Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Chess and politics

In May, reigning world chess champion Viswanathan Anand of India will defend his championship against challenger Boris Gelfand of Israel. The match will take place over twelve games, with a prize fund valued at around two and a half million US dollars. Gelfand won the right to challenge Anand by narrowly winning each of three short Candidates matches - and, in turn, qualified to take part in the Candidates matches by very narrowly winning the 128-player single-elimination Chess World Cup of 2009 in, effectively, triple-overtime blitz chess. Gelfand has played much of his most successful chess in the world championship cycles over the years and bookmakers estimate Anand to be around a 73% favourite to defend his title.

The winner is expected to go on to defend his title again in 2013; three weeks ago, it was announced that the next challenger will be determined by a Candidates' Tournament (an eight-player double round-robin, rather than short matches) to be held in late October and early November in London in the UK. The eight players qualifying will be the loser of the world championship match, the three top finishers in the Chess World Cup of 2011, the three remaining highest-rated players and a sponsor's nominee - not an unreasonable way to generate a line-up, and it'll be a very strong field.

Chessbase comment "The nomination of Teimour Radjabov as the organiser's choice might surprise some – but there is no English player in sight who has an adequately high rating. [...] The Vice-President of the Azerbaijan Chess Federation, Mair Mammadov, confirmed Radjabov's participation." According to today's latest FIDE chess ratings, England's top player Michael Adams is #18 in the world - so certainly exceptionally competent but no longer #4 as once he was a decade or so ago and thus not quite as essential to the tournament as once he was.

(As an aside, England's top chess players are on something of an upswing at the moment, though they all struggle for consistency. Adams is still world class, winning the gold medal for being best Board One at the European Team Chess Championship. Nigel Short, ranked #40. earned £25,000 by winning the very strong open tournament in Gibraltar in January. Luke McShane, ranked #49, impressed at the London Chess Classic in December by holding his own against the global talent and spanking the other English players. Gawain Jones, ranked #114, and matte David Howell, ranked #157, continue to develop apace, and even one-time top-20 Matthew Sadler has come back out of retirement and is nestled at #143. If they can all be funded to play at the Chess Olympiad in Turkey in August-September and if they all play to their potential by really pounding on their weaker opposition like they sometimes can in opens - a huge if - then the English team may have the strength in depth to contend for a medal as they did in the '80s and '90s.)

An open question is why there might be a chess tournament featuring no English players being held in London. An interview with the FIDE President (bottom of the page) suggests that Azerbaijan are sponsoring the Candidates' Tournament, in preparation for a bid to host the world championship match in 2013. It would certainly explain the selection of an Azerbaijani player for the wild card spot, not that the selected player isn't a worthy one. My grasp of global geopolitics is not the best, but ill-feeling caused by the Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan might also suggest why the tournament isn't happening in Azerbaijan itself; one of the top competitors is Armenian. (For that matter, Garry Kasparov himself was born in Baku, in Azerbaijan, to an Armenian mother. I'd say "I'd love to know his views on the matter", but in truth, I'd love to know more about the politics of the Caucasus region first and then to know his views.)

Speculation that they will say "Well, it's on an end of the Metropolitan line, so it must be in London" and hold the tournament in Chesham, overlooking the River Chess, was made up a few minutes ago by me, but I hope it catches on.

The other interesting twist of the politics of the match is that FIDE have granted the rights to the World Championship structure (final match, Candidates' Tournament, World Cup and the set-to-reappear Grand Prix) (middle of page) to a company called Agon, in return for a guarantee of 10+ million Euros and a cut of the profits. Agon, a new enterprise to me, is run by one Andrew Paulson. As this article, with reference to Bloomberg Businessweek, points out, Paulson's background includes the fact that he is co-founder of, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of, the SUP company that bought LiveJournal from Six Apart a few years ago. Coincident with all this, the BBC News Magazine ran an article on the significance of LiveJournal, particularly in Russia, earlier today. (I did enjoy the way the BBC News front page referred to LiveJournal not by name but as "minor blog site", too.)

The job of adding all this together should be left to far more informed analysts of Russian politics to me, but I don't think there's coincidence to this. It strikes me - and I may be talking out of a less informed orifice here - that taking a high-profile involvement in the advancement of chess has something of a history as being an old-school way to attain some degree of public prominence within Russian politics. At the very least, FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, being the former President of Kalmykia, would seem to be a useful and well-placed political ally.

It's all too complicated a game for me to truly understand, but I love hearing what the better-informed Grandmasters really think about it!

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