Mecca of chess

Print edition : June 29, 2012

Moscow, March 1961: Tigran Petrosian, Victor Korchnoi and Evgeny Vasyukov play in the lobby of the venue where the World Championship match between Mikhail Tal and Mikhail Botvinnik was in progress.-HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Winning the world title in Moscow has its own flavour.

Moscow is the fabled Chess Land, where children learn to move chess pieces even before they can walk, and follow chess notations before they can write their alphabet. Naturally, Moscow is where world champions are produced like cars in an assembly line. So, winning the world chess title in this city surely has its own special flavour. Viswanathan Anand knows a thing or two about that.

When Garry Kasparov thundered into the Tretyakov Gallery, his pronouncements became bigger headlines than the match which was in progress for the title of the world chess champion. Yet, between his barbs at Anand, Boris Gelfand, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Vladimir Putin, Kasparov pointed out something that should have made the Russian chess authorities sit up and take notice. It was about the emerging talent, or rather the lack of it, in Russian chess. Not having a world champion sure hurts Russians. This hurt manifested itself in the support for Israel's Gelfand and the downplaying of Anand's dominance over the sport and the questioning of his motivation.

So, the return of the world championship to Moscow was being used to bring more youngsters to the game. A group of kids were brought in every day to watch the matches, and Kasparov played a simul (simultaneous) chess game with age group champions of Russia. Anatoly Karpov and Vladimir Kramnik also played similar simuls, hoping to trigger greater interest in chess, which at times seems to be losing to football. In the absence of a true-blue Russian, the Minsk-born Gelfand, who moved to Israel in 1998, enjoyed near-home support. He was in a sense the home boy. Most of the time he insisted on speaking in Russian even at press conferences. Therefore, for Anand it was like playing a local player. On the day Gelfand won the seventh game, there were scenes of great joy, with a big contingent of Israelis including, the Chairman of Israel's Chess Federation, who accompanied Gelfand each day from the hotel to the venue celebrating the win. Questions on his form, motivation and drawing of games, not an uncommon tactic employed by the Russian chess community, seemed to disturb Anand's concentration. But Anand, who has been to Moscow many times before (he won the Botvinnik Memorial Rapid Tournament last year ahead of Magnus Carlsen, Lev Aronian and Kramnik, the three players currently ahead of him in world rankings) was equal to the task, letting nothing bother him.

After Alexander Alekhine's death in 1946, the FIDE (the French acronym for World Chess Federation) had arranged a match-tournament to determine the world champion as a match against the previous champion was no longer possible. The five players in the tournament were the American Grand Master Samuel Reshevsky, the former world champion Max Euwe, and three leading Soviet players, Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres and Vasily Smyslov. That was in 1948, and Botvinnik emerged victorious to set the stage for Soviet dominance, which continued until 1972, when Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky.

Karpov got back the title in 1975 when Fischer refused to defend his title. Karpov was at the top until 1985 and then came Kasparov, who, for the next decade and a half, was the dominating figure. Even in the era of split world titles, when Anand held the title between 2000 and 2002, Russians were dominant. Then came Kramnik, who beat Kasparov in 2000 and was the Classical champion until 2006.

Anand took over as the undisputed world champion in 2007 and he has been there since. The Russian chess fraternity does not like this fact. Kasparov said: Looking at the results of Under-18 championships, Russia is doing better than 5 or 10 years ago, but it is still not as mighty as before. We definitely miss a strong player in the Carlsen, [Anish] Giri generation because when you look at this late teenager early 20-plus [category]... [Ian] Nepomniachtchi is a good player but definitely not the level that can compete with Carlsen and Aronian [an Armenian]. So after [Alexander] Grischuk basically Russia doesn't have a player of that calibre who can compete.

Giri is a Dutch player, whose father is Nepalese and mother Russian. Born in St. Petersburg, he learnt a lot of his chess in Russia. He then shifted to Japan in 2002 before coming to reside in the Netherlands in 2008. He helped Anand with some preparations for the 2010 match against Veselin Topalov.

Spectators at the 2012 FIDE World Chess Championship, when the tournament returned to the city.-HANDOUT

On Sergey Karjakin, the current World No. 6 and No. 2 in Russia, Kasparov said, Even if you consider Karjakin Russian, which is of course quite a big question mark, and left it at that. Karjakin, a former Ukrainian, took Russian citizenship in 2009. By the way, the only two Russians to have won the World Juniors (Under-20) since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (in 1991) have been the 2010 winner, Dmitry Andreikin (2700), now No.13 in Russia and No. 45 in the world, and the 1999 winner, Alexander Galkin (2615), now No.36 in Russia. (He does not figure in the top 100 in the world.) The 1991 World Junior Champion, Vladimir Akopian, is an Armenian; the 1998 winner, Darmen Sadvakasov, is Kazakh; the 2002 winner, Aronian, is Armenian; Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, winner in 2003 and 2005, is Azerbaijani; and the 2006 winner, Zaven Andriasin, is also Armenian. So the Russian cupboard is indeed somewhat empty.

Playing a Russian or well, a former Belarusian in Moscow for the world championship may be a tense affair, but it is a must for a world champion's resume. When it comes to compiling a list of ultimate venues for different sports, it would include Wimbledon for tennis, Augusta National Club and St. Andrews for golf, and Lord's and the Eden Gardens for cricket. That list will never be complete without Moscow for chess. As the Dutch writer-commentator Dirk Jan Ten Guzendam remarked, where else in the world would you have two world championship contenders play the Sveshnikov variation of the Sicilian defence and (Evegeny) Sveshnikov himself walk into the venue?

World champions, superstars, chess queens, legendary coaches and theoreticians kept walking in and out as Anand and Gelfand battled it out for the 2012 World Chess title. The commentary box was littered with legends Kasparov one day, Karpov on another; Kramnik speaking first in Russian and then in English; six-time Russian national champion Peter Svidler dividing his time between watching a live streaming of an England-West Indies Test match and listening to the chess commentary; Grischuk and Alexander Morozevich sharing the Russian commentary box with the Soviet-Israeli Grand Master Ilya Smirin; prodigies like Karjakin hanging around with Nepomniachtchi; and the legendary coach and chess writer Mark Dvoretsky moving around discussing nuances with all of them.

Moscow and chess were made for each other. Putin's humour intact

Kasparov claimed Anand had lost motivation and said that this would be the first time that a world championship would not determine the best player in the world. Anand and Gelfand did not rise to the bait. In fact, Anand waited until after the match to reply to that.

After coming back to India, Anand retorted by saying Kasparov probably missed being in the spotlight, which may not be untrue. Kasparov, for all his greatness in chess, loves the attention he gets. But, unfortunately, that attention has not been converted into support in his fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, Putin invited Anand and Gelfand to tea, after the match. When Anand told him that he had learnt the game at a Soviet Cultural Centre in Chennai the Tal Chess Club Putin remarked, So, we brought this on ourselves.

Russia may not have a world chess champion right now, but Putin does have his sense of humour intact.

Moscow may have edged out Chennai as the host of the 2012 World Chess Tournament, but for Anand, who has won other tournaments, winning the world title in Moscow is indeed something that he will cherish. That it happened at the Tretyakov Gallery, the biggest repository for Russian art, was an additional bonus for those who love art and for those who equate chess with art. In fact, even now, many newspapers around the world put chess not on sports pages but on pages meant for ideas and culture.

The prime sponsor of the gallery, Andrey Filatov, a Russian billionaire with varied interests, including infrastructure, besides being a childhood friend of Gelfand and a contemporary of Susan Polgar at the university, is also a great patron of Russian art. But he pointed out that this was not the first time that a major chess event was being held in an art gallery. Back in 1935, Stalin had ordered a tournament to be held at the Pushkin Museum.

So, the future could see more tournaments in galleries and museums.

Blondes vs Brunettes

There is one more reason why gentlemen may prefer blondes! That could well be chess.

Away from the main match at the Tretyakov Gallery, there was this amazing match between Blondes and Brunettes, where the only condition was that women players have an Elo of 2100-plus and the colour of hair decided which team they would play for. Each of the players was extremely attractive and the line-up included Valentina Gunina, the reigning European women's individual champion, and the teams included journalist-chess players, who were very adept at asking Anand and Gelfand technical questions in post-match conference.

For the record, Blondes beat Brunettes 39 to 24 in the Blitz tournament.

If that match was not enough, there was a Man vs Machine contest featuring Grischuk, current World No.11, against KUKA Monstr, a robot created by the German company KUKA. Playing three whites in a row, Grischuk managed to stay level at 1 to 1, but when KUKA had whites, it outplayed Grischuk and won the match 4 to 1.

Every time KUKA made a move, Grischuk had to move back to avoid being hit by the robot's huge metallic arms. Then there was a match between KUKA and CHESSka, playing under the Russian flag. CHESSka, which has beaten the likes of Kramnik, Alexandra Kosteniuk and Karjakin, outplayed an exhausted German robot KUKA 3 to and won the title of the Absolute World Champion in chess for robots. More than anything else, the crowd at the Chess Boulevard, consisting of children and their parents and coaches, had a great time. Then there were dances on giant chess boards and gifts going around for kids. Who says chess can't be fun?

The author, a freelance writer, was in Moscow to cover the Anand-Gelfand match.

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