Tuesday 13 November 2018

Carlsen-Caruana 2018: Through a Glass Darkly

This is my first blog post from the 2018 World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, being played at The College, Southampton Row, London.

Game 1: the challenger Fabiano Caruana faces the champion Magnus Carlsen

The first thing to say is that I’m not intending to provide detailed coverage of the actual play. This is already being done excellently and professionally by the likes of Chess.com (now working in tandem with ChessBomb), Chess24.com, ChessBase.com, etc, and there would be no point in trying to compete with all these online chess outlets. Click on the links if that is what you are looking for.

What I’m looking to do here is provide a bit of colour and give a general picture of the event. As someone who edited major national chess magazines for 13 years between 1999 and 2012, and who still regularly covers big-time chess competitions such as the Gibraltar, Isle of Man and London Classic tournaments, I am naturally interested in the whole business of chess event coverage and how it has developed since the turn of the century.


Did I write 'provide a bit of colour'? Oh dear - precious little colour to be found at the venue, I'm afraid. It's called, somewhat cryptically, The College, and is located in Southampton Row in Central London. It used to be Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design but the college people moved elsewhere some time ago, since when their former building has been rented out and not acquired another permanent function. I daresay it could be tarted up to suit various purposes, such as exhibitions, assuming organisers applied a reasonable amount of imagination and put adequate resource into it, but what we have here is a complete dud. As presented by the organisers, WorldChess, the building is about as friendly and welcoming as the Lubyanka in Moscow and totally unsuited to the purpose to which it is being put.

I was tempted to title this piece 'The Rooky Horror Show' but I think I already coined that pun last year to describe GingerGM's Crypt Blitz Tournament, held in the crypt of a London church last year...

... and which was a lot of fun, but I never imagined a world championship match being played anywhere similarly dark and forbidding. For the title I also toyed with 'The Lubyanka Experience' as the venue arguably gives you a taste of old Soviet Russia. I'm only half-joking about this as the set-up of this tournament has its roots in Soviet culture - overcrowding, dim lights, queues for everything and burly security men watching your every move.

One comes away with the impression that WorldChess's priority was to give the match a central London location at the cheapest price possible, catering for the needs of VIPs, players, online spectators, onsite spectators and media in that order, with the last two groups being given only the smallest regard. Other considerations, e.g. the popularisation of chess in the host country and the wider world, the involvement of players and chess enthusiasts in the event... have received no attention whatsoever.

In a nutshell, the venue is gloomy, depressing and overcrowded. But don't take my word for it, here are some pictures I took...


"You are now entering the Lubyanka": the above photo is the first thing you see once you are into the building and a security man has checked your bag. He'll ask you: "have you got anything sharp in your bag?" I wish I had been as witty as an esteemed photographer friend of mine had been when he replied "only my lenses."

Now you have a choice of corridors. This is starting to sound a bit like one of those 1980s text-only home computer adventure games, isn't it? Back then I used to love playing the BBC Acorn game 'Philosopher's Quest' and only learnt recently that one of its co-authors was a chess player - the English GM Jonathan Mestel. I shall present the photos to you in the style of that game as a sort of homage...

"You're in a dimly-lit corridor. You have a coloured wristband and a mobile phone in a plastic bag. Click R to turn right or L to turn left."

"You clicked R (right). Make sure the wristband is visible to the security guard as he will demand to see it. So will all the other security guards positioned along the corridor, on the way to the commentary room." This will happen every few metres of your movements along corridors for the next seven hours or however long Magnus Carlsen tries to win a dead level endgame. Another photographer friend of mine said he was going to wear his wristband round his head in future to save having to hitch his sleeve up every few seconds as he was walking round.

"You clicked L (left). Another gloomy corridor leading to the cafe and, eventually, the auditorium. Remember to keep your wristband visible at all times." The cafe is crowded but the food is pretty good, if a bit overpriced (but that's London for you). The auditorium is, of course, tiny...

"You're in the auditorium - a small room seating around 200, not very comfortably, from where you can peer through a glass screen at two men playing chess." You might think that this is the main point of the exercise but quite soon you get bored sat staring at two blokes in suits who make moves very infrequently, so let's retrace our steps to the entrance foyer...

"You are looking up a winding staircase. A burly security guard will prevent you from going up there as you have the wrong colour wristband. For all you know, there may be champagne, caviar and dancing girls up there - or it could just be an empty space - but since you are only on Level 1 of this game, you're not going to find out anytime soon. Sorry." As a humble photo-journalist I'm only on Level 1 of the game myself so cannot enlighten you as to what happens up there. You could try bribing the guard but don't come crying to me if you end up in the gulag. Let's go back along the right-hand corridor for a bit...

"You have reached the commentary room. Good luck trying to get in there." There seemed to be a bit of a hassle gaining admission to the commentary room on the first Saturday but if you're patient, you'll manage it. Remember, queuing up for things is an authentic Soviet experience, courtesy of ex-president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, so you may as well enjoy it. Actually, to be fair, it's also an authentic part of life in London, so, hey...

"Well done. You're inside the commentary room, seated on a wooden box and listening to Judit Polgar and Anna Rudolf." Tip: this will probably prove to be the best part of your visit to the Lubyanka so you should consider staying there as long as possible and enjoying their excellent commentary. Credit where it's due: WorldChess got the choice of commentators right. Judit and Anna are a good team.

"You're still in the commentary room..." And that's Woody Harrelson, the Hollywood/TV actor. Woody tried to liven things up at the start of the match by fumbling with the pieces. (I might do a little skit on that later.) Sadly, your bottom is getting sore on that unyielding wooden box with no back rest, so it's time to move on...

"You've got a green wristband which means you're a chess journalist. Bad luck! Lose at least half the income you would receive if you had normal, sensible employment. OK, it's a dirty job but someone's got to do it. And you have the inestimable privilege of entering the media room. Hmm... not that great a privilege, if truth be told. It's overcrowded. You've no chance finding desk space and a chair to sit on." 

"You're in the even darker, more cluttered end of the press room." There's tea, coffee and some tasty snacks available there so not all bad - but it's really horribly overcrowded.

That's the adventure game over for the moment but I hope you get the flavour of the place. There are a couple of other rooms I've not mentioned, where a few people were playing casual chess in the gloom (no clocks provided so bring your own) plus a place where you can buy world championship merchandise (check out my Twitter stream for some facetious chat about that). Some of my chess friends who remember working/spectating at the London world championship matches of the 1980s and 1990s have compared the 2018 experience unfavourably with 20 or 30 years ago. I agree with them, though in some ways it is hard to make a comparison as the world we live in has changed so radically. Now the internet is the all-important factor, and the organisers might try to argue that their key priority is webcasting to the wider world rather than concern themselves unduly with the on-the-spot experience of those paying £70 for the privilege of seeing the match in the flesh. Did I not mention the price before? Yes, you pay £70 per day to see this, and you really get very little for your money compared to watching the game in the comfort of your own home. 

Example of WorldChess merchandise: a shopping bag with their controversial
x-certificate logo on it. Just the thing for your grocery shopping - or perhaps not.

This match as organised by WorldChess is a tragic wasted opportunity for chess. It is perfectly possible to combine an elite event with an inclusive and enjoyable chess experience for all standards of players and spectators, as proved year after year at the London Chess Classic. The contrast between the Classic and the WC match is massive. At the Classic, you step out of the lift into a huge inviting space bathed in light, and the first thing you see is kids milling about having fun playing on a giant chess board, or with their coaches and teachers playing blitz. Amongst them will be GMs giving demos, signing autographs, talking to the media, and competition players chatting with old friends. Move a few metres along wide, airy corridors and you have the auditorium in one direction, vastly bigger than the one in the Lubyanka, where the elite players play their games and the audience are comfortably seated, and a large commentary room with orthodox, comfortable conference seating, or maybe you go in the other direction and find a large room of competition players playing their own serious chess. 

So the difference comes down to location, location location. The Olympia Conference Centre in West London, where the Classic is held, is fit for purpose, whereas The College/Lubyanka simply isn't. Putting this match in such an unsuitable place might look like a massive blunder on the part of the organisers but I fear it is worse than that. It was not so much a blunder as a deliberate move demonstrating that WorldChess simply didn't care what the paying public and outside media think of their event. That's another familiar flavour of the old Soviet Union as regards the organisation of chess. It's happened here before: a few years ago they put on a FIDE Grand Prix event in London to which the public wasn't admitted at all. I didn't attend the 2016 world championship in New York but I have chatted about it with those who did and they were highly critical of the arrangements there too.

Notice that I have referred to the organisers as WorldChess rather than FIDE. The point is that WorldChess (part of Agon Ltd) is the entity to which FIDE outsourced the organisation of the world championship, but the arrangements for this match were of course put in place by the outgoing FIDE administration. The new FIDE administration will argue that it was too late to do anything about this as they've barely had time to get their feet under the table before the world championship match was upon them. Fair enough, but the chess world is going to be watching them like hawks from now on to see if they can effect a radical change in their approach to such major events.

Though I don't doubt that a successful world championship event could be mounted in London if it were carefully planned, I do wonder whether major international cities really make the best venues for big chess matches. I feel slightly disloyal writing this as a London resident but I am in two minds about the place. I love it and hate it in almost equal measure. I live in the suburbs and rarely venture into the central part of town as it is choked with tourists, very expensive and just generally wearisome for a man of my advancing years. Putting a chess competition into the middle of it, however exalted and important the event might seem to us chess people, means absolutely nothing to London and garners next to no publicity. I guess the same was true of New York in 2016. Compare and contrast Reykjavik and Baguio City, whose very names still evoke the chess matches played there many years ago, probably as much to their non-playing residents as to us chess obsessives. Wouldn't it be better to locate world chess championships somewhere where they will make a difference or be better appreciated by the residents? No, I don't mean Khanty-Mansiysk in the middle of Siberia: but maybe another city in Britain or elsewhere in western Europe. My vote would go to Manchester, a city which was promised a world championship match in the 1990s but had it cruelly snatched away. I've been to Manchester a few times in recent years and found it a really agreeable city. They have an excellent transport system, an airport and, significantly, a large proportion of the BBC's television service which has decamped there from London, maybe giving a better chance of getting chess on national TV there. Just a thought...


  1. Great read. I bought a ticket for 60£ and am going from Denmark to London on Monday. But it is hardly worth it, I understand...

  2. I simply could not agree with you more... And thank you for putting this so well. I was actually searching for negative comments about the venue and the organisation, so shocked was I at the disgrace it was for the chess, and was very surprised to find none, until I found your article.

  3. I could not agree with you more.
    The venue and organisation inside was just a disgrace for the Chess.
    45 minute-slot tickets to see the players and if you are not part of those who queued 30 minutes before their slot, you only get to see Magnus’ hair and Fabiano’s shoulder.
    This would just be OK to hold some story telling sessions for toddlers who would be free to come and go and sit on these hard-as-rock benches.
    Not for a World Chess Championship.