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My annual chess post - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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December 6th, 2009


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10:56 pm - My annual chess post
About once a year, I write about chess. You can see previous year's installments back on my old steam-powered LiveJournal. I've been wanting to write this for a while, ideally even as part of my wider mind sports round-up, but if I had tried to fit it all in at the time, then the article wouldn't have been posted in any sort of timely fashion.

The most recent major tournament was the Tal memorial, Tal being a reference to Mikhail, the eighth World Chess Champion from Latvia. The tournament was arguably the strongest held all year, with all ten participants ranked within the world's top thirteen (with only #1 Vesselin Topalov and Azerbaijan's top two players - #11 Teimour Redjabov and #6 Vugar Gashimov - missing. Can't remember ever hearing of Gashimov before.) Vladimir Kramnik, the fourteenth undisputed world champion, ended up at the top of the leaderboard, with three wins and six draws in what was his best result since, probably, his world championship unification victory in late 2006, ablutionary controversy and all. Second place was shared by Vassily Ivanchuk and Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen, the latter particularly impressive due to starting the tournament with a run of seven draws despite a head cold and finishing with a brace of victories.

The next major tournament rolls around next week and this time an unnamed City of London private sponsor has stumped up big money to fund the London Chess Classic, not unreasonably considered the strongest tournament in the UK for 25 years. The tournament prioritises quality over quantity with just eight players, four domestic and four overseas. From abroad, we have the aforementioned past world champion Vladimir Kramnik, the presumptive future world champion Magnus Carlsen, American wonderkid Hikaru Nakamura and strong Chinese contender Ni Hua. The British representatives are England's top four: Michael Adams and Nigel Short, long the Andy Murray and Tim Henman of British chess, which is by no means uncomplimentary, Luke McShane and David Howell. McShane was an English prodigy who made it up to 42nd in the world five years ago, but the demands of university overtook him, then he got a job as a trader at Goldman Sachs and has been playing little other than the German league in recent years. David Howell made headlines by beating one-time top-ten player GM John Nunn at blitz, while aged eight back at MSO 3 in 1999, setting the world record for youngest player to defeat a GM, and has developed steadily ever since, flirting with the world's top 200.

There is a prize fund of a hundred thousand euros for the tournament, but one would expect that half the field are going to be on five-figure appearance fees as well, and probably fairly high five figures for Kramnik and Carlsen. The prize fund will mostly be paid according to placement, but very neatly with a hefty chunk to be divided as bonuses for won games and another hefty chunk paid out in brilliancy prizes. All of these should serve to spur the players to attacking games rather than short draws. There's a fair degree of history between the players; everyone has gunned for Kramnik over the years, with Kramnik's 82-game winning streak in 2000 being finished by Adams, and even Howell setting a record by earning a (courtesy?) draw in one game of a four-game blitz match and earning another "youngest ever to" record. Short and Adams have long (and, I think, amicably) scrapped for English dominance, and Nakamura recently beat Carlsen 3-1 in the final of a blitz tournament. a week or two after Carlsen had beaten twenty-one top challengers in a 42-round blitz chess World Championship to which Nakamura had not been invited.

So exciting times in the world of chess, yet the only event to make the mass media at all recently was Kasparov coming out of retirement for a twelve-game half-rapid half-blitz match against Karpov in September. Their epic matches may have been among the defining marks of sport in the first half of the '80s, but it does seem a shame that the mass media are stuck three-quarters of a generation behind the rest of us. Perhaps it's a sign that the mass media still associate chess with multi-month man-on-man epic matches, which would speak less well of FIDE's shorter matches and even knockout tournaments for their title.

Speaking of which, FIDE's World Cup is in progress, with 128 entrants winnowed down after five rounds of caissic combat to a final four: Belarus-to-Israel emigré Boris Gelfand, Carlsen counterpart Sergey Karjakin, Ruslan Ponomariov (who has history in these knockouts) and surprise package Vladimir Malakhov who has probably amassed the most impressive beatpath to date. The 128 players in Khanty-Mansiysk (bless you), Russia will share US$1.6 million - specifically, they'll get 80% of it, and the organisers will keep 20%. The World Cup winner also gets one of the eight spots in the Candidates' Tournament to determine 2011's challenger. It's needlessly complicated (college football's BCS makes sense by comparison) and FIDE keep changing the rules. No change there, then.

And yet I find it tricky to support individual chess players unless either (a) I've met them or (b) I share a nationality with them in an international competition. (Even as a child of the world with a globalist perspective, I tend to identify as British rather than English or European in such matters.) While chess is avowedly an individual game, I'm most interested in it as a team sport where a team might give me some degree of identification and thus rooting interest. Four competitions have caught my imagination over recent months - the same four as usual.

The 4 Nations Chess League, or 4NCL, is a face-to-face competition in Great Britain with 11 rounds of play over five weekends between teams of eight players. My criticisms last year primarily concerned the business model of the league. This season, prize money has been marginally increased and split between three teams per division rather than two, with sensible additional prizes to compete for among the lower-rated teams in the third division of three, undoubtedly a good move. The arguable problem with the league comes with the permission of having two teams from the same club in the same division, and the weird conclusion is one for the collection. (I know there are more collectors of weird conclusions than just me here.)

In the recently-concluded 2008-9 season, Guildford-AD&C 1, who had won the two previous seasons, won all their matches but two: one draw and one loss. Their draw was against Wood Green Hilsmark Kingfisher 1, the stacked team created by amalgamating two previously separate clubs together. WGHK (and you can't love that unwieldy name) conceded that draw and no other losses, to win the year's championship. To whom did Guildford-AD&C 1 lose? Why, Guildford-AD&C 2. Full marks to the Guildford organisation for competitiveness and for going above and beyond to prove that the intra-club match is as fiercely fought as every other match, but surely every club with two teams in the same division is getting a salutary reward of the costs of honesty; let's hope more teams don't decide that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Guildford's line-up for their last game was a very strong one, for beating WGHK would have given Guildford the title by virtue of winning more games in the identical 6-1 records, though nowhere as strong as the incredible counterpart three years previously. That was exceptional; broadly, Guildford has habitually been putting out teams at 2500, or slightly higher, for years.

Other than that, the 4NCL rolls on apace. The league has 64 teams this year, arranged in two 16s and a 32, the same as last year and only marginally down from 67 two years ago and 72 the year before that; I'm not sure how well the 16-team partially-split divisions are working in practice compared to the previous 12-team all-play-alls, though the logic is certainly sound. Last year the 4NCL introduced a prize for the best annotated game and a junior league, both of which are thoughtful innovations that have wisely been repeated this year. So evolution rather than revolution, then. Once again, I would advise them to consider adding an Internet-based league which would likely prove accessible and popular, as well as continuing the face-to-face league which meets the considerable demand out there for high-level league chess.

The European Club Cup 2009 is a similar sort of tournament, but the teams of six are drawn from leagues all across Europe. England, or the 4NCL at large, are represented by White Rose, who finished fourth in this year's 4NCL, but sadly their three GMs did not go with them and accordingly they struggled to one win and two draws against opposition towards the bottom of the schedule, with four losses seeing them finish in 46th - commensurate with their seeding position going in. English interest came from IM Lorin D'Costa, playing second board for Utrecht and taking something of a beating in a bottom-heavy team which managed to win the odd match in seven, and GM Michael Adams whose recent struggles have seen him slip to just fifth board for OSG Baden-Baden of Germany. Not too surprisingly, he faced fairly easy meat and won six of his seven games, drawing the seventh. Baden-Baden were marginally edged out by Mika Yerevan and St. Petersburg, but hammered all five other opponents in order to finish fifth in terms of match points but winning more games than any other team.

The Swiss system brought the top teams together quickly enough, and there were only six undefeated teams after three rounds, three after four and two after five - so the round six pairing of Alkaloid Skopje (from Macedonia) against Economist-SGSEU-1 Saratov of Russia - come on you Economist-SGSEU-1! - would seem to determine the championship. Top seeds Saratov were reasonably closely matched by Skopje over the top four boards, but Xiangzhi Bu edged out Gadir Guseinov on board four, another lower-end-of-the-top-100 Azerbaijani of whom I had not heard, in the only decisive game of the six. The last round saw Saratov paired against Ashdod Illit of Israel who had Vassily Ivanchuk and paragraph three's Vugar Gashimov above the strong Israeli national team; once again, Xiangzhi Bu earnt a fourth-board victory to grind out a match win and the European Championship. Mika Yerevan of Armenia came second, with teams from Ural (not just a space on the Risk board) and St. Petersburg taking third and fourth places.

This event took place two weeks before the European Team Chess Championship - a similar enterprise, but the latter is played between national teams of four rather than between clubs who may field international line-ups. England sent a line-up of Adams, McShane, Stuart Conquest, Simon Williams and Stephen Gordon; one would expect Nigel Short and David Howell to be in England's strongest team (taking us back to the London Chess Classic!) and I note that Short would probably have been ahead of Adams in the line-up for the first time since, I reckon, England's triumph in 1997 or so.

Concerning Adams, a kibitzer said "I don`t know if their ((sic)) is any connection but ever since Adams has got married his form has gone south", which is as charming as anonymous chess kibitzers tend to be. Conversely, Nigel Short has been ripping it up over the last year or so, particularly on home turf. (Paddy Power currently offer 6/4 against Short being the top UK player in the London Chess Classic, which looks tasty to me - far tastier than the 11/8 against Adams - not least as it may not take much.) See, I drew an analogy between Short and Adams in chess and Henman and Murray in tennis, because all four have had extremely illustrious careers featuring significant tournament victories - but the lazy media only pay attention to the Grand Slams in tennis and the World Championships in chess, at which our heroes have so far fallen marginally short. But I have digressed.

Short and Howell weren't taking part in the European Team Chess Championship, though, because Nigel Short was continuing his occasional super-junior mentoring role, this time overseeing Howell in the World Junior Championship in Argentina. (The 1973 event was played in Thornaby Pavillion, half an hour's walk away from here.) The existence of this under-20 championship has to be considered somewhat redundant when younger players still have been opening major open competitions for years, but it has over fifty years of history as a title and some extremely impressive predecessors. Howell was among the top seeds and living up to his high billing, until he "castled queenside" (in this context, lost three games in a row, hence a 0-0-0 on the scorechart) fairly close towards the end. That came off the back of very a rough time in InventiChess in Belgium; let's hope he's able to get back onto the horse for his sake. Again, I have digressed.

The England line-up respectably kept things close against #2-seed Azerbaijan in round two, managed to sneak a win over fourth-seeds Bulgaria in round three, then faded away somewhat over the remaining seven rounds of the tournament, with a squeaky loss to Switzerland the low point and a draw against Carlsen-less Norway not being much better. Michael Adams started with losses against Redjabov and Toaplov, neither of which is at all disgraceful, but seemed to be sleepwalking his way through until the very end. (A slightly vegetarian lack of bite against more moderate opposition is a fairly frequent sort of British chess disease, though not normally one associated with Adams.) McShane had a very respectable return to representing his country, showing fearlessness against high-rated opposition that he'll need to repeat next week.

As usual, the competition at the top end of the table was between the old Soviet Bloc, with honourable mentions for Bulgaria and Germany. Azerbaijan ended up on top, creeping by teams 2½-1½ for fun, with wins sprinkled among their hard-to-beat lower three boards conceding only a four-draw match draw to Russia and a one-point reverse to Armenia. Top seeds Russia were drawish by contrast and conceded one-win-one-loss match draws to Croatia, the Netherlands and Spain, their five-match-win, four-match-draw record only good enough for second place. Ukraine had powerful performances on the top boards; after losing the first match to Switzerland, they had relatively little competition as they made their way up the Swiss draw in later rounds and wound up exactly matching their third-placed seeding. Fourth-seed Bulgaria's loss to England was typical as they all underperformed their way to 18th place.

And finally, the United States Chess League holds the grand final match of its fifth season tomorrow. Five seasons, eh? I remember when the prospect of an Internet-based mind sports league was brand new and speculative, but the USCL team deserve great credit for sustaining their vision year after year. The fifth season represents less of an advance over the fourth season than the fourth did over the third, or so on previously, but this better represents the league having reached a state of maturity than a lack of development. A couple of years ago, USCL Commissioner Greg Shahade hinted that the expansion programme would not last forever, and season five matches season four in having fourteen teams. I think this now represents a point at which presumptive league entrants will have to put together a very compelling proposal in order to earn league admission, unless a vacancy should arise for some reason.

That said, Greg has been successful in gaining more central league sponsorship for 2009 than for any previous season, and this (in turn) has permitted teams to attract stronger line-ups than ever before, even within the confines of the league's rating cap. If anything, the rating cap is marginally tighter than ever before, because in previous seasons there was a wrinkle which lifted the cap from 2400 by ten points for each woman playing on the team. That wrinkle no longer exists within the rules, though featuring a woman within the squad does entitle a club to increase the capacity of the squad by one. (Perhaps it's more accurate to say that USCL squads are now restricted to eight men, rather than eight players, plus two alternates.) The number of women on USCL line-ups in practice has decreased as a result, which I can't see as a step forward, though the women who play are generally performing about consistently with their rating, as they did before.

Tomorrow's grand final sees the Miami Sharks, champions of the West division (for the chess world is that East-heavy that Miami is the eighth most Occidental team out of fourteen) take on the New York Knights, champions of the East division. As Miami have always been in the West, the two teams have only met twice before in four years, splitting the series equally. Miami's top board is GM Julipo Becerra, league MVP in '06 and '07 and three-time first-team all-star, but 2009 has been his toughest season to date, going down three weeks running over rounds 6 to 8. He'll be up against New York's GM Giorgi Kacheishvili, who has four good wins (two Game of the Week winners, even), two defeats and five draws in his USCL career.

On board two, New York's Pascal Charbonneau, the 2005 USCL MVP, faces Miami's Blas Lugo; Lugo is having his best USCL season to date, but Charbonneau has a remarkable eight out of nine decisive results in the USCL this season (five wins, one draw, three losses) and so a draw here would surprise. Board three has Miami's IM Alejandro Roman face New York's Matt Herman, and board four has New York's fast-improving Yaacov Norowitz take on Eric Rodriguez, who has been a reliable star at Miami's tail end so far. Chess Express Ratings predicts four decisive results split evenly; I'd personally lean towards New York. Should the match turn out a 2-2 draw, a special blitz tie-breaker goes into operation, as has been the conclusion of the three previous seasons. Greg Shahade once described this as being "a bit like the Survivor Series", and not without reason.

One feature of last season that sadly has not survived to season five is that Greg had the time last year to perform a weekly recap of several of the games taking place that week, illustrating some of the principal variations, providing a spoken annotation and commentary on the league. (For instance, this one from last year's quarter-final week. See 34:20 through with regard to the last sentence of the last para.) It's a shame that that hasn't continued and that nobody else has picked up the mantle, but they must have been an awful lot of work to make. Greg has encouraged teams to find their own bloggers; word about the league is spreading more quickly and more widely this year than previously.

This represents the biggest challenge to the league, from two different perspectives. With a five-year history, expansion and stability, it's an enterprise that should have earnt well-deserved respect from the chess world at large, even if it is yet to spawn an imitator (...to my knowledge?) whether in the US or abroad, and the fact that it hasn't only reflects the fact that relatively few people are still talking about it. There's a school of thought that says the league will need more and more of the strongest players to be involved in order to attract further attention; it's interesting to think about what countries with lower GDPs, where chess players have a better chance of earning a living wage from their play, might do with a similar framework. An old-Soviet-Bloc or Eastern European online chess league, or an online Bundesliga, would be a very tasty prospect indeed.

The other perspective from which this is challenging reflects the personalities of those who write blogs - and, even more so, those who comment on them. Chess bloggers, and even more so chess blog commentators, often reflect less... refined viewpoints. Much of the chess blogosphere has settled upon Blogger where anonymous comments are much more frequent than they are on LiveJournal, and John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory sadly holds as true for the online game of chess as it does for Unreal Tournament 2004, or most of the rest of the blogosphere. Chess trolls tend not to be so profane, but they can be deliberately rude and frequently misogynistic. The USCL is not particularly bad in this regard compared to much of the rest of the chess blogosphere I've seen, or compared to some of the less thoughtful poker commentary I've seen, but it's still not the side that you might want sponsors to see, say.

It's also relevant here that chess tends to attract a higher proportion than the world at large of what you might call Type A personalities who are attracted to chess simply because it throws up concrete results, wins and losses, with there being rather more absolutes of right and wrong than grey scales of nuanced comment. Now there's nothing wrong with Type A personalities, not least because they get things done, and people with Type A personalities are more than welcome to comment here. People with rude personalities are not welcome here, though, and should exercise their freedom of speech in their own blog should I start deleting rude commentary with prejudice and without warning. The distinction between Type A personalities and rude personalities can sometimes appear more blurred than necessarily need be the case.

The biggest challenge that Greg Shahade faces is resolving interpersonal conflict when Type A personalities come up against each other, not least his own. This thread, from last December, is a case in point; the season has just finished, All-Star teams have been declared, some people are taking things very seriously, some anonymous voices are stirring things up and some hard questions are being asked about the direction and philosophical underpinnings of the league. The manager of the Boston club, probably the best-developed club to date, decides the differences between the way things are going and the way he'd like to see things going are large enough that he is quitting as overall manager and continuing in an assistant manager role, keeping the club going, but in a way that will engage his emotions further. I reckon that both Greg and Matt have behaved honourably here, but it's definitely a case of type A personalities clashing. This isn't the first instance of it, and neither will it be the last.

I say that confidently because it already hasn't been the last. Case in point: this post in the Chicago Blaze blog after the Blaze beat the Tennessee Tempo. Tempers get heated and another organiser calls it a day in response to blogosphere comments. Greg isn't involved in this - in fact, he does as good a job as is possible to calm things down, and the Tempo do conclude the season in good grace. My view on this, like most of the others, is a hope that the hard-working and popular Tennessee organisation can find a way to keep things going, in some way, shape or form, to everyone's satisfaction. It's also a reflection that this is another example of the boundary between fan and participant in the chess world being rather thinner than in most established sports fandoms; as a fan, your comments will be seen by the people you're talking about, and you can well hurt people's feelings. Great news for anonymous Internet fuckwads everywhere, as well as those who might care more but who do not think too hard.

There are other examples, and I don't feel the same way. For instance, long-time Seattle Sluggers blogger Bill McGeary, writing under the name ha81, signs out taking a parting shot at the USCL blogosphere and the role of trash talk therein. So far, the closest that the USCL has had to an official policy on this is a sort of acknowledgment that people who start controversy attract interest to the league, which has to be a good thing. I would conversely argue that the negative effects of people's feelings being hurt outweigh the positive effects of people being attracted to the drama - and people dropping out of the league may be an indication that the atmosphere has become a little too toxic for them in practice. The USCL is still fairly fragile and relies on a fairly small number of people to take place at all, not just the commissioning team but also the organisers; a few more arguments and a little too much rudeness may try enough people's tolerances and patience to really start to damage the league.

In conclusion, then, another great USCL season. The out-of-place recommendations I would make to Greg Shahade are (a) to explicitly reward teams for the publicity and good name that they can bring to the league, principally by bringing about wider attention in the chess media or even the mass media at large, and (b) to really start cracking down - even using threats of sponsorship sanctions - on people who bring the league into disrepute by getting teams to take responsibility for their players and fans, so that continued participation may be enjoyable all round. Oh, and (c) not to have deleted his LiveJournal. Greg posted a lovely picture of his pretty cats here, and that gave me more confidence in the league going forward than anything else, because, well, who couldn't trust a cat person, but he had to delete it... :-/ (How's the poker going, Greg? Profitably, I hope! I miss reading about it from time to time.)

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