Newcastle-Gateshead's bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2008 remains on the rails; today's announcement saw twelve of the candidates cut to six. For non-Brits, the idea is that each of the current fifteen member states of the European Union gets a year between 2005 and 2019 to designate one of its cities to be the European Capital of Culture for that year. 2005 is Cork in Ireland, 2006 is (I think) Patras in Greece, 2007 seems to be Luxembourg in Luxembourg and 2008 is the UK's turn. Theoretically then the city so-named will attract a vastly increased number of visitors, inward investment and so forth due to a special programme of events over that year. (Runner-ups within each country are named Centres of Culture, which theoretically should have the same effect, only less so.) I suspect this might lead to more culture taking place in 2008 across the UK - after all, the losing candidates have established grand plans as well - than in the rest of the decade combined, but we shall see.
The twelve bids were from seven or eight cities, two or three conurbations (Newcastle/Gateshead, Brighton/Hove and some bids refer to Bristol technically being Bristol/Bath) and two regions (Canterbury including East Kent and Inverness including the Highlands). We're now six-way for the money: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle/Gateshead and Oxford. A large surprise is that Belfast, generally regarded as among the two or three favourites, did not make the cut. The Newcastle/Gateshead bid is being heavily played up on local news, not least because there isn't a whole lot else to report around here. It's based around a new and empty (but nice-looking) gallery, a funny-shaped bridge, a new music centre, a few big bits of outdoor art and not a lot else.
Naturally I hope that Newcastle/Gateshead win it - the local news show takes great pains to emphasise what a boost it would be for the region as a whole - but I can't really see how the bookmakers can make "us" favourite. (7/4, ahead of 5/2 Liverpool.) Probably all six towns could do a decent job, to be honest; Oxford is probably the least well-prepared - although it punches well above its weight for a town its size as far as the amount of culture therein is concerned, it has quite enough tourists already, thank you very much, and doesn't need any more. I suspect Liverpool is the only one of the six which might attract visitors from the US for its culture, with Cardiff a possible second place on that regard. Quick question: USians, without prompting, can you name anything cultural about any of the six cities mentioned?
Personally I would be rather amused if the UK ended up returning no city at all for the year on the grounds that people in the UK decided that on the whole they weren't really interested, but that's probably a little too cynical. Only a little, mind you.
Chess is one of those games where I have respect for it to a far greater extent than I like it. Its two-player structure and the mystique surrounding it heavily accentuates its competitive side. While the fact that it can be played at so many different levels is admirable, it also tends to lead to a lot of mismatches. I suspect that I might have played as few as five to ten full games of chess over my lifetime and almost certainly none for eight years, maybe ten. I suspect that I am neither particularly good nor particularly weak for someone who has played so little, but I have very little interest in playing anyone who isn't at my level - effectively, anyone who has played more than a handful of games over the past couple of years. There
There just isn't enough to chess, in my eyes, apart from the competitive side to make me feel it's worth my while investing in the time to learn to play it well. For similar reasons, I generally tend to prefer games which can be played with more than two players. (Four and five are good numbers, three and six are also fine, seven plus is doable but becomes rather more of a novelty, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.) My feelings about bridge will make for another article some other day; there are some substantial similarities, though bridge has good points and bad points which chess doesn't. (More good than bad, as I see it.)
However, I do like chess players in general and I do like following top-level chess. The 35th Chess Olympiad, which is the top-level team chess competition in the world, is taking place at the moment in the rather luridly named city of Bled in Slovenia. This features competition between a large number (somewhere between 135 and 141) of teams of four chess players. Almost all of the teams represent a nation, but Slovenia have B and C teams and there are teams representing braille, silent and physcially disabled chess as well. There's a separate women's competition featuring ninety (maybe ninety-four) teams of three female players, but a handful of the top ladies play in the open competition.
The English team (for this is the sort of event where there is no British team - instead, there are English, Scottish, Welsh, Jersey and Guernsey teams, though neither Northern Ireland nor the Isle of Man) is the sixth seed this year. We have one world class player, Michael Adams, who is sometimes ranked #4 by some optimistic world ratings and who has been in even the pessimistic top tens for at least a couple of years now. We also have Nigel Short, who peaked at about #4 in the world in the early '90s when he challenged Garry Kasparov for the World Championship. In that match, he had sundry body parts returned to him upon a silver platter and he has never really been the same since. Indeed, he got a very attractive wife who bore him a beautiful daughter and they have near-retired to an olive farm in Greece. However, he's been on a bit of a gentle upswing recently and is once again knocking on the door of the world top twenty.
The rest aren't nearly that good. There was a guy named Matthew Sadler who bounced around #50 for a while, but he's retired from professional chess (not that anyone ever really retires from professional chess...) to work in finance and hasn't represented his country for years. Jonathan Speelman (vegetarian, wild curly hair) was world-top-ten around the late '80s and early '90s, but is part of a cadre of about four Englishmen who can be found anywhere between #80 and about #130 in the ratings. (The others therein are Julian Hodgson, who is making more now as a chess teacher at a swanky school than he did as a pro, John Nunn, who has fallen from a top-twenty peak to losing to an eight-year-old at blitz and Stuart Conquest.) Below them are a crowd who you have to be a reasonably considerable chess fan to be familiar with. Near the top of this crowd is Luke McShane who is still only 18 and has a reasonable chance of breaking into the top 100 within the next five years or so but who still has much to prove before we can think in terms of him getting much further than that.
The English squad of six (four to play in each match while two take the day off) consists of Adams, Short, Speelman, Conquest, McShane and (player-captain) Emms. Not all the best players in the world take part - world champion Vladimir Kramnik is missing and so is Vishy Anand, the world-class nearly-world-champ Indian. This probably makes Mickey Adams the second best single player there. As you might have guessed, Russia are easily the strongest team, with four of the top dozen or so players and the other two not far off. Hungary are #2 seeds, the Ukraine #3, Israel #4 and the Netherlands #5. (The strongest possible English squad would probably be seeded about #3, I reckon.)
Every nation plays fourteen matches against other teams (a modified version of Swiss pairings apply), four games in each match. Whichever nation's players win most of their fifty-six games in total become the champions; nation-versus-nation match results have no importance. Four days in... and, oh dear, England are sucking a bit already, with a moderately measly 10/16. (Russia have 13/16 and are co-leading with #9 seeds Armenia and #12 seeds Poland. Ah, those wacky Eastern Europeans.) England won 3½-½ over Slovenia B, a 2-2 draw with mighty #31 seeds Lithuania, another 2-2 draw with even mightier #42 seeds the Philippines and a 2½-1½ win over Iceland. Adams and Short both went 2½/3 in the first three and Nigel won again today (must be a while since he's gone 3½/4) but Michael Adams was on the receiving end of a nasty upset! (#4 seeds Israel are sucking even worse than us, though, with just 8½/16 from the first four rounds. This puts them a full point below those well-known chess giants Bangladesh.)
betsson.com are an online betting exchange with some sort of chess connection - well-loved daily chess news site TWIC (The Week In Chess) link to it for betting on the Chess Olympiad; accordingly it seems to have become the default destination for chess bets. (Not a particularly liquid market, as they go, but the best that you're probably going to get.) Betsson.com also offer a free €5 bet to everyone who registers. (Not completely trivial - you also need to make a €30 deposit at the same time, incurring a transaction fee unless you do so through a debit card.) I don't see anything which suggests you can't make your single free €5 bet and then clear your account, though, but there would be some non-trivial processing charges, conversion charges and so on involved. The safe play for your €5 would be to bet on the Russia Chess team, which would return €2.10 on top of your original €5 stake; the fun play would be The Field (vs. Russia and ten other teams) for which you can get 4-1 against.
Domestic chess interests me as well - if you've ever wondered what the "4ncl" I list as an interest, it's the semi-professional chess league in this country, the 4 Nations Chess League. Most of the best players in the country take part and quite a few stars from overseas. The league is not big-money; each team pays a fee of typically GBP 200 to take park, and while there is some sponsorship, the prize money is fairly small, about the same as the entry fees redistributed between the twelve teams in each division. A major barrier to entry is that all the matches take place in a central holiday in Birmingham, five weekends per year, so the cost transport and accommodation fees for people outside Birmingham might well be, say, several hundred pounds per year. However, there's got to be something more to it - after all, the abovementioned betsson.com are sponsoring a team this year; furthermore, North West Eagles are willing to pay "a strong player" GBP 1100 over the course of a season to play for them and they're only in division two.
How good are the British domestic chess teams? They're meant to be some of the strongest in Europe, though the German league is very strong as well. Our top clubs will be able to submit a team of seven grandmasters and one women's grandmaster. That said, the 4NCL did enter two teams into the European Club Cup in September - and they finished second last and fourth last. (Admittedly they weren't the top 4NCL teams, not least because the top 4NCL teams had some players who also played for top teams in other countries.) The winners of the European Club Cup were Bosna Sarajevo, with top board one Michael Adams.
Why am I so interested in chess? Well, my involvement with the Mind Sports Olympiad had quite a bit to do with it. Over my couple of years I got to work with two Norwegian chess GMs who were excellent company; I briefly got to spend lesser periods of time with sundry other British GMs and IMs. The ones of my generation were uniformly a pleasure to know, though as it is quite possible that any of my former workmates might get to see this at some point (it would be very nice to get back in touch with them!) I shall keep my opinion of, shall we say, some of the generation above to myself. No names, no pack drill, no law suits.
Update: England 4, Chile 0! England are now tied for fifth to tenth places with 14/20. However, tomorrow the lads face #3-rated Ukraine. Oh dear...