who pompously claim authority in the correct way to run tournaments, and then botch it. I'm the tournament promoter. I do everything except manage the 'internal' arrangements of the event itself (ie the technical stuff on the web, the conduct of the chess, the layout of the venue). I have the well-known people doing that. So I was aghast when I saw how my wish that the match be played, as a showpiece, on the stage had been interpreted by the 'internal' people. They had turned my idea of a visual showpiece into a crowded farmyard of jostling players by mixing match and tournament!

    With good reason, the players in the match protested to me. So we shifted some tables off for Rd 2 whereupon a certain well-lunched person threw a gigantic hissy fit and, on Wednesday night, threatened to walk off the job with 'his staff'. I calmed things down on Thursday morning, but won't forget the incident. Individuals who try to hold our volunteer efforts to ransom, who throw tantrums if they don't get their way, who'd sooner pull the roof down than listen to the players, have no future in anything I'll organise next year.


  5. To put in a kinder word for the controllers over the time limit, I'm not sure they like it much. Either they feel obliged to use it because it's 'FIDE'; or equally, our need to run double-rounds on two days to cram nine rounds into seven days meant that potential 7-hour sessions were never on. That backwashed into the timing of the match, starting at a [too late] 3.00pm. All this should have been teased out a bit more, but our options have been limited, and I've had bigger problems to overcome - like fending off nutters in our Culture Company


  6. The key point, of course, at least in the management of prestigious events, is that driving up standards in the environment we supply must be accompanied by equally high standards in tournament direction. Too frequently those who control/direct/oversee tournaments work with a limited vision of how things should be. The consequence is that the 'internal' organisational oversight of the UK-China match and the Liverpool International Open has been barely distinguishable from that applying at the Balls Pond Road Senior Citizens Weekend u-100 Rapidplay. That is to say: it's been doddery, technologically insensitive, media-hostile, and grumpy.

    Some of us have needed to trample on several well-upholstered egos in order to gain access for producers of a Channel 4 pilot programme on chess. I was keen for cameras to film; the players too; but not the wretched stick-in-the-muds who 'ran' the tournament. Mercifully I prevailed - with the support of the players. Alas the filming was not so good. Why? Because the stage area was too crowded!

    Now you see why I grind my teeth in frustration. Some of our tournament controllers remain stuck in the 19th century. It really is ruining opportunities.


  7. I guess it can't help for organisers that there appears to be a lack of top quality arbiters, respected by the players, in the UK at the moment - thereby limiting the choice. Sadly a few of the best, not otherwise effectively retired, have passed on at an alarming rate in recent years. I think many of the remaining "leading" arbiters have spent most of their career running junior tournaments, and seem to bring the same attitude to arbiting adult chess (ie. treating everybody as schoolchildren).

    What was once THE main contribution of the UK to international chess, is rapidly disappearing.

  8. Yes, that's a good point. I hadn't made the connection between the experience of running junior events and the transfer of practice into adult tournament management. But I think that hits the nail on the head. Certainly there's been no visble change of style and insufficient attention to presentational detail. I expected better for an Occasion of State such as the UK-China match. Perhaps we aren't really equipped for that in this country.

    But I take a little personal credit for the quality of the chess! When I briefed both teams before the match, I quietly explained there would be no artificial rules on draws (ie. no 'Sofia rule'). It was up to them as professionals how they played the match. However, I did point out that the future of chess lay in their hands. People like to see fighting chess, not GM draws. And I shrugged my shoulders, implying that the solution lay entirely in their hands, not mine.

    Players from both teams responded in much the same way - a few quiet nods of understanding; a few looks which said "fine, you can trust us". Nothing more needed to be said.

    And so it's come to pass. They've fought gloriously; the win-draw ratio is excellent; and most of the draws have been fierce scraps. OK, one or two players have needed to halve quickly just to get their score going; that's utterly understandable. But the fighting spirit has been brilliant in both teams - awesomely so with the Chinese.

    And my point is? It's the same point made in the post above: treat professionals like professionals; treat adults like adults; and they won't let you down. That's why I'm trying to drive up organisational standards to a higher level. The players deserve it! And we then get what we deserve - a fabulous chess match!


  9. It was a fun tournament to play in; a pity that my health problems forced me to withdraw. This has never happened to me before in an international event, and I hope it never does again.

    The accelerated pairing system was not ideal, it has to be said - but this is a system in transition. The arbiters were trying to improve the system, and it didn't quite work as intended.

    (In addition, the field was such that screwy pairings were quite likely - there was a bit of a lack of players rated 2200-2400, which distorted things a bit.)

  10. Do the tournament controllers have a point of view? I have a strong dislike of one-sided accounts in which all problems are the fault of the arbiters and to be honest I find David's postings aggressive and unlikely to encourage other people to work with him.

  11. Let me be clear, ejh. If being able to work with people means reducing one's standards and accepting low quality, then count me out. I only want to work with people who take a pride in improving what we do, and will work to the highest standards. I get this from the technical support staff; they are magnificent. If you think I'm 'aggressive', you'd better not seek out their views! And of course I get high quality from the players.

    All I ask is that when we run an Occasion of State, like the UK-China match, the 'front-of-house' staff treat it as something more than a car boot sale. And that they should treat professional and experienced players with proper respect and not as threats to their own self-importance.

    How 'aggressive' do I need to be to make these reasonable points?


  12. Less aggressive than you are being. Less rhetorical, less pompous and less self-important too.

  13. Aggressive? Please, EJH. It's HIS tournament, for heavens' sake. For my money, it's refreshing to hear a tournament organiser admit it hasn't all been a bed of roses. Only once you have run a tournament of that magnitude, might you be qualified to attack him.

    For me, a mere "online kibitzer", the whole event has been tremendous (especially round 3 - except for that time control!) and the Prof deserves a lot of credit for putting the match together.

  14. Please, EJH. It's HIS tournament, for heavens' sake.

    And that attitude's the problem, isn't it? It's not "his", it's for everybody involved in it, players and officals too. Take that view and you're in a position to understand each different party's problems, perspective and possible errors: take the "HIS" view and you get a onesided picture where one party cannot be criticised but another can be laid into without hearing their point of view. I don't much like that approach: it's a bully's charter.

    Only once you have run a tournament of that magnitude, might you be qualified to attack him

    Ah, so it's OK for this chap to attack other people, and it's OK for you to back him up - but nobody's entitled to disagree with him? Like I say above, I don't have much time for that approach.

    As it happens I've played in quite a few international events. Some well run, some not: sometimes the officials have been good, sometimes not.

    However, I've never played in, or seen, an event which has been improved by the aggressive public criticism of the officials, during the event, by the promoter. That is, to put it mildly, unprofessional. It's not the hallmark of somebody who finds it possible to work with other people, which is a necessity for healthy organisation: it's the hallmark of an egotist. Ask yourself - who would want to work with David Robertson if this is what he considers appropriate?

  15. I played in Liverpool, in the tournament, and enjoyed every minute of it. The match was just brilliant. It was great just to be part of it all. So hats off to Dave Robertson. He's a long overdue breath of fresh air in British chess. He seems to me a sharp, witty and really decent bloke. Pretty easy-going too.

    He's also tireless. He looks after the players really well, entertains the teams, sorts out the press and TV, handles the diplomatic stuff, and fields all the problems from everyone. Sometimes it looks like he's in three places at once.

    I guess all he requires is decent backup. From my position in the tournament, he's got a point. The controllers blundered with the stage arrangements (amongst other things) and refused to correct it when players complained. Dave intervened and got it sorted as far as he could. We hardly saw the controllers again that day (Wed). They just 'disappeared' for several hours. Some of us wondered whether they'd walked out in a sulk. That was certainly the view in the hall. Very odd behaviour as far as I could see. Not likely to win anyone's respect.

    Anyway, the chess in the match was fantastic. And the closing ceremony and reception was the best I've ever attended at a chess event. Thanks to the Prof for that too. So, all round just a brilliant tournament marred only by some dodgy behaviour from the men in blue t-shirts. And they don't really matter.

  16. Anonymous testimonails are not the most impressive kind.

  17. Well, whether it comes from David's mouth or someone else's, reading the limited comments that i have about the event here and on the atticus blog, it is quite clear that David put his heart and soul into the event and IMO chessplayers in England should be extremely grateful to him for both organising the event and for showing what is possible with ambition, commitment and persistence. And yes a bit of professionalism and team work.

    So without commenting on the specific situation with the control team (the story of which, who knows, might have two sides), I think that a little bit of public criticism of those who he doesn't personally feel were living up to the standards that he was expecting is a small price to pay in the big scheme of things.

    If that means that David's options are limited if he ever decides to undertake such an occasion again then that is just another challenge for him to overcome. (of course we don't know how carefully the control team were chosen in practice - it may have been an area not given sufficient attention for whatever reason, and is therefore an easy situation to rectify in future).


  18. Exciting stuff. ejh said, " I have a strong dislike of one-sided accounts ...." unless Nigel Short or CCF are involved perhaps? But I agree it is wrong to attack the arbiters in this way during an event. When I am arbiter at events, I let the organisers set up the playing area, then maybe suggest improvements if necessary and possible, but only after talking to them. Surely somebody should have been discussing this sort of thing, instead of moving furniture around without talking to anybody? And David is quite wrong to criticise the draw. If you attempt to have a big open, mismatches are inevitable. An experienced organiser would know that. Anonymous rightly said that most of the "leading" arbiters are only interested in juniors, and try to treat adults the same patronising way. It is right that this attitude should be discussed. David Welch told me a couple of years ago, (something like)"I like working with John Robinson as I can direct the tournament and let him get on with the boring detail." That means the work. At Gibraltar this year, there were a load of players gathering for a blitz event, which was delayed as one game was still going on (Fischer timing). Welch (on a rare visit to the playing area) made no attempt to keep the absolutely deafening noise down. Stewart Reuben cleared the area in about 10 seconds.
    It is ridiculous to say you don't need arbiters, but you want arbiters who are competent and honest. You also want them to be doing it for the right reason - not for themselves, but for the players. I confess to being mystified by David's comment, "And of course I get high quality from the players." And I thought the winner did it without assistance....

  19. it is wrong to attack the arbiters in this way during an event

    This is censorious nonsense. There has been no 'attack', merely well-directed criticism. Everything said here has been said beforehand to the relevant people during the event, by myself and a host of others. How else does one get the message across in a timely manner?

    Surely somebody should have been discussing this sort of thing, instead of moving furniture around without talking to anybody?

    How have you come to this absurd conclusion? You cannot possibly have any evidence because your statement is wholly contrary to the facts. Of course discussions took place; that's the problem. We discussed the matter on Monday, prior to the match starting, and again after player protests, on Tuesday. By Wednesday nothing had changed, despite unanimous opinion from match captains, players and myself that it must. So prior to the start of Rd 2 in the match, I instructed that some tables be moved off the stage. This caused the principal controller to storm out. An overwrought email from him followed late Wednesday night threatening to quit altogether. I turned up on Thursday not knowing if I had any officials. But we calmed things down, and life moved on.

    David is quite wrong to criticise the draw. If you attempt to have a big open, mismatches are inevitable. An experienced organiser would know that

    Actually, David is quite right. Sorry to disappoint you, but even the controllers now admit on reflection that they got the draw wrong. Moreover, it wasn't a 'big open'. At 80 players it was quite a small Open compared with some. There was probably no need to accelerate the draw either. A normal Swiss would have sorted itself out better with 80 players. Of course I know mismatches occur in draws. I've been playing in Swiss tourneys for more than forty years. Your condescending guidance is always welcome though, especially if it can explain the pleasure to be obtained by a game of chess between players separated by 700+ ELO points.

    you want arbiters who are competent and honest

    One does indeed. The honesty of the officials in Liverpool is not in doubt. They are unfailingly and scrupulously honest. But I believe we found the limits of their competence during the past two weeks

    I confess to being mystified by David's comment, "And of course I get high quality from the players." And I thought the winner did it without assistance

    'Get' as in 'obtain', 'receive'. As in "I get bread from the baker". Premsumably English is your native language. Or do you need more?


  20. I say again it is quite wrong to attack (or publicly criticise) "staff" during the event. That is not the way to manage people. I recall someone joining my company straight from finishing a PhD, and she just tried to bully people, and said you had to do that. It may work (and be legal) in academia, but not elsewhere as she soon found out.
    Were the tables arrangements discussed, or did D Welch sit there with his usual infuriating smug smile whilst D Robertson screamed at him? I agree that the playing conditions have to be as good as possible.
    I meant a big difference in the ratings. 2700 ish to say 1300 ish causes problems. The accelerated system rarely works; the only advantage is to the arbiters as it is practically impossible for the players to work out if they have the wrong pairing!

    "The honesty of the officials in Liverpool is not in doubt."

    Not everybody thinks that!

    "Premsumably English is your native language. "

    You "premsume" correctly, although some people might think you were being racist. Are you really saying that only English people are allowed to post here? I was merely amused that you appeared to be taking the credit for the quality of the play. Why not just say the playing conditions were fantastic?

  21. I would like to defend the reputation of the accelerated swiss system. My experience of accelerated pairings has been very positive and I cite as examples two tournaments Hastings and Ampleforth.

    Rules are set for accelerated pairings and agreed prior to the first round and will provide a correct set of pairings each round. The purpose of accelerated pairings is to avoid the numerous mismatches that can occur in early rounds of standard swisses where there is a wide range of player ratings.

    I suspect at Liverpool that the pairings in Round 2 were simply wrong and if so, it would be interesting to hear how this error happened.

  22. Rules are set for accelerated pairings and agreed prior to the first round

    Arbiters seem to have it in their minds that they can decide how long accelerated pairings work. Personally I don't see this as a well defined rule.

    The purpose of accelerated pairings is to avoid the numerous mismatches that can occur in early rounds of standard swisses where there is a wide range of player ratings.

    Take a look at the pairings for round 3 among the players with zero points. Some well known players with ratings above 2100 were paired against players with ratings 500 points lower.

    I am no great fan of accelerated pairings - to my mind all they achieve is a postponement of the unbalanced clash to later in the tournament. You can justify accelerated pairings by

    (a) works better in a 5 round tournament with > 32 players ( or 6 rounds with > 64 players)

    (b) is better for norm seekers since if they are in the second quartile they get higher rated opposition than in an ordinary seeded swiss.


  23. It is perfectly clear why David Welch chose the rate of play, which was all in 2 hours + 30 seconds per move. However, it would have been marginally better to have used the standard FIDE system of 40/90, add on 30 minutes + 30 seconds per move. Elsewhere in the world, including China, players are used to this rather ridiculously fast rate.
    But the Open had two rounds on two days in order to have a total of nine rounds and for title norms to be possible. Thus the games had to be too fast. Personally I would have tried to have the event over 9 days or just had 7 rounds without title norms.
    I presume the decision to make the normal starting time 3pm was to enable people who went to work to enjoy most of the event.
    The rating range is a growing problem for international Swiss events. David Welch and I are investigating a pairing system to help overcome this.
    We should not lose sight of the fact that the Open was put together at extremely short notice and yet was highly satisfactory. We are virtually starved of high level events in England and should be grateful to the Davids and others for their work. David seems to be a group noun for a chess administrator in England, with Robertson, Welch and Clayton all doing sterling work in Liverpool, alongside the other staff.
    In the past four years, we have lost about 38 chess administrators. Don't knock them!
    Stewart Reuben

  24. But I take a little personal credit for the quality of the chess! When I briefed both teams before the match, I quietly explained there would be no artificial rules on draws (ie. no 'Sofia rule'). It was up to them as professionals how they played the match.

    Actually, I thought the need to say this to the players was unnecessary, and, to be quite honest, a little insulting.
    Firstly, there was hardly any chance of many quick draws when half of the English team were playing opponents with 100-170 more rating points, and secondly am I the only one who finds it insulting to imply that professional players, who were all being paid to play chess, would all make quick ten move draws unless someone expressly told them not to?
    To then repeat this nonsense at the closing ceremony in front of the dignitaries must surely have given them a very strange and negative impression of the modern chess scene.
    Incidentally, this appalling (alcohol-fuelled?) closing speech will surely go down in the annals ...