14 October 2015

A Table for Two, Reserved for Carlsen

Mark Glukhovsky shares impressions on the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Berlin.

The old truism that Germans love chess still holds. Granted, a German friend of mine says they love any kind of entertainment in Germany. In any case, chess events have always drawn a lot of spectators in this country: those who were at the Kramnik vs. Anand match in Bonn or at the Dresden Olympiad can confirm this ― and the last few years are not an exception. As chess journalist Dirk Poldauf says, Berlin is a chess city, and there are several chess clubs there. So there are a lot of spectators at the championship as well, which, for obvious reasons, makes me quite envious.

The tournament's venue is a former factory refurbished for offices and picture galleries: it resembles the Moscow chocolate factory Krasny Oktyabr. Erected back in the 19th century, this red-brick building with tall and beautiful windows is located quite near the city center. The playing room is beautifully decorated. There are plenty of participants ― because this is Berlin and because many people love playing rapid chess. Of course, only a small number of people whom we know very well have real chances of winning the championship or the prizes, but there is a plethora of those willing to play. In addition, the organizers accept 40 of the highest-rated players this year. The concentration of top players would be even greater but for Millionaire Chess in Las Vegas. The three strongest Americans ― Nakamura, Caruana, and So, are absent. But everyone else is here, and sometimes this produces a pretty amusing impression.   

The thing is that there are only four tables on the stage, and one of them is "reserved" for Magnus Carlsen regardless of how he will play. (For now, Magnus is playing well.) The place is reserved not because Carlsen is a world champion in all types of chess, but because the organizers have sold the broadcasting rights to a Norwegian TV channel, and Magnus should always be within the cameras' field of view. To prevent him from changing tables (this being a Swiss-system tournament), it was decided that he would permanently play at table two. There are three other tables where Karjakin, Nepomniachtchi, Ivanchuk, and other leaders replace each other. As you cast a glance around the room, you can see them: here's Vishy sitting in the back end of the room, and there's Kramnik fighting ferociously in the corner... 

GM Jan Gustafsson commentates the games in English for the spectators and the Internet audience. Of course, it's much more interesting to watch the tournament with your own eyes, since the camera and the commentator can only follow three or four games. 

Rapid chess championships never come without surprises: last time, the Siberian GM Sergei Yudin played very well, and now the leaders include Igor Kovalenko, Yuriy Kryvoruchko, and Sergei Zhigalko.

The atmosphere is very nice and relaxed, which is very typical of Berlin. As people finish work, they come to enjoy the party. The organizers agreed to include in the tournament several country champions and German players rated below 2500 (originally that was the lower threshold for joining the event). This is why you can find amateurs at the bottom of the table. I even wanted to get into that bottom of the table myself, but then I realized that my job wouldn't allow that, unfortunately.     

The opening was rather pompous and took place in Kino International, a fairly well-known movie theater. They laid out the carpet and invited stars. The Pawn Sacrifice movie was shown, with Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man) starring as Robert Fischer. Another famous actor, Liev Schreiber, played Boris Spassky; personally, I liked his play much better. True, Boris himself, who also came to Berlin and watched the movie, said it was a complete mediocrity. In my opinion, the film is rather weak, but it attracts interest to chess, and that is already pleasant.

On the whole, this is a very good and lively festival, which, however, costs its organizers a fortune. The prize fund of both tournaments is USD 400,000, and they also have to host a whole bundle of people and rent premises in the center of Berlin. I'd like to believe that these tournaments will continue in the future. 

Photos by Maria Emelianova