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11 March 2018

In a Room with a Grey Ceiling

The opening of the Candidates Tournament in Berlin, reported by Vladimir Barsky 

A loft is trendy, cool and modern. The younger generation likes them; they are unpretentious are they are practical. Wikipedia reports with indifference: “Loft is an architectural style of the XX and XXI centuries; it is the upper building of an industrial house (a factory, a plant, a warehouse) that is redesigned for residential, working or office space, or an area for events.” Style, Karl, architectural style! After all, what is the Museum of Russian Impressionism, which just hosted the Tal Memorial, which was attended by 4 out of 8 candidates? A mere elevator, though one that has been reconstructed and “disguised”. And it has been disguised so thoroughly that one completely forgets about the industrial heritage of this building while admiring works of art or following games between grandmasters.   

The Berlin loft (a former refrigerator storehouse) which shall host the candidates’ tournament has been decorated with minimalism: unadorned brick walls with haphazardly-protruding wires, a few banners here and there. But outside, a giant poster covers the entire wall: “Entering this building might substantially increase your IQ. Chess does that to humans.” So chess will help you raise your IQ? Or one’s IQ? Anyhow, if one enters this building, something will definitely rise!

The main tournament of the last two years is starting today, on 10th March, the draws have been done long ago. On Friday, participants and administrators conversed with journalists. Grandmasters gave interviews, and Vladimir Kramnik- the most experienced and titled of them all- was “mobilised” for a press conference. He performed his role brilliantly: he smiled, joked well and prompted applause in the audience several times. For example, this was how Vladimir explained why the administrators gave the wild card expressly to him: “For me, Germany is almost a second home. I have played in multiple competitions here, the world championship in 2008, I’ve competed in Dortmund for the last 25 years, usually successfully. In the 1990s, I played for a German club in the Bundesliga and my trainer was German. Thanks to some of my efforts from the London tournament in 2000, the Berlin variant has been recognised by the whole world. So the wild-card might be seen as a sign of gratitude from Berliners.”  

According to Kramnik, he prepared to play the recent tournament in Wijk aan Zee in a solid and practical manner, but instead many of his matches turned into thrillers, where defeat and victory interchanged with every move; but in the end, he did win more matches than he lost. “I would like the viewers to see the pragmatic Kramnik in Berlin, but I fear that you will see Kramnik the artist!” said Vladimir with a smile. In reply to question about recent heroics of “Alpha-Zero”, he admitted that he would happily sign a petition for “computer disarmament.” It must be said that journalists (tens of them showed up) were thoroughly grounded in chess questions- no one stabbed into thin air.

The President of the German Chess Federation Ulrich Krause told journalists that during the candidates’ tournament, multiple additional competitions will be held for children and adults alike, in chess-boxing and other disciplines. Kramnik immediately seized on this themes: “I think that I would have a great chance in chess-boxing; in the end, I could always ask my friend Vitali Klitschko for help. But alas, I will only have to play chess!”

Andrey Guryev, head of the PhosAgro Company and vice-president of the Russian Chess Federation, declared that he is a blessed sponsor. “This is not the first time that we have sponsored large chess tournaments and we see a positive response, whereby interest in chess is rising in Russia and the whole world.” Andrey Guryev reminded us that in all Russian cities where PhosAgro is represented, chess classes are organised and equipped with the latest technology.

The tournament’s director Ilya Merenzon called on journalists to report on the chess battles in Kuhlhaus with creativity. For example, the space gives a unique opportunity to record the players from the balcony above. On the other hand, when grandmasters played in theatres (yes, that did happen) photographers also had this opportunity. According to Merenzon, almost all tickets for the tournament have been sold and a record number of Internet viewers is expected. 

Only a few hours later, the grand opening ceremony began in Kuhlhaus. In the middle of the main hall stood a giant ice lump- a reminder to the loft’s industrial past. The guests were caught by photographers and autograph-hunters beside the lump and the big banner.

The ceremony was attended by the President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, who made a long speech in his native language; the translator repeated it in English. President Sargsyan recounted the successes of Armenian chess players in detail and told the audience about school chess programs and a scientific research institute that studies problems of chess. I concede, I could guess the last sentence of his speech almost as soon as it began: “May the strongest win!” I have repeated it many times…On Saturday, Serzh Sargsyan will make the symbolic first move of the tournament.  

The ceremony was attended by Russia’s Ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechaev. Russian candidates were also supported by their Federation’s President, Andrey Filatov, vice-President Pavel Chinsky and organiser of super-tournaments in Zurich Oleg Skvortsov. The group of participants is exceptional- whoever wins, the mouth will not be able to call it a sensation.

In the final stage of the evening, the guests were entertained by the singer MADANII, who is often called the German Bjork.

…On my way out of the Kuhlhaus, I met a most respected chess player of the older generation, who migrated to Germany from Russia long ago. Apparently she has never read anything about lofts, which explains why she asked with disarming bluntness:

- Volodya, how did they find this shed in Berlin?

So, the battle for the match against Magnus Carlsen is starting. At the end of the day, what does it matter if it is a loft, museum or theatre? The grandmasters have no time to gaze at the wires on the wall and the cracks in the ceiling, their whole focus will be aimed at the chess boards!

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