Friday, 2 November 2007

Vishy v Vlad 2008: The Hype Has Begun...

As we all know, Kramnik and Anand are due to play a world championship match some time next year (there is now talk of Germany in September). But it is not unprecedented: they played a ten-game match a few years ago. Anyone remember it? Thought not. To be fair, it was only rapidplay, at Mainz in 2001, and ended 5-5 with just two decisive games. Anand won a blitz decider 1½-½.

The only thing I remember about the 2001 match was a comment made to me afterwards by a chess journalist who had witnessed it. “They arrived for each game practically hand in hand!,” he commented rather disgustedly of the all too obvious friendliness of the two players to each other.

From the journalistic/PR point of view there is nothing worse than a cosy relationship between two sporting competitors. It doesn’t matter for run of the mill events but when you are trying to generate some publicity for a high-profile match that might catch the eye of the general media, you need there to be at least some degree of aggro between them. Ideally, you want to be able to quote a few spiky comments made by one about the other. Just imagine, in soccer, if the managers of Arsenal and Manchester United spent the afternoon before their teams played having a round of golf together. It wouldn’t do at all, would it?

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why the 4NCL has a bit of an image problem at the moment. The league was at its zenith a few years ago when we had Slough and Wood Green fighting for supremacy. There was considerable personal animosity involved between the two clubs, but it only served to enhance the competition, with the two rivals hiring ever more exalted grandmasters in an armaments race to overpower the other. Later, Wood Green and Guildford had a less heated rivalry; but when you pump all that cash in, you want to win and the competition becomes intense. These days we have the less than enthralling rivalry between Guildford-A&DC first team and... Guildford-A&DC second team. Doesn’t set the pulse racing, does it? There is a world championship precedent for this: the 2004 title match between Kramnik and Leko, where both players had the same manager. Not a trace of ill-feeling between the players could be discerned before, during or after the match. In his recent book, Topalov described that as the “most boring world championship match of all time” and he has quite a strong case.

Anyway, back to Anand versus Kramnik: in a recent interview with Izvestia, Kramnik laced his answers with some slightly barbed comments. See Steve Giddins’ commentary on this at the ChessBase site. It is also noticeable that Anand has been more outspoken in various comments to the press since becoming champion. Of course, they now have more at stake than first prize in a relatively trivial rapidplay match but it looks like the PR machine for VVV ’08 (Vishy versus Vlad 2008) has now started in earnest.

Just a small sample from the Giddins article: “When it was put to him that Anand was surely the strongest player in Mexico, Kramnik replied that the situation is like tennis: ‘Federer is better than Nadal, but cannot compete with him on clay. Everyone has their strong side. Mine is match-play, whereas Anand’s is tournaments. He is very even and stable, and can draw with the top players and beat those lower down.’” Not an unreasonable comparison, but with just the right amount of needle. Can Vishy hack it as a match player? Vlad has flung down his challenge.

Looking at it from the PR angle, Vlad mixed in just the right amount of edginess into his answers, with a view to building up interest in the match. It may be slightly artificial, of course. If he overdid it, we would know straightaway that it was faked, because it would be so out of character. So he has to do it in easy stages. After all, if he came out with bland stuff about "Anand won fair and square, I've no arguments", etc, etc, it would hardly stir the blood or whet the appetite for a showdown. A degree of aggro has to be introduced into the equation and gradually developed between now and September 2008 otherwise the general media will be unable to find an 'angle' and will end up ignoring the match completely.

Of course the source of any difference between them has to be credible but at the moment it is quite understandable for Vlad to be bitter and twisted. Unseated world champions are never the happiest of souls and he must still feel very irritated at being dragooned into the Mexico tournament so soon after he had won a tough match to reunify the world title. Karpov and Kasparov would surely not have caved in to any amount of federation pressure to make them put their title at stake so soon, and in a format which didn’t confer some tangible advantage on the holder. Kasparov, one feels, might have wormed his way out of the obligation in some spectacular way, and then used his influential friends to bang the drum on his behalf and drown out all the negative publicity. He did this sort of thing more than once in his career. But Kramnik would have needed a bigger rating (and an even bigger helping of chutzpah) to pull that one off.

We’ve seen how the Kramnik PR machine is shaping up but there is evidence from recent interviews in India that Vishy's camp are also working on policy. Vishy has grumbled about the forthcoming world championship cycle. This is always a good opening move in world championship politics (just like starting a game with 1 e4). Just as Vlad has made it plain that he is not looking forward to a possible future defence against Topalov, Vishy doesn’t see why FIDE granted Kramnik a Botvinnik-style return match at all (and that it was just a vote-winning stratagem during the FIDE elections). Since 1972 this general air of hostility towards the federation has arguably become a staple ingredient of major world championship matches. A bit of judicious FIDE-bashing from Vishy and Vlad could do wonders for PR.

Of course, if one side attacks FIDE, then the other must reply immediately in the same vein (1...e5!) in case anyone gets the idea that FIDE might favour one player over the other. Perhaps we should call this two-pronged anti-FIDE strategy the ‘Campomanes Attack’, after Karpov and Kasparov both attacked the then president of FIDE after he terminated their 1984 match. “Termination favoured Kasparov because I was leading the match!,” bellowed Karpov. “No, it favoured Karpov because I was finishing the stronger!,” howled Kasparov in reply. Not direct quotations, of course, but it gives you an idea of how this strategy plays out. But FIDE-bashing must be conducted with some finesse: the last thing anyone wants is another break from FIDE as in the quintillion question-mark Short-Kasparov breakaway blunder of 1993.

Kramnik's jibe about Vishy drawing with the big guys and beating the lesser ones in Mexico is one step along the road to saying "Ha! You big bully! Let's see you pick on someone your own size!". This seems quite a fruitful avenue for building up the hype but the two sides need to be careful and keep their sparring on the current gentlemanly level. If they start using street language or ‘doing a Danailov’, we’ll know they’re faking it. Keep it clean, guys.

Vishy’s political TN compared to previous world championships is that he considers a tournament to be a worthy way to decide the title. From a recent interview in an Indian newspaper: “I think what we had in Mexico (2007) and San Luis (2005) are the best. First of all, it’s attractive to have four games (involving all eight players) a day. If you have one game and that fizzles out, spectators have to come back two days later. Not a dream format, in my opinion.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? I suspect that most of his ‘great predecessors’ would disagree with him. Spectator appeal has rarely been at the top of their agenda (and Fischer did his best to have rows of spectator seating removed from the playing hall in 1972). Even though I disagree with Vishy (and suspect him of preferring the tournament format purely and simply because it favours him), it is good to have something different to haggle over. The chess world would be a dull place if we all agreed with each other and at least it provides another bone of contention to chew over in the long months until September 2008.

Whatever happens, I think we can assume that Vishy and Vlad won’t be skipping into the playing hall hand in hand this time round.


  1. Vishy is too much of a gentleman to get into a slanging match.

  2. Isn't the reason that Kramnik was granted the match clause that he wanted it and was in a strong negotiating position?

  3. Re Kramnik: his negotiating position was obviously quite strong but not super-strong. I couldn't see Kasparov risking his title in a tournament even if he had managed to negotiate a return match clause. Somehow, by hook or by crook, I believe he would have had the Mexico event downgraded in status to some sort of qualifier designed to produce his challenger.

    Re Vishy: yes, he has always come across as a gentleman - as indeed has Kramnik - but there is nothing quite like a world championship match to bring out the worst in people. Did anyone see 'Toiletgate' coming? I know I didn't. Topalov is generally a mild-mannered person who lets his pieces do the talking. But his manager Danailov is a very different character. That was perhaps the clue to what was coming last year but I confess I didn't think it would kick off like it did. Read Topalov's book of the match and you get the impression that much of the bad feeling can be traced back to national tensions between Bulgaria and Russia.

    I would be very surprised if Vishy v Vlad got as nasty as that, but you never know what their closest advisers might get up to. And of course the devil is in the detail: length of match, where it is played, number of rest days, choice of arbiters and appeals committee... there is plenty to argue about.

    Any trouble ahead may not be the fault of either player. Bear in mind that there are three parties involved - the two players and FIDE. Anything that FIDE does or says in the next 10 months will be carefully scrutinised for signs of partiality to the one player or the other. Any mistakes or errors of diplomacy can result in an outbreak of paranoia.

    In the past FIDE have been suspected of favouring (a) the incumbent; (b) the most powerful; or (c) the most Russian player. I am not necessarily accusing them of any of those things but those are the pitfalls that they must avoid. They have 10 months to maintain strict impartiality and show good judgement - can they do it?

  4. in my last para, by "most powerful" I really mean "the player with the most political/media power" - perhaps "most influential" would have been a better way of expressing it

  5. Anything that FIDE does or says in the next 10 months will be carefully scrutinised for signs of partiality to the one player or the other.

    And rightly so of course: but one would hope that the demands of the players were subject to equally careful scrutiny. (And indeed, the comments of certain other parties.)

    Odd to read about tensions between Russia and Bulgaria: for a number of reasons they've always been pretty close.

  6. Kramnik threw down the gauntlet the day Vishy won in Mexico.

    View the 5 minute video:

    Vlady's Darth Vader-esque challenge is a good way.