Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Chess preview

A really exciting month of European chess coming up; I am quite pumped - nay, stoked - about it.

The European Club Cup takes place in Rethymno, Crete over seven rounds between Saturday 27th September and Sunday 5th October. Club team chess is a somewhat nebulous concept which actually works slightly better at a lower level than it does at the top levels. At a low level, there is really some connection between the players on a team and they truly represent a pub or a chess club. At the highest professional levels, chess is not so profitable or so spectator-friendly to be the sort of sport which can support a traditional week-in, week-out professional league; accordingly, most of the top professional leagues tend to concentrate their action into a relatively small number of (usually) weekend-long tournaments. Accordingly, a top chess pro will only play for their team a handful of weekends per year.

Now what this means is that the top chess players are heavily in demand and so aren't necessarily tied down to one club. For instance, consider Michael Adams, Britain's #1 chess player. According to the FIDE ratings for October which have been released two weaks early, he's back up to global #8, though this is still some way behind his peak of global #4. He is in such demand that over the last year he has played for the champions of the prestigious British, French and German chess leagues - Wood Green, NAO Paris and Lubeck. I'm not quite sure where the money comes from in professional chess leagues. Certainly we know that Wood Green have a sponsor, Brian Smith, who is either an incredibly nice guy or willing to dig deep into his pockets for the privilege of captaining a top-class chess team. You can see how strong their line-up is, with their whole top 8 in the world's top 150 or so. Heck, their second team came fifth in the top division of 12 last year. (I'll write more about the British chess league, the 4 Nations Chess League - the 4NCL in my interests list - some other day.)

However, the negative consequence of this is that we won't be seeing Wood Green in the European Club Cup. In this case, Adams is representing NAO Paris, probably because they are known to be sponsored by Madame Nahed Ojjeh, who apparently is a Syrian billionaire investor. If she has a penchant for hanging out with top chess players as well, hey, so much the better. Wood Green's board #4, Luke McShane (who, as regular readers will know, will be joining malachan at University College, Oxford, at the start of the next academic year) is playing for Werder Bremen; I'm sure we'll find out how the rest of their strong team have splintered soon enough. Incidentally, German champs Lubeck aren't represented, presumably for exactly the same reasons. You can see why I think the world of top-level club chess is so flaky when the traditional concept of "players belong to teams, teams represent clubs or places" is so lightly regarded.

Accordingly, I'll be shouting for Asker Schakklubb of Norway again. They're actually based in Asker, a small royal town in the South of the country; I strongly suspect their players are based in Asker too. Certainly I know that the club's one grandmaster, Jon Tisdall, is based there; when the MSO was paying and working at its peak, I once had a business trip to Norway and was put up by Jon and his family. Jon's an excellent colleague and a very good guy with a lovely family. On the other hand, his team will be probably be aiming to beat the performance of last year's Norwegian champions in Europe - third last, 41st of 43. The only English team this year to be represented (translation, not to be fragmented to pieces and to have people willing to fly to Greece for a week's chess...) is Barbican, who finished a respectable third in the British league last year. It doesn't look like Barbican can bring all their strongest players, so their position last year of 40th seems a fairly good target. (Of course, last year they were 40th of 43, this year they have 52 opponents...)

At the top end of the table, NAO Chess Club of Paris were last year's top seeds and their team this year looks, on balance, even stronger. No sort-of-World-Champion Vladimir Kramnik this time, but three of the world's top nine and seven from the top 42. (Adams, the world #8, is their number three - and, at the grand old age of 31, the Daddy of the team. It's a young man's game.) Despite their strong line-up, they only finished fourth last year; last year's winners were BOSNA Sarajevo. (One of these days I will understand how a chess team in Sarajevo are able to afford to hire a better line-up than Wood Green, but not yet.) NAO Paris must be the favourites again, but Sarajevo, Russia's Norilsky Nikel and Polonia Plus GSM of Warsaw are set to keep things competitive. Oh, and one Garry Kasparov is is playing for Ladya-Kazan-1000 from Russia; expect him to win all his games, largely because the rest of the team aren't so competitive and so the Swiss system will drag the team down to the point where Kasparov has fairly easy meat to eat each time.

That's only the start, though. After the European Club Cup finishes on Sunday 5th, there's just a little downtime before the European Team Championship starts on Friday 10th October in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Now despite all my reservations about club team chess, national team chess is a much more civilised affair. You know what nationality each person is and this isn't likely to change. Well, there are exceptions: Viktor Korchnoi defected from Russia to Switzerland due to the Cold War, and Alexei Shirov is a particularly Latvian representative for Spain. It's not quite as bad as Kenya transferring its top long-distance runners to Qatar and Denmark, but you never know. If the Sultan of Brunei ever takes an interest in chess, we're in trouble.

England stand a very good chance of a podium place in the European Team Championship if they can get their strongest possible team out However, that's rather easier said than done these days. Among the other strong nations, Russia are unmatched, Hungary and the Ukraine both have two very strong players each and France are always strong contenders. To produce your likely line-up, pick any six from, in descending order of preference (and world ranking):

Michael Adams (world #8) - if he takes a pass on the event then we're in real trouble, but he's long been a regular for England. With Adams as our board one, there's nobody of whom England should be scared. Somehow he never seems to perform quite as well as he's capable of in individual tournaments, not least because it's reasonably well-known that team captains sometimes do agree with each other that all four games in a match should be drawn. It seems to be rather a shame to waste Michael Adams on an arranged draw. Oh well.

Nigel Short (world #17) - everyone knows about Nigel, he got squatted by Kasparov in 1993 and has never been the same since. However, he's been on an upswing over the last year or two and is probably in as good form now as he has been for years. However, on the downside, Nigel sometimes says "I don't want to go to Eastern Europe" and pulls out. If Nigel's in a good mood, and if he gets off to a good start, and the weather on his farm is clement, and his family is well, then he could well knock lots of heads together and score a hatful.

Luke McShane (world #46) - if I said he won the "My, haven't you grown?" award, you might take it the wrong way, but in chessic terms he's really had a great couple of years. That said, I have a nasty suspicion that his university commitments mean that he won't be able to make it. If he does, he should find that the types of players he comes up against on board #3 are the types of players he's been dispatching without mercy or compunction over the last few months. A team headlined with Adams, Short and McShane all in form would be pretty scary.

Matthew Sadler (world #69) - included for completeness only, retired from the professional game a couple of years ago because hanging around the lower reaches of the top fifty isn't really good enough to make the sort of living you can by being, say, a share trader in the Netherlands. If you hang around the lower reaches of the world's top fifty in that then you become very rich indeed very quickly. Would likely be a handy asset for the lower boards of the team if he felt like it, though.

John Nunn (world #77) - semi-retired, but might fancy a look out. Should manage not to let the team down too badly on boards three or four.

Julian Hodgson (world #91) - might have rather lost the fire from his belly now he's got a cushy job teaching chess and bridge at a very posh school, but still a very capable player (and still in good form) when he feels like it.

At this point I will interrupt myself to say that the actual English team has - even while I've been preparing this entry - just been posted to the news page on the British Chess Federation site. The line-up looks like this:

Jon Speelman (world #139, England #7), Bogdan Lalic (world #590, England #18); Glenn Flear (captain, world #407, England #12); Peter Wells (world #787, England #29); Jonathan Levitt (world #1706, England #38).

Disgusting. Not even nearly our best possible team, full of players on the way down. We have no chance of a podium position with this line-up, which is a disgrace. There really ought to be questions asked.

On the plus side, Luke McShane just won the final of the Lausanne Young Masters tournament. However, what's the point of having these fantastic chess players if they won't turn out to represent their country? Perhaps the European Clubs Cup Team Championship and the European Team Championship were just too close to each other this year and it turns out that all the top players have chosen the Clubs Cup instead. Bah.

I don't play chess myself, but I do enjoy following the stars and listening to the markedly-improved-though-still-rather-cheesy chess.fm. I'd love to be able to follow go, poker, Scrabble, backgammon or even bridge in the same way, but I don't think anyone's found a way to make it happen yet - even on a non-commercial basis.

In the longer-term, Garry Kasparov will be taking on another computer, Fritz, in New York over four games from the 11th to the 18th of November. ESPN are set to give 17½ hours of coverage to the match. Kasparov has always been considerably less confident against computers than he is against human competition, but let's hope the world gets to see him at his best on television.

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