Monday 29 November 2010

Wikileaks: Nothing About Chess

I visited Wikileaks to see if there was anything about chess, for example all those conspiracy theories that Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov came out with - for example, did Karpov and Kasparov really make up all those world championship games, did IBM get Karpov to make some moves on behalf of Deep Blue when it beat Garry, did Kirsan liaise with the little green men, etc, etc?

What a disappointment. I'm none the wiser. Nothing about chess at all, just some stuff about a war in the Middle East which I have no interest in (I've been editing chess magazines for the last decade, for heaven's sake). They might at least have told us whether Osama Bin Laden plays the Queen's Gambit but no... nothing... zilch... zippo.

Well, at least they haven't found out that all us chessplayers are Communists and are engaged in a worldwide struggle to checkmate capitalism, so our big secret's safe at least. Er... wait a minute, did I write that down instead of just think it? Whoops... and is that the doorbell? Just a sec... oh dear... these large gentlemen in sharp suits say I have to put my coat on and go with them to answer a few questions. I could be a while. See you soon, everyone... hopefully...

Saturday 20 November 2010

Chess is a Crime II: Justin Bieber Arrested for Looking Like Magnus Carlsen

Following the story about the NYPD arresting and charging seven men for playing chess in a restricted area comes this sensational story from LA...

Justin Bieber: Arrested for looking like a chessplayer

The photo shows teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber being arrested in LA yesterday. But it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. An embarrassed LAPD spokesman later explained: "You see, he looked just a tiny bit like notorious pawn-pusher Magnus Carlsen. We are cracking down on chess in the USA and the police have orders to take immediate action if they spot one of these so-called 'grandmasters' on the street. We can't apologise more for suspecting Justin might be a chessplayer."

P.S. Actually Justin is a chessplayer - see this story.

Friday 19 November 2010

Drop That Bishop and Come Out With Your Hands Up!

Most of us have reluctantly accepted that chess is not part of the culture in either the UK or the USA, but since when did it become a crime? Here's a weird example of the NYPD showing zero tolerance towards the playing of chess (which Ukrainian GM Mikhail Golubev spotted in the New York Post):

A squad of cops in bulletproof vests swooped into an upper Manhattan park and charged seven men with the "crime" of playing chess in an area off-limits to adults unaccompanied by kids -- even though no youngsters were there.
Amazingly, charges were not dropped after the police discovered what the men were doing and they still have to face criminal charges in the Manhattan Criminal Court in December.

This reminded me of an incident from my youth when, with two other youngsters, I happened to be emerging from a building in an ill-lit backstreet of High Wycombe one night. A police car suddenly hove into view and stopped rather abruptly alongside us. An officer wound down the window and barked out a question: "where did you three spring from?" Acting as spokesperson for my "gang", I replied "the chess club". He responded with a somewhat disappointed "oh!" and was gone as suddenly as he arrived. Any young offenders or other ne'er-do-wells reading this might like to consider the "chess club" line as a useful cover story for their nefarious doings though I must reiterate that, in this instance, it was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Back to the story: an NYPD spokesman later tried to justify the heavy-handed treatment of the 'Chessplaying Seven' on the grounds that one of them had 'a bit of previous' (as they say on cop shows): "One of [the] men had priors for reckless endangerment, grand larceny, drug possession, and criminal mischief." Reckless endangerment? Well, we're all guilty of that, aren't we? You should see the way I play the Ponziani.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

The Fourth Polgar Sister?

Is BBC news presenter Kirsty Wark the secret fourth Polgar sister?

Left: Judit Polgar...........Right: Kirsty Wark

I think we should be told.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Any Dancing Partners for Magnus?

GM Simen Agdestein on Norwegian TV's 'Dancing with the Stars' - but could his protégé Magnus Carlsen demonstrate similar fancy footwork were he to attempt a breakaway world chess championship?

Leonard Barden's Guardian column of 13 November 2010 is on Magnus Carlsen's withdrawal from the World Chess Championship Candidates' competition. In the column, Leonard makes this point:
"... the bold move could be for London, as in 1993, to go for a high profile breakaway series in 2011 which would still allow the winner to play the official match a year later."
I noticed that Leonard wrote "series" and not "match" and that was probably for a good reason. One difference between Magnus's vision for the championship and the 1993 breakaway match between Kasparov and Short (or Fischer's attempt to play Karpov in 1975 without FIDE's blessing) is that Magnus doesn't seem to be talking about matchplay as a championship system. In the past it has taken 'two to tango' to set up a breakaway match - and that has proved quite hard enough - but Magnus would need a whole dancing troupe were he to attempt a breakaway to suit his aspirations. Perhaps Magnus should seek advice from his former mentor, pro-footballer-cum-GM Simen Agdestein who starred in Norwegian TV's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing.

Friday 5 November 2010

Carlsen Puts Himself En Prise

The big news of the day... Magnus Carlsen has withdrawn from the World Championship cycle.

Carlsen at the 2009 London Chess Classic - he plays again in 2010

Here is the content of his letter to FIDE:

Letter to FIDE
To: FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov & FIDE World Championship Committee.
Reference is made to the ongoing World Championship cycle.
The purpose of this letter is to inform you of my decision not to take part in the planned Candidate Matches between March and May 2011.
After careful consideration I’ve reached the conclusion that the ongoing 2008–2012 cycle does not represent a system, sufficiently modern and fair, to provide the motivation I need to go through a lengthy process of preparations and matches and to perform at my best.
Reigning champion privileges, the long (five year) span of the cycle, changes made during the cycle resulting in a new format (Candidates) that no World Champion has had to go through since Kasparov, puzzling ranking criteria as well as the shallow ceaseless match-after-match concept are all less than satisfactory in my opinion.
By providing you with four months notice before the earliest start of the Candidates as well as in time before you have presented player contracts or detailed regulations, I rest assured that you will be able to find an appropriate replacement.
Although the purpose of this letter is not to influence you to make further changes to the ongoing cycle, I would like to take the opportunity to present a few ideas about future cycles in line with our input to FIDE during the December 27th 2008 phone-conference between FIDE leaders and a group of top-level players.
In my opinion privileges should in general be abolished and a future World Championship model should be based on a fair fight between the best players in the World, on equal terms. This should apply also to the winner of the previous World Championship, and especially so when there are several players at approximately the same level in the world elite. (Why should one player have one out of two tickets to the final to the detriment of all remaining players in the world? Imagine that the winner of the 2010 Football World Cup would be directly qualified to the 2014 World Cup final while all the rest of the teams would have to fight for the other spot.)
One possibility for future cycles would be to stage an 8-10 player World Championship tournament similar to the 2005 and 2007 events.
The proposal to abolish the privileges of the World Champion in the future is not in any way meant as criticism of, or an attack on, the reigning World Champion Viswanathan Anand, who is a worthy World Champion, a role model chess colleague and a highly esteemed opponent.
Rest assured that I am still motivated to play competitive chess. My current plan is to continue to participate in well-organised top-level tournaments and to try to maintain the no 1 spot on the rating list that I have successfully defended for most of 2010.
Best regards,
IGM Magnus Carlsen

This sensational move is a very big deal for the world of chess. Magnus Carlsen is the biggest thing to happen to chess in the western hemisphere since Bobby Fischer in the 1960s and represents a major chance to see the game back in the limelight. For most of 2010 Carlsen has been ranked world number one player, aged only 19. He is likely to regain that position very soon and in time could go on to establish the sort of dominance enjoyed by the young Garry Kasparov. This decision means that he now cannot become official world champion for another four or five years.

From the point of view of the world chess championship itself: although it will undoubtedly proceed without him and produce a challenger to Vishy Anand, much of its credibility as a competition will have gone, as well as its saleability to prospective hosts and sponsors, particularly in Western Europe. The Candidates' competition is due to be played in Russia and most of the competitors are from Eastern Europe. They, and the World Chess Federation, may feel that Carlsen's withdrawal doesn't really affect them and is just a problem for those people in the western hemisphere who are trying to boost the popularity of chess in that part of the world. However, this is very short-sighted thinking: a high-profile championship challenger from the west would lead to a major boost for chess worldwide, thus enhancing all professional chessplayers' incomes and status.

It is hard not to make comparisons with Bobby Fischer, who several times withdrew from world chess championship qualifying cycles following disputes with organisers and officials. But how far does this comparison stand up? By the time he came to challenge for the world title, Fischer was very much a man alone, listening to advice from few and not always following it when it was given. Carlsen, one suspects, is very different: managed by his father, recently coached by Garry Kasparov, sponsored by Arctic Securities, he cuts a more worldly and well-rounded figure, and it has to be imagined that some, if not all, of the aforementioned agencies would have played a significant advisory role in the decision-making process.

But, in another sense, perhaps Fischer and Carlsen are more alike. After winning the championship in 1972, Fischer had promised he would play more but he actually failed to play at all (save a rematch with his rival-cum-buddy Spassky in 1992). Though unquestionably obsessed with chess (he still analysed and studied the game after he had stopped playing), Fischer may simply not have enjoyed taking part in competitions. This is not uncommon at all levels of the game: plenty of people have an interest in the game, and can be remarkably strong players, despite a distaste for entering chess competitions, for all manner of reasons. As for Carlsen, although he has amply recovered from his recent slump in form, his body language at the board is not always that of someone who enjoys the grind of elite-level chess. He sometimes looks bored or fed up whilst in play. His choice of unorthodox openings in some recent games is another symptom of possible ennui. It appears as if he is trying to rekindle his passion for the game by putting aside the same old openings for something a bit livelier. 

Perhaps Carlsen’s second career, as a model for G-RAW clothes, has given him the taste for the high life, and making big money with far less exertion than spending all day slaving over a hot chessboard. All speculation, of course, but perhaps there is something in it. His sporting analogy was to football, but tennis may be more to the point - an attritional game like chess, where prodigies often burn out at a young age or move into lucrative fringe activities. There must now be a slight worry that, after a few more tournament victories but with no new worlds to conquer, Carlsen may simply walk away from chess. Let's hope not.

Carlsen drops a fairly large hint in his press release that he would prefer a tournament-based championship system to matchplay. As mentioned above, his analogy is to football, where all teams start championships on the same footing, but others would analogise with boxing, where challengers have to win through a number of challenges for a chance to take on the champion. The latter format is closer to the long chess tradition, still favoured by Kasparov, Karpov and Kramnik, though it is possible Anand and Topalov might side with Carlsen. One is forced to agree with Carlsen that the particular arrangements envisaged for the 2011 Candidates’ competition, with four-game deciders building up to a six-game Candidates’ final, seem totally inadequate, and he is surely right about the World Chess Federation’s general mismanagement of the cycle to date. However, this particular part of the press release arguably weakens his overall argument. A lot of rank and file chess fans won't like it. The matchplay format for the world championship still enjoys a good degree of popularity in the chess world at large. As well as antagonising traditionalists, Carlsen's revelation of his own preferred format signals a possible ulterior motive to his withdrawal. It starts to look like a unilateral bid to change the championship system to one of his liking - all too reminiscent of some of his great (but none too democratically-minded) predecessors’ attempts to adjust the championship format in their own favour.

The timing of the press release is interesting, coming a month or so after Anatoly Karpov’s defeat in the FIDE Presidential election. Would Carlsen have stayed in the competition had Karpov been FIDE President? Very possibly, but we cannot be sure. Even had Karpov been elected, it may have been too late for him to change the 2011 Candidates’ competition arrangements.

It is hard to judge the likely effect on professional chess of Carlsen’s withdrawal. Some will argue that it will do damage - they will say that the reconstituted world championship cycle, though still far from ideal, was in the process of being repaired after the major schism of 1993 and that this will set back progress.

The likely counter argument of the Carlsen camp is that another four years of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov at the helm, with his long history of arbitrary, ill-judged decisions and long-delayed, underfunded competitions, will soon lead to more trouble anyway. Their thinking is that the fight to reform professional chess is inevitable and may as well start right now. Carlsen has already proved he is a great chessplayer but this is his first major move on the chess politics board, against the so far unbeaten ‘world chess politics champion’, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Carlsen has placed himself, the strongest piece on the board, en prise. Will his risky gambit pay off? Your move, Kirsan...

Wednesday 3 November 2010

ECF Chief Exec Joins The Blogosphere

Two welcome pieces of English chess news...

The new Chief Executive of the English Chess Federation (ECF), Andrew Farthing, has joined the blogosphere. He is a thoughtful and articulate writer and his blogs are well worth reading.

Also, the ECF has reinstated a link to the English Chess Forum - - which hosts lively discussions on everything to do with English (and indeed British and World) chess. The forum remains independent of the federation as before but it has been good to see more and more ECF directors and officials responding to members' questions and comments there.

Both initiatives indicate a welcome improvement in communications policy by the federation, following the lead set by Stewart Reuben, CJ de Mooi and others.