Today marked the opening of the 4th London Chess Classic, which succeeds last year’s tournament as the strongest ever tournament in Britain. Note, I’ve not described it as an opening ceremony as it was a generally informal affair. Anyone who comes to London looking for pomp and ceremony should go to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace; the London Chess Classic is a more relaxed affair.
The press conference was a tad later than we promised – apologies to those of you watching online – as Magnus Carlsen and Judit Polgar were whisked off for a photo-shoot at the London Eye and it took time to get them back to Olympia through the London traffic. Meanwhile, the other top GMs, back at Olympia, were limbering up with a practice game on the giant chess board in the foyer at the venue. Levon Aronian took White against his girlfriend Ariane Caoili. You might think, given the rating differential, he could at least have given his girlfriend the white pieces – I, of course, could not comment.
Nigel Short helped even up the odds by joining Ariane’s team, while a couple of kibitzers took the mickey. That wasn’t a clue – Mickey Adams wasn’t one of them – but if Carlsberg did kibitzers, it would probably have been these guys – current world champion Vishy Adams and his immediate predecessor Vladimir Kramnik. Later, and not for the first time this afternoon, there was a communications mix-up on the black side of the chessboard, with a gigantic white queen thumping down on g6 to put an end to this mega-skittles game.
By that time Magnus and Judit had arrived from their photo-shoot and we moved to the press conference, with all nine competitors at the table with tournament director Malcolm Pein chairing. The press conference was streamed live to the vast internet audience. (You can still view it on our website.) Malcolm told us that in excess of 360,000 people watched the tournament online in 2011, and that we were hoping to exceed that in 2012.
Malcolm told us about the success of the Chess in Schools and Communities charity which runs in parallel with the London Chess Classic, and which now funds chess teachers at 176 primary schools in England and Wales in 30 different areas of the UK, which we’re very proud of. This year we are encouraging the online audience to donate a small sum – one dollar/euro/pound per viewer – to the tournament to fund the charity and help ensure the continuation of the tournament itself. We’ll be providing details of ways to do this during subsequent live broadcasts and on the website.
We then moved to questions, from the online audience as well as the people in the room. The first came from an internet questioner with a Scandinavian name. Sitting on the immediate right of Magnus Carlsen, Malcolm was a little self-conscious about reading out the questioner’s name. After a tentative try at pronouncing it, he turned to the world number one for help. “Could he be a Norwegian with a name like that?” With immaculate comic timing, Magnus shot back: “Not the way you pronounce it!”. That brought the house down. A third career possibility for Magnus: after chess super-GM and fashion model… stand-up comedian?
As was revealed in the Norwegian press a couple of days ago, there had been problems getting Magnus’s Russian second a visa to enter the UK and Magnus faced the prospect of working on his own in London and only being able to contact his second via internet telephony. This was not the first time Britain’s slightly fraught diplomatic relationship with Russia had caused the tournament problems.
Malcolm was on the point of naming the Russian GM in question but he then remembered what had happened when he had tried to pronounce the Norwegian name. Instead of having a stab at pronouncing Yan Nepomniachtchi’s name, he turned to Magnus and said “I’m going to have pronunciation problems with Yan’s name, aren’t I? Do you know how to say that one?” A cunning attempt to turn the tables on Magnus, but the young man wasn’t falling for that trick. After a slight hesitation, he answered “I don’t know!” to another ripple of laughter. Malcolm had a valiant go at it but passed the microphone to Vlad Kramnik for a definitive Russian pronunciation. “I can do it better,” said Vlad. I can’t render the Kramnik pronunciation in print but it was something like ‘Nepomniashee’, with a very slight accentuation of the ‘om’ syllable, with the voice falling away on the subsequent syllables. More importantly, the visa story had a happy ending: Malcolm had used his diplomacy to persuade the Russians to issue Yan Nepomniachtchi with a visa and he should arrive on Saturday to start work with the world number one.
THE TWITTER GAME
The players now proceeded to play a game against all-comers on Twitter, with the Classic competitors playing moves in a fixed sequence. Reverse alphabetical order was used, which meant that Judit Polgar had the honour of playing 1 d4 for the Classic stars on the giant chess set. I’m not entirely sure how seriously the players on Twitter were taking this, but it is fair to say that the Classic competitors treated it as a harmless bit of fun and took the opportunity to tease each other about their choices of move. It is reassuring to see that super-GMs are no different to ordinary club chessplayers in this respect. Once the game was utterly won, they showed a more sadistic side of their nature, spinning the game out for a few moves rather like a cat playing with a mouse.
The game was marred by a communications foul-up when a horrible blunder (15…e5??) submitted via Twitter failed to be weeded out by the somewhat haphazard system we were using to relay data and choose the world’s move (although, as a Twitterer pointed out, at least the blunder proved we weren’t cheating and using a chess engine). Maybe a brilliant chess computer programmer, like Mark Uniacke of Hiarcs, could design us a chessplaying engine/Twitter interface to remedy this technical problem and make it easier to handle the feed?
Nigel Short, like former British prime minister Gordon Brown before him, had promised to ‘save the world’ but the position after 15…e5 proved to be beyond even his chessboard lifesaving skills. Actually, it was probably a timely mistake as it allowed the super-GMs to escape and get some rest before the coming fray. The real fun starts tomorrow Saturday and you can follow all the action at the official website.