Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Kamsky vs Shirov: Back to the 1990s

It is to be Kamsky versus Shirov in the FIDE World Cup final.

Although youth has been well to the fore in the tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, it seems that the younger generation are not yet ready to claim their inheritance. In both semi-finals it was a case of "age before beauty".

The final pairing makes me think of one of those cheesy old sports movie plots where a has-been sports star comes back from the wilderness for one last improbable attempt at glory. And of course they succeed: the final scene shows the ball going into the net, or the hated rival hitting the canvas, the hero is reunited with his long-lost girlfriend... cue credits.

I would love to see this happen in chess but life is not like the movies. And of course I am way ahead of myself because the two old bruisers still have to slug it out with each other. Only one of them will get to live the dream and it may be short-lived. The formidable figure of Veselin Topalov stands between them and a world title match. Not to mention a whole minefield of politics and negotiations. Harold Wilson said that a week was a long time in politics and that is even more true of chess politics. But Alexei Shirov will be more aware of that than anybody.

I'm glad that these two have come through the knock-out competition. Not that I have anything against Carlsen, Karyakin and co, but I feel that both Kamsky and Shirov deserve another chance at glory and that their track record as match players means the clash with Topalov should be a meaningful one. One thing they have in common is winning a match victory over Kramnik. Kamsky beat Kramnik in the 1994/95 PCA candidates quarter-final, while Shirov beat him in 1998 for the right to challenge Kasparov for the title. The other major factor they have in common is that both have played in a match for the world title. Kamsky lost to Karpov in the 1996 FIDE world final, while Shirov lost to Anand at the same stage in 2000 (although the FIDE version of the championship had by then been reduced to 'Mickey Mouse' status).

One of the great chess 'wrongs' that stands a chance of being righted in this current cycle is Shirov's lost chance to play Kasparov for the title in 1999/2000. I don't suppose we shall ever know the true story of what went wrong at that time but there is no doubt that Shirov has nursed a burning sense of injustice ever since and one can only feel for him. In the end, as we all know, his opportunity passed to his beaten rival Kramnik, who went on to defeat Kasparov and enjoy seven years as world champion. Kramnik also got paid his fee for the Shirov match, while Shirov ended up with precisely nothing. Well, nothing apart from the aforementioned sense of injustice, that is. But perhaps that may yet prove to have a motivational value which will carry him through his coming challenges. I wish him well.

Kamsky's virtual retirement after 1996 seems to have been triggered by a general disillusionment with chess as a career. Perhaps it was also a necessary stratagem to escape the clutches of an over-protective and dysfunctional father. He then turned to his studies (first medicine and then the law) but began a tentative come-back in 2004. He has settled back in pretty well, rejoining the 2700 elite, but chess has changed significantly during his absence. Mastery of computer-based theory is now more important than it was and he is sometimes judged wanting in that area. But his reputation as a match player is still high, despite a loss to Gelfand in the Elista Candidates last year. I also wish him well for his coming challenge.

So now there are five. The plan is that the winner of the Kamsky/Shirov match will get the chance to play Topalov, and the winner of Topalov vs GK/AS then goes on to challenge the winner of the 2008 Kramnik/Anand championship match for the title, sometime in 2009. An enticing prospect but at the moment is no more than a plan. Four matches in two years could tax the organisational and fund-raising skills of the World Chess Federation. I wonder how many of these matches will actually happen?


  1. They've got loads of time yet. How old was Smyslov when he made the Candidates Final?

    (And why did he play the Chigorin when he got there?)

  2. I agree Shirov not getting to play a World championship match was and remains a 'wrong' but saying that he played a match for the world title is pushing things more than somewhat. (same goes for Kamsky)