Handshakes from hell

“Chess is war on a board. The object is to crush the other man’s mind” Bobby Fischer

The Corus tournament in Wijk Aan Zee – the strongest chess tournament in the world – featured an example of Fischer’s dictim on Sunday. In the B Group, Nigel Short (ex-world championship contender and British number 2) was playing Ivan Cheparinov (gifted Bulgarian number 2, and team mate to Topalov, ex-world champion). This was always going to be a tetchy affair because of remarks Short made about Topalov and his manager Danailov during the infamous “Toiletgate” affair last year. Without going into the intricate details, there was clearly bad blood between Short and the Topalov-Danailov-Cheparinov team.

Short offered his hand to his opponent before the game – a normal social courtesy. Cheparinov refused to shake his hand. Short offered a second time. Again, it was pointedly refused. There’s a fascinating video of it here. Knowing Danailov’s calculated shiftiness and previous bully-boy tactics, this was probably a pre-arranged way to insult Short.

But Short then spoke to the arbiter and demanded an immediate forfeit for Cheparinov. Apparently, a new rule was issued by Fide governing such cases: players refusing to shake an opponent’s hand before a game suffer an immediate forfeit of the game.

The infamous ruling is called Behavioral norms of players in chess events. The significant part of the ruling states:

Any player who does not shake hands with the opponent (or greets the opponent in a normal social manner in accordance with the conventional rules of their society) before the game starts in a FIDE tournament or during a FIDE match (and does not do it after being asked to do so by the arbiter) or deliberately insults his/her opponent or the officials of the event, will immediately and finally lose the relevant game.

The arbiter checked the rules (he apparently had never heard of it until Short informed him!) and then immediately told Cheparinov that he was awarding the game to Short. However, the legal eyes among you will spot the weakness of his decision. He forgot the clause “and does not do it after being asked to do so by the arbiter”. He hadn’t asked Cheparinov to shake Short’s hand. Hence, Danailov lodged an appeal which stated that had the arbiter asked Cheparinov to shake Short’s hand, then he would have complied. Faced with a legalistic loop-hole, the appeals committee (ironically featuring Kramnik, the previous brunt of Danailov’s tricks) overruled the original decision and forced a replay of the game on the following day.

Short won. 1-0 for common sense and a victory for polite behaviour over the bullies! As Short said, their first game was memorable, but their second game was great.

Ironically, the very next day (Tuesday), Kramnik was playing Topalov in the A Group. The two players studiously avoided shaking hands. All observers were agreed that this was not a breech of the rules, apparently because no one refused the offer of a handshake because no one offered one!

However, the ruling states nothing about refusing to shake an offered hand. It simply states: “Any player who does not shake hands with the opponent …before the game starts in a FIDE tournament…will immediately and finally lose the relevant game”. According to that logic, both players forfeit the game. The score should be 0-0.

My argument would be that both players were issuing insults to each other. It doesn’t matter that it was mutual. It matters that it was calculated and insulting. In what sense does a double-refusal seem less than a single refusal? It’s like that old one about two negatives not making a positive. (I am reminded of Woody Allen’s joke that because he had nothing positive to say he would just state two negatives…).

Fide should have thought through the implications of their ruling before issuing it. And they should have explicitly stated that two players refusing to shake hands should both be forfeited. Yesterday was a chance to set an example and clarify the social norms expected once and for all.

Bobby Fischer is dead

I have just heard the news that Bobby Fischer has died. He died, aptly enough, aged 64: the number of the squares of his beloved game.

His chess achievements are monumental – his 11-0 sweep of the US Championships in 1963 stands out. Also his two back-to-back 6-0 wins over Taimanov and Larsen in 1971 on his way to the world championships and his mind-bending blitz win in 1970 in Herceg Novi. And then there’s the demolition of Boris Spassky in 1972 to clinch the world title, his endless US title wins (almost without defeat over many years in the US) and so on…In truth, Fischer was so far ahead of his contemporaries that he could have dominated chess for another 20 years. The tragedy was that he threw it all away, never playing a serious game after 1972, aside from the slightly pathetic re-match against Spassky in 1992.

He will be remembered for many things: being one of the greatest ever chess players; inventing Fischer-random chess; promoting the Fischer clock (now in regular use around the world); writing one of the greatest chess book ever; his erratic and angry personality.

Sadly, his legacy also includes his unforgiveable lapses into blatant anti-semitism (ironic given that his mother was Jewish) and his – frankly – bizaare 9-11 rants. That has to – must – taint any assessment of the man. Nothing can excuse those aspects of him.

I am sure that the tributes and assessments will pour out over the next few days and weeks. But I’ll try and remember the good Fischer, while acknowledging that he was, after all, only a fragile human being. Being a genius in one sphere doesn’t make one a saint: Fischer was the living proof of that.

Nifty blitz game

It has been a while since I’ve inflicted a chess game on my readers, so here goes. This is a recent blitz game I played on the Chessbase server. It is noteworthy for the queen sacrifice and beautiful middle-game mate. Virtually every piece of white’s gets lost in a forced sequence near the end, before his king gets horribly cornered.

Tyrant55 (1691) – Shazgood (1725) [A58]

Rated game, 5m + 0s Main Playing Hall, 18.12.2007

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 Benko Gambit 4.cxb5 a6 5.Nc3 axb5 6.Nxb5? Loses time. 6 …Ba6 7.Nc3 g6 8.Nf3 d6 9.g3 Bg7 10.Bg2 0–0 11.0–0 Nbd7 12.Re1 Ng4 13.Qc2 Qb6

Position after Qb6

All very standard moves, the Benko allows black easy development and a simple plan of putting pressure on the queenside. However, white does still have that extra pawn… 14.Rb1 Rfb8 15.b3 c4!

Position after 15 …c4!

Aiming the queen and knight at f2, plus aiming to blast open the c-file. 16.e3 cxb3 17.Rxb3 Qc7 18.Rxb8+ Rxb8 From here, white gets his king mated on h4 in 10 more moves! Can you see how?

Position after Rxb8

Note the pinned knight on c3. This is what black aimed for… 19.Bd2 Rc8 20.Rc1 Nge5 21.Qa4 Bd3 22.Ne4??

Position after Ne4??

The losing move, although it looks like it uncovers an attack on the queen. I actually studied this position for about 40 seconds before diving in, but realised straight away what I wanted to play. I was just checking, and couldn’t see how white could survive. I didn;t see past Bf1, when I saw I was at least three pieces for the queen after… 22 …Qxc1+! 23.Bxc1 Rxc1+ 24.Bf1 Nxf3+! 25.Kg2 Ne1+ 26.Kh3? Kg1 is slightly better, but still loses. 26 …Bxf1+ 27.Kg4 Ne5+ 28.Kh4 N1f3# 0–1

Final position: White is mated

And black mates the isolated white king. What a beautiful final position! In 7 moves, after Qxc1+, white moved from a slightly worse position to a mating attack on his defenseless king. And it was all played in about 3 minutes for black. (Note: most games I play aren’t this good!).

Blitz chess

Blitz chess is played with a time-control of 5 minutes per player. It is an entertaining format because it provides quick games with just enough time to create combinations. Often, stronger players can lose to weaker players, so the chance element creates a sporting twist for all players. Indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking that blitz chess is more unpredictable than standard chess, and contains an element of randomness that renders it virtually impossible to sustain a winning streak over many games.

The World Blitz Championships 2007, held from November 21st to the 22nd, demonstrates that among evenly-matched players, it is virtually impossible to sustain a long winning streak. But it also shows that stronger players still do emerge at the top.

Vassily Ivanchuk (second-highest rated player in the world) beat Vishy Anand (the reigning world champion over standard games and the highest rated player in the world) in the final game to clinch a one-point victory on 25.5 points from 38. It included 19 wins, but also 6 losses. Still, it is a world-beating performance. The results table is here.

However, as always, Bobby Fischer demonstrates a counter-argument. In 1970, the best players in the world took part in an unofficial world speed chess tournament, at Herceg Novi. The end result showed Bobby on top with an astonishing score of 17 wins, 4 draws, and only one loss (to Korchnoi). He was 4 ½ point ahead of the second-placed Tal.

Bobby’s result defies logic.

He was playing against formidable opponents. The cream of the Soviet chess elite were there, with former world champions Tal, Petrosian, and Smyslov. There were other luminaries such as Korchnoi, Reshevsky (of the US), Bronstein, and Hort. He beat the Soviet contingent 8.5-1.5. The only major players missing, arguably, were Larsen and Spassky. Also, as an anecdote, it was widely reported that Fischer rarely used more than half his time on the clock (meaning, about 2 ½ minutes per game). You can scan through his games from that tournament here.

Hence, I am forced to conclude, that any appearance of randomness or arbitrariness while playing blitz chess is just that: an appearance. If you are good enough – as Bobby was – then it still should not matter: you will win in the end.

World Chess Championship Review

The tournament is now over and it is time to assess just what happened. Anand came through the challenge of 7 of his strongest peers and emerged totally triumphant. His victory was well-deserved. He was quite superb throughout and his victory was never in doubt after about round 8, when he had a full point advantage over Kramnik and only had Gelfand in pursuit.

I had confidently predicted a Kramnik win. Some commentators have suggested he must have been always conscious of the battles to come: namely, a rematch against the winner of this tournament in 2008. If this blunted his desire to win, then Anand’s victory might be seen in a slightly different light. But I doubt that this theory is correct. After all, this was his opportunity to enhance his reputation once and for all. He would be crowned the undisputed champion and emerge into a match with Topalov stronger than ever. I just think he was aiming for a conservative +2 or +3 from the tournament and it backfired on him.

Anand is a great winner and a deserved world champion. He is a great ambassador for the sport, a wonderfully attacking and stylish player.

My Personal Prediction

1st Kramnik

2nd= Leko, Anand

4th Aronian

5th-7th Morozevich, Grischuk, and Svidler

8th Gelfand

The actual result

1st Anand

2nd= Kramnik, Gelfand

4th Leko

5th Svidler

6th= Morozevich, Aronian

8th Grischuk

My predictions were reasonable enough. I predicted a score of +4 to win the event (meaning 9/14 should be enough) and was right. Anand won with 9/14, with Kramnik and Gelfand a full point off the pace. Gelfand was the main miscalculation in my prediction, coasting to a very credible joint second place with Kramnik. But Kramnik only secured 2nd with a win in the last round and, you have to say, it was very late. Leko was the only other player on at least 50%. He performed precisely at his rating suggested (2751) but other than that, he had a very lame tournament by his standards. I thought that my prediction of Moro, Svidler, and Grischuk sharing 5th to 7th was pretty accurate, with only Aronian breaking them up.

World Chess after 11 rounds

Anand is cruising to a comfortable win. He beat Morozevich yesterday in a Sicilian English Attack. Moro got into unnecessary complications and let Anand eat up his queenside pawns for dubious compensation on the king side. The end position is pretty, if simple:


White to move. How to protect the pawn and the knight simultaneously? Simply, Re5! and the pawn cannot be stopped, while the knight is protected too. If …Qxe5, white has the crushing Ng4+ and he forks the king and queen. If …Qa8; e7, Qe8; Nf5+, Kg6; Nd6 and its over.

With 3 rounds to go, Anand has a lead of 1.5 points over Gelfand, with Kramnik, Leko, and Aronian a further half point behind. This is an almost insurmontable lead, so it looks like Anand will shortly be crowned World Champion. He will face Kramnik in a head-to-head match sometime next year. If he manages to win that, then he would be scheduled to meet the winner of a Topalov vs. A. N. Other at the end of 2008.

Interestingly, the two oldest players in the event are in first and second place. Experience (and immense talent of course!) have obviously played a role. Gelfand’s performance has been a revelation, he has won twice and only lost once. He has obviously prepared well for the event and brought all his experience, talent, and hard work to the tournament.

Kramnik has disappointed everybody. His lame draw against Grischuk yesterday was pathetic. His draw against Anand the day before, with white, was less gutless, but was still a disappointment. He still looks very solid, but once Anand began clocking up a couple of wins, he was unable to catch him.

Leko and Aronian have not got past 50%. The young Russian stars – Grischuk, Svidler, and Morozevich – must be wondering where they go from here. Although Morozevich props up the bottom of the table, he has shown his usual fighting spirit and creativity and it has been a pleasure to watch him play.

Table (from Chessbase) after 11 rounds:


World Chess after 5 rounds

Standings, after five rounds:
1 Anand 3.5 points
2= Kramnik, Grischuk, and Gelfand 3 points
5= Leko, Aronian, Morozevich 2 points
8 Svidler   1.5 points

It is a fourteen round event, so we’re now over 1/3rd of the way through. Clearly, Anand is in form and winning games. But Kramnik is only half a point behind and seems extremely well-prepared too. Gelfand must be chuffed to be sharing second place at this stage, but it would be patronising to over-emphasise that. Leko, I am sure, must be bitterly disappointed so far with his lacklustre showing. He seems over-cautious and is basically just playing bad chess. Aronian too must be sensing that he needs to improve. Moro is just Moro. And Svidler is struggling.

Round 6 (September 19, 2007)

Aronian, Levon – Kramnik, Vladimir
Gelfand, Boris – Morozevich, Alexander
Grischuk, Alexander – Svidler, Peter
Leko, Peter – Anand, Viswanathan

For the first time, I have a chance to sit through the games live. I am hoping for fireworks and some combative games. For Leko, Aronian, Svidler, and Moro, it is time to get a win to put themselves back into contention. In particular, a Leko win against Anand would blow it wide open again. He really cannot afford to go 2.5 points behind at this stage, so it is almost a must-win game for him. Gelfand has a chance to keep upsetting the pre-tournament ratings by going for a win against Morozevich. Svidler will be hoping his bad form stops soon.

World Chess Championships – a great tournament?

Day two of this World Championship chess tournament in Mexico was just incredible. The two decisive games, for Anand against Aronian, and for Kramnik against Morozevich, were of the highest order, both in beauty and in complexity. The two draws, between Leko and Svidler, and Grischuk and Gelfand, were extremely interesting games in their own right too. After a very quiet opening day, the contest has now exploded into life in earnest.

This tournament has all the potential to be one of the greatest ever. It is a category 21 event, which means it has achieved an average rating for all 8 players of over 2750. Given a little rating inflation over the years however, it might be fairer to judge it by how many players in the top twenty are represented here. The eight players are all in the top 14 in the world.

Jeff Sonas has done a fantastic, well-nigh unbeatable job, of collecting the results of millions of games and then producing a comprehensive rating system he calls Chessmetrics. His statistics call tell you how strong every player has been over their careers, both on an elo-type rating system and in terms of their world rankings. It allows us to compare, for example, Capablanca to Kasparov, or Morphy to Fischer, across decades, and even for players who never actually met over the board. If you think that these statistics answer the question, who is the greatest player ever?, then you’ll be mildly disappointed. It all depends on how you phrase the question.

If you’re looking for the player who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries, then Bobby Fischer is your man. He not only had the greatest gap between himself and the next-best player (over Spassky, in 1972) but he had the highest-ever rating achieved by anyone, in October 1971 (of an astonishing 2895).

But over a period of, say, ten years, then the top five list is: Kasparov, Lasker, Karpov, Capablanca, and only then Fischer. Surely 10 years is a better comparison than 1 year? Well, why not even longer: over 20, it is Kasparov, Karpov, Lasker, Alekhine, and Korchnoi. In fact, Kasparov was number one ranked player for 22 years overall. He is most people’s idea of the greatest player ever.

In terms of tournaments, Jeff has also tried ranking them. He produces a very interesting idea about calculating the greatest tournaments of all-time, based on how many players are from the top-ten in the world in the tournament. In those terms, Wijk aan Zee (Corus), 2001 had 8 players from the top ten, all from number 1 to number 8 in the world. But it also had 6 extra players, many ranking only 64th or 83rd on the list. Hence, it was slightly weaker overall. Arguably, Linares 1998 and Linares 1999 were even stronger, having 7 and 8 players respectively, all of them in the top ten at the time.

But with due regard to those tournaments, this is a World Championship. The prize is simply greater. However, it is missing at least three world-class players: Topalov, Ivanchuk, and Radjabov. You could argue for Carlsen too, but he was beaten fair and square by Aronian in the qualifiers. Mamedyarov, at sixth in the FIDE rankings, has not proven himself consistently enough at the highest level yet, in my opinion. Adams, Polgar, and Shirov are great, but past their best and probably not potential world champion material either. Jakovenko is at number 10 in the world, and I must confess to knowing almost nothing about him to judge him.

So, overall, the tournament is probably not the greatest ever held, in terms of pure strength. But it could rise to become one of the most memorable ever, if the players play like they did yesterday, and produce fighting, exciting chess. 

How the experts play chess

Look at this exhibition of chess blitz between two of the USA’s greatest chess players, Hikaru Nakamura and Max Dlugy. That phrase, “the hand is quicker than the eye” is apt. I almost swore that once or twice the players were moving two moves at a time. If you suspect this is speeded up artificially, then you are not alone – I did think so too, initially. Except – it couldn’t possibly be speeded up. Firstly, the background music is an indication (albeit irritating); secondly, the player’s reactions are too ‘normal’ looking to have been speeded up. It is an incredible feat when you see it! 

The adrenaline rush when playing chess is substantial. Scientists have studied this and have compared it to the sensation seeking experiences of high-risk sports, like skydiving and parachuting! This from a recent Chessbase article:

But every chess player knows that there is also a massive emotional side to chess. Recently, a team of psychologists from Seattle Pacific University (USA) led by Professor Jeffrey A. Joireman conducted a most interesting study on this subject, titled “Sensation Seeking and Involvement in Chess” [Joireman, J.A., Fick, C.S., Anderson, J.W. (2002) published in Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 509-515].

The team discovered that enthusiastic chess players score very highly on psychological tests designed to measure sensation seeking, which is “a trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.”
If you ask non-chess players, they will probably find this somewhat surprising since usually the list of activities associated with sensation seeking does not include chess but rather bungee jumping, sky diving, paragliding, scuba diving and mountaineering.

Furthermore, the group of psychologists found that during a chess game a wealth of intense emotions is experienced by both players, and if they are involved in a tense and important struggle, there is an accompanying testosterone rush, typically of the same order of magnitude as that experienced by people involved in one of those risky undertakings just mentioned.

Chocolate Chess Pieces

(Due to popular demand…)

In chess with chocolate pieces, the aim is to eat your opponent’s pieces before he eats yours. This choccy chess set (pic below) reads like some kind of sexy come-on: “these seductively smooth Belgian chocolates”. Huh? Somehow, chocolate, chess, and sex just don’t go together, do they? Please tell me they don’t…
Choccy chess set

Here’s a much tackier version (click the picture below, if you dare). I can imagine kids all over the world saying: “Oh wow mummy, you have spared at nothing to delight us with these authentic, silver-wrapped pieces! Not only am I now staying in to play chess, but I am pigging out on chocolate too! Heart-attack at 35, here I come!”
It “features” (hardly the word…) such tasty treats as Nestle’s Crunch Bites or Mom’s Surprises, or even Ferrero Rocher (“Oh, Garry, with deese pawns you are spoiling us.”)
Chocco horrors

On a slight detour, why stop at chocolate, when you can have beer chess pieces!
(Their motto: Boldly going where no chess has gone before.) This picture is scary. What if you’ve guzzled down all your opponent’s pieces, you’re about to mate him, er, and you fall over on your face from extreme drunkeness! Obviously, the guy with the glasses has done just that, because he has the tell-tale tape around the frame. Mind you, he would be advised to feign extreme drunkeness in front of that beefy bruiser with the tatoos.
Beery chess

And, by the way, can you notice the table upon which you have to play the chess game?

While I’m on the topic, let me explain the First Law of Chess Advertisement. This states quite categorically, that “you absolutely must make sure to place the pieces the wrong way round for the expensively-assembled photo-shoot.” The Second Law of Chess Advertisement goes like this: “You must ban all people who know the basic rules of chess from coming within a hundred yards of the photograph, or have any dealings with editing or publishing the photograph.”

Lastly, the Third Law of Chess Advertisement is not a law of chess or of advertisements at all, but a law of physics and has been demonstrably proved to be as fundamental a law as E=Mc2 or the first and second laws of thermodynamics. It is that in any randomly assembled chess set, the right-hand bottom square is always black. Always. See below for more proof of the universal constant:
Chess set wrong again! What do we do?

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