12 November 2016

On a Par with Trump

The last-minute pre-start events in New York in the review of Vladimir Barsky.

It has been long since a chess event witnessed such a frenzy commotion! Your correspondent arrived at Fulton Street by 9 o’clock, 11 hours prior to the start of accreditation, only to join others standing in front of closed doors.  An hour later I was already part of a long queue! It is true that the 2012 match held at the Tretyakov Gallery and the 2013 Alekhine Memorial at Louvre and the Russian Museum gathered mobs to chess fans, but here it were only mass media representatives clearly amounting to more than a hundred people. They came to take part in the press conference to be given by Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin. 

With the entire night spent to have things put in order inside the building, everything was set for receiving guests. Had I not seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed that only yesterday preparations were still in full swing at all rooms of the building. Wi-Fi, a snack-bar, a shop - everything was operating properly. They only forgot to have extension cords connected to power plugs at the press center, and some journalists stepped into this “trap”. However, as soon as the problem was discovered, it was quickly fixed by the technical staff by bringing an additional couple of cords. 

The first press conference was conducted in English. It was given by World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Challenger Sergey Karjakin, as well as by FIDE VP Israel Gelfer, Agon CEO Ilya Merenzon, Chief Arbiter Takis Nikolopoulos, Phosagro CEO Andrey Guryev, and EG Capital Advisors’ Michael Stanton. The grandmasters showed up 5-7 minutes prior to the conference start and proceeded into the VIP-zone. Even though Sergey Karjakin was the first to leave it, he was unable to make it to the presidium table as he was immediately surrounded by journalists asking him to answer “one question only!” Sergey was densely surrounded by people armed with cameras and microphones. When Magnus saw this scene a few minutes later, he curled his lips in displeasure . Then the runner-up took his place at the table, whereas the champion lingered for a little while in the hall with his father and manager and was the last to join the rest of the speakers. 

The first to take the floor was Israel Gelfer, who replaces the FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as the latter has not been granted the US visa. Vice President reminded that the latest time the world championship match took place in New York had been 21 years before. Gelfer made a slight delve into the past to refer to the great American champion Robert Fischer and point out the upcoming match as a youngest in history. Connection was made to a 50-year old Botvinnik defending his title against Tal, whereas now both participants add up to only as many as 52 years of age combined - 26 plus 26. 

Magnus Carlsen immediately intervened to say that he turns 26 only on November 30. Smiling, he also added the following to his brief speech, “It’s so great to have the match staged in as colorful a city as New York. Hopefully, the next three weeks will be a great show. If not, please take my apologies for that! “

According to the grandmasters, both had lengthy and opponent-oriented preparations for the match, but were obviously unwilling to go deep into details. Karjakin named two of his seconds who attended him to New York, them being grandmasters Vladimir Potkin (he, too, was present at the conference) and Alexander Motylev. Then, he added with a laugh, “And Skype is there to help me as well!” It seemed in the beginning as if Sergey looked somewhat too tense, but he soon found his bearings and was seen joking and smiling. When it came to Carlsen, he mentioned grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen as his only second. With both opponents refraining from detailed discussions of each others’ weaknesses, the champion talked up the contender’s remarkable resilience in defense. 

One of the journalists began eliciting from the Norwegian his feelings about Karjakin’s team joined by grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi, whom Magnus has friendly relations with. The champion replied that he had no such insider information available to him, but he did not rule it out as Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi had been sharing same second for several years already - Vladimir Potkin. Slyly smiling through the course of this discussion, the contender said nothing. 

No less pleasing to the ear was yet another question addressed to both participants of the championship title match about who they considered the strongest chess player in the world. The Norwegian grandmaster’s naming himself came as nothing unexpected, while the Russian promised to challenge this statement in the near future.
Ilya Merenzon shared about the technical innovations that would be put to test during the match; thus, for the first time a chess tournament features a video stream covering the scope of 360 degrees. To be able to enjoy this type of broadcast one needs special glasses, which Ilya immediately produced with the inscription «Wow!» on it The speakers took turns peering into them, and would immediately dissolve into smiling as if offered to watch a comedy. 

There followed a question as to what the match organizers thought about the sanctions that prevented Kirsan Ilyumzhinov from visiting New York. Israel Gelfer answered back in a hurt and angry tone about his not wanting to dive into politics. As it sounded anything but nice, the awkward situation was smoothed by Merenzon offering that everyone willing immediately contacted Ilyumzhinov by Skype after the press conference. The FIDE President was allegedly on the alert to answer all questions. Such a “communication session” took place indeed. 

Your correspondent essayed to find out whether game one would be honored by the newly-elected US president Donald Trump, who Kirsan Ilyumzhinov sent an invitation to, and if not, who would then be vested with the right to make the first move. Merenzon did not want to name anyone in particular, saying, “We plan to invite celebrities to the first and all subsequent games, but let it be a surprise each time it happens!" However, it was announced later that evening at the opening ceremony that the symbolic first move of the match would be made by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The second press conference, organized specifically for the Russian-speaking journalists, was attended by Sergey Karjakin, Andrey Guryev, Ilya Merenzon, President of the Russian Chess Federation Andrey Filatov and President of the Moscow Chess Federation Vladimir Palikhata. With no lack of kind words addressed towards the runner-up, Sergey Karjakin thanked for support and once again repeated a well-known phrase, “I dream of returning the crown to Russia”.  

Andrey Filatov: “During the last Olympiad many chess experts approached me to say that Karjakin’s chances to win the match were same as Donald Trump’s of becoming US President. 7 to 3.  Yesterday I told Sergey about it.  I think everything will be alright.  I hope so.”  Filatov also reminded that Karjakin had already been World Champion in rapid chess. 

Dmitry Peskov, Chairman of the RCF Board of Trustees and Press Secretary of Russian President, was present at both press-conferences and listened attentively. Representatives of Dupont, one of the match sponsors, presented him with a gift – their trademark pen.  Mr. Peskov thanked them for a valuable gift and turned it over to the RCF Chess Museum. 

In the evening of the same day the hotel “Plaza” at the Fifth Avenue accommodated the opening ceremony. With so many guests attending the event, something around 400-500 people, two spacious halls proved insufficient. After short speeches were made by the organizers and sponsors, Chief Arbiter Takis Nikolopoulos carried out a drawing of lots ceremony. He asked that the world champion open one of the two black boxes to determine the “first to vote". Magnus Carlsen pulled out a piece of paper with own name, upon which he chose one of the two white boxes, leaving Sergey Karjakin with an obvious choice to make. The grandmasters opened them simultaneously. Magnus smiled as he was holding the white king high in the air. Sergey was holding a black piece with a concentrated expression on his face, as if preparing for game one in his mind.