Wednesday 21 November 2007

Vishy's Baking Tray

The other day at the BCM Chess Shop we were all chortling at this photo which appeared on the cover of the latest New in Chess magazine. Vishy had just won the world championship and, after dressing him up like a market stall with various bits of local material and vegetation, all they could think to present him with was what looked like an unwashed baking tray. No wonder he looks slightly less than delirious.

We all had a go at dreaming up captions for the photo. One of the first was the traditional "I went to Mexico and all they gave me was this tea tray". Another was based on the speculation that a Post-It note had been attached to the reverse, which read "Dear Vishy, Many congratulations on nicking my title. I'm hanging onto the real trophy until you beat me fair and square in a match. In the meantime, you can have this tray which I took from my rest room in Elista as a memento of many happy hours spent there. All the best, see you next year - Vlad".

Maybe readers would like to volunteer their own caption...

Saturday 17 November 2007

Dogs and Cats Playing Chess

First things first... apologies to anyone who has been trying to access the BCM website which has been down all day (Saturday 17 November). Seems to be the fault of the web hosts - nothing we can do about it.

I have just enjoyed reading an amusing story on the Streatham and Brixton blog - click here - featuring the hapless fictional English GM Geoff Scorebook (a sort of chessplaying Mr Pooter) and the day he was forced to play chess against a dog.

Those Streatham guys give great blog and I exhort you to read their stuff. If you read to the end of the comments on this story you will find that I feebly try to top EJH's story with a tale about a cat that played chess (or at least one move of a game of chess). Only my story happens to be absolutely true. I thought you might like to see a picture of Scamp, the remarkable animal that once played 1 Rh1-g1, having a kip on his favourite chess set. Notice how he wraps his paw protectively round the king. He definitely knows something, that cat.

Friday 9 November 2007

ECF: One Member, One Vote?

Peter Sowray, international director of the English Chess Federation (ECF), has started a petition to change the way the federation is organised. Without further ado, click on the following link:

The wording of the petition is "We, the undersigned, call upon the English Chess Federation to adopt a more democratic approach. Specifically, we believe that 'One Member, One Vote' should be introduced for major decisions, including the election of board members and the setting of the Annual Budget."

At the moment the ECF has a federal structure, composed of affiliated organisations which have votes. This was probably quite a reasonable set-up in its day, 100+ years ago, but it is increasingly evident that the ECF's wheels just don't turn fast enough for the chess world as it stands in the 21st century. The pace of change is agonisingly slow, and over the years a number of dynamic people who might have been useful in the organisation of chess have been put off by its in-built conservatism. Note, this is not a criticism of any of the people involved, just the structure of the organisation.

Please read Peter's petition and the reasons behind it. I haven't the time today to do a full-blown blog on this but I find Peter's case admirably clear and sensible. I was havering about whether to sign myself, given that I am a 'foreigner' (a member of the Welsh Chess Union). But I live in England and am directly affected by decisions made by the federation in my work, so felt constrained (after the gentlest arm-twisting from Peter!) to append my name. What do blog readers think?

Thursday 8 November 2007

Sticking Up for Chess

I did a chess-related sound bite for a local radio station this morning (Nov 2007). I've done a fair few of these over the years and you tend to get asked the same old questions. The problem is that they are just using you to fill in a couple of minutes at the end of the hour, before the news bulletin kicks in. You are the equivalent of the 'skateboarding duck' story which is traditionally slotted into the end of TV news shows, just to raise the viewers' spirits after half an hour of depressing hard news stories. Or the 'dead donkey' which can be conveniently 'dropped' should there be a big story which needs more time. In fact, that excellent TV comedy show of the 1990s to which I am referring could, but for the grace of God, have been named Drop the Chess Story. I'm so glad it wasn't.

Anyway, you always have to expect to be asked something about the game's reputation for being 'slow' or 'boring', or about the image of chessplayers as 'geeks' or 'nerds'. Tempting though it is for an old grump like me to trade insult for insult and suggest that I cannot think of anything more boring than listening to local radio - that would come across as snooty and middle-class - you have to play the game... take a deep breath and say something frothy and upbeat which chimes in with the banter that you hear coming down the phone line from larky lads and lasses in the studio. Well, that's what I tend to do, anyway. Anyone got a good riposte that they'd like to suggest in response to the 'slow, boring' jibe ?

One idea I had but did not implement was to ask that the presenters do a bit of homework on chess before my slot. Next time I might suggest that they go to 'YouTube' and search for 'Nakamura Dlugy'...

... two grandmasters playing one-minute chess whilst heavy rock music plays around them. After watching that, could they still legitimately ask me whether chess was slow or boring?

Of course, the real reason a lot of people think chess is boring is because they have never had contact with anyone who can play it competently. They think they know what chess is, but they don't. Most games and sports tend to be slow and boring when played by the untutored or the incompetent. Even reasonably competent sport, as practised by parks footballers, is not particularly stimulating to watch when played in front of two men and a dog.

Here's a little experiment: next time you watch TV football, try watching with the sound turned down. Dull, isn't it? It makes you realise that a huge part of the fun comes from the noise made by the crowd and the commentators. Much of the appeal of TV sport lies in being sucked into this state of mass hysteria which a lot of us find irresistible. It wouldn't work quite like that for TV chess, of course, but there are other, subtler ways of getting people involved in things presented on the box.

As for the 'geek/nerd' jibe: my standard reply is to tell them about someone like Simen Agdestein, grandmaster and pro footballer. And now star of the Norwegian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. Although that particular answer is almost as trite and done-to-death as the question it purports to answer, it's a way of trying to tell them that chessplayers come in all shapes and sizes (although it has to be admitted that an unhealthily large proportion sport a 'y' chromosome) and that, amongst the geeks and nerds, there are 'jocks' and 'dudes' and 'babes' and 'alpha males' and 'brats' and 'fogies'... in fact, virtually every kind of revoltingly-named social stereotype that one can think of.

How do readers of my blog respond to the geek/nerd jibe?

Whilst looking round for some online video action showing Agdestein playing football, or even doing the paso doble (haven't found anything as yet), I came across some soccer action featuring another chessplayer, Torkil Nielsen, who was reputedly the chess champion of the Faroes Islands and has a rating in the mid-2100s so he's a decent player. He was the Faroe Islands soccer player who scored the winning goal for his country against Austria in one of the biggest international soccer upsets of all time in a European Championship qualifying match in 1990. Here's the video...

... or at least, here it was, until those spoilsports at UEFA denied us the pleasure of seeing it on YouTube. Had it still been available, I would have warned you to turn the sound down on your computer before watching it - the commentator goes completely berserk. "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!! Ludwig Wittgenstein!! Sigmund Freud!! Kurt Waldheim!! Arnold Schwarzenegger!! Can you hear me, Arnold Schwarzenegger!! We gave your boys a helluva beating!!" Well, he could have been saying something like that, couldn't he?

Enough of the chess, it's nearly time for the news headlines...

This has been John Saunders...
At three minutes to eight...
BBC Ambridge...

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Guardian Chess Book of the Year

The Guardian, in the shape of GM Daniel King and his co-columnist Ronan Bennett, is running a competition for 'best chess book of 2007'. You can read their three most recent articles here, here and here, in which they nominate their own favourite books of 1907 - Karlsbad 1907 and Silman's Complete Endgame Course being two titles singled out - and invite readers to nominate their own favourites which will be added to the short list for the judges to consider. Dan and Ronan are inviting readers to nominate two more titles and want them to email their choices.

The two books with the most nominations (closing date November 12) will be added to the short list. Dan King and Ronan Bennett will then team up with two other members of the Guardian Chess Club, Stephen Moss and Sean Ingle, and they are proposing to announce the shortlist of six on December 3. Everyone who makes a nomination will have their names put into a hat, and the lucky winner will receive a copy of the winning book.

Here's the important bit: the email address. It is

Vishy v Vlad 2008: Pre-Match Skirmishes, Round 2

Well, that didn't take long, did it? No sooner had I started deconstructing the rules of engagement on my blog than Vishy produced his second volley. Chessbase, bless their hearts, has all the relevant info. In reality the match has now begun, with every utterance of the two contenders likely to be analysed, distorted and whipped into a souffle by chess hacks worldwide - and, hopefully quite soon, the general media too. They will have to watch their every word: even a polite request for directions to the nearest gents could be mistranslated or misinterpreted as another toiletgate accusation.

I'm beginning to wonder whether the match should really be billed 'Izvestia v Hindustan Times', those being the two organs through which the rivals' latest pronouncements have been filtered. Then, of course, there is the secondary filter, ChessBase itself, which has been known to place a spin or two on chess news. Their headline - "Anand blasts FIDE's 'political patronage' of Kramnik" - shows they enjoy reading UK tabloid newspapers. The word 'blast' is beloved of the UK press - it's nice and short and Anglo-Saxon and pulls in the punters like no other. It's just a tad stronger than 'rap'. A 'rap' criticises in relatively polite terms (like a ticking-off from your mother) but I always feel a 'blast' really lets it all hang out, and maybe slips in a vulgar insult or two. Or am I thinking of 'slam'?

Well, anyway... as you excitedly read the text of a blast-headlined article for some full-blooded criticism, you usually find that what the 'blaster' (or 'rapper' or 'slammer') actually said, tucked away in a few lines somewhere in the third paragraph after the writer has had a go at exaggerating and interpreting the actual words, would barely offend an elderly dowager at a garden party. What a disappointment! Still, the press is trying hard and this is exactly how these things are supposed to play out in order to whip up a bit of aggro. 10/10 for effort all round.

Going back to the 3 November edition of the Hindustan Times article: the writer kicks off with "Long after the bitter days of rivalry between Kasparov and Karpov, another chess star war seems to be in the offing." Already we can see where he wants to go with this story. The first direct quote from Anand, quite a bit further down the page, is: "He is trying to make the most of the political patronage he enjoys from the FIDE. Kramnik's position seems like a legal explanation of a situation arising from the political patronage." Not exactly a 'blast', is it? Nevertheless Anand is making quite a significant criticism here, not so much of Kramnik as of FIDE for showing favour.

So there you have it: the second bit of FIDE-bashing from Vishy. As I said in my earlier blog, this is always a good move to make in a game of chess politics. Notice Vishy seems to have had two moves in a row. There is no rule about each player making alternate moves when mud-slinging. Kramnik doesn't have to move at all if he doesn't want to. There is no zugzwang in chess politics. I'm not surprised Vishy has made this pair of moves but they strike me as coming a bit early in the piece. I would have expected him to manoeuvre, playing the political equivalent of pawn to a3 or h3 for a while before launching a flank attack of this magnitude. But it is too early to judge its effectiveness. The position is either level or unclear (select whichever cliche you prefer).

Vishy's next quoted utterance - "Who the best player in the world is decided on the board" - well, that's more like it at this early stage. Just a minor developing move. You or I could have found that platitude without the slightest difficulty.

In the final para of the article, Anand is said to have 'refuted' (good chess term, that) the claim that the match would be held in Germany in September 2008 and that nothing had as yet been decided. Excellent! Any notion that agreement had been reached on dates and venue would be ruinous for this traditional area of off-board conflict, which ideally needs to be left unresolved until the last possible minute. In 1972, we didn't know if there would be a match at all until we saw Bobby Fischer descend the steps of the plane in Rejkyavik - which was picture that greeted us on the TV news that night. How's that for brinksmanship - and newsworthiness? I doubt that we could ever again enjoy that sort of cliff-hanging tension but the pot needs to be stirred for a few months yet.

On 5 November the Hindustan Times ran a story on Vishy Anand shifting base back to India. Apparently he has bought a house in Chennai and is talking about training young Indian players. "I have bought a new house in Chennai and will be staying more in India. Earlier, I used to stay for about two months in India and six-eight months in Spain. But now it could be the other way round." The maths doesn't quite work there. Where was he the rest of the time? On the road playing chess perhaps? But I suppose it could be interpreted as a political move in the build up to the Kramnik match. The fact that he lives most of his life abroad slightly detracts from his status as a national hero.

It is interesting to contrast this move with that of the Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton who, on becoming a British national hero, has decided to go and live in Switzerland because he cannot walk down a British street any more wthout getting pestered. Most of us cynics assumed the real reason for the move is because the Swiss tax man helps himself to less of his dough than his British equivalent. I wonder if Vishy has some ulterior motive in this move?

You would have thought that Vishy would have the same problem as Hamilton when trying to walk down an Indian street. But perhaps his privacy has to be sacrificed in order to benefit from the extra political muscle his vast and powerful home country can bring him - the 'India v Russia' angle. Akin to a playground dispute and the traditional chant of "my dad's bigger than your dad". I certainly get the impression that the Indian press could be a major influence in the coming struggle. The fact that they publish in English could be a plus factor in the Anand campaign.

Yes, it'a all shaping up nicely...

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.