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!