Follow Us:
Monday, July 16, 2018

Chess starts trending

As the drama unfolded when Norwegian wonderkid Magnus Karlsen and Russian Vladimir Kramnik battled at the Candidates tournament to earn the right to challenge world champ Viswanathan Anand,there was an unprecedented buzz on twitter and spike in internet traffic that made chess websites freeze and servers crash. Raakesh Natraj writes why the tournament is a watershed for a sport struggling with marketability.

Written by Raakesh Natraj | Published: April 7, 2013 3:20:28 am

Close to four hours into the final round of games at the Candidates tournament in London,chess websites across the world broadcasting the event were hit by an escalating volume of traffic. For a while,the sites cut down on non-essential services,and kept the transmission going. First to go was the chat option.

Then it was the timers.

Before the clocks next to the monochrome board on the game tabs got completely garbled,Magnus Carlsen had 80 seconds to make 10 moves.

If he was unable to blitz them out to reach the time control,he would lose the game on time to Peter Svidler and in all probability,the championship ticket to Vladimir Kramnik.

A few feet away (and on the next tab on the user’s screen),Kramnik,on the same score as Carlsen but the tie-break rules compelling him to better the Norwegian’s result in the final round,was in a grim battle of his own. He had repeatedly opted to complicate the position,even if it meant making sub-optimal moves against Vassily Ivanchuk.

The strategy was only a partial success for Kramnik. Ivanchuk,who had already lost four games in the tournament after running afoul of the clock,was in trouble once more,having little less than nine minutes for 14 moves. But he had already set in motion a tactic that would doom the distracted and under-pressure Kramnik,who was racing against the clock himself.

During the 13 rounds that had gone by over the last 18 days,the lead had changed hands several times. Levon Aronian had assumed sole charge but Carlsen had caught up and then surpassed him in the first set of seven games. Even as Aronian faded out of contention in the second half,Kramnik,who had drawn seven straight games at the start of the tournament,stormed to the top of the table on the back of a run that saw him win four out of five games.

In the 13th round,Carlsen responded with an epic,marathon win over Teimour Radjabov in a game that lasted close to seven hours and hundred moves. He later confessed in the post-game press conference that he hadn’t slept a wink the previous night. The win was worth more than just the point. The result,combined with Kramnik’s draw pushed Carlsen into joint-lead,but also crucially put him ahead on the win count. He now had five wins to Kramnik’s four,and since the first tie-break rule (head-to-head) was to prove indecisive,and was now in the driver’s seat. Kramnik was understandably desperate in the final game.

The tournament and the round thus poised,another surge of traffic sent most surviving servers into overload. Norway’s largest server,unaccustomed to handle such spikes in traffic,was the first to trip. As the concerned viewers migrated to the next largest server to ascertain the fate of Carlsen,it predictably went down too. FIDE’s official broadcast,strengthened to accommodate the increasing demands after crashing earlier in the tournament,was hardly doing any better,the screen frozen in time,stuck at the point where the games were on the brink of resolution.

The fans,left in limbo,could do little but make predictions,relying on nothing more substantial than swapped anecdotes,on semi-forgotten archival chess websites. One user recalled Svidler’s press conference from the previous day,the account serving to illustrate the folly of Kramnik trying to trip up the pedigreed Ivanchuk.

“(Svidler) went for a worse position with Ivanchuk because he hoped that in time trouble Vasily would fall into a trap; of course he didn’t. Then Kasparov approached Svidler and asked why he chose an inferior option. ‘I was expecting him to fall into a trap set by me’,said Peter. ‘Come on’,answered Garry,‘you are playing Ivanchuk’.” (sic)

Another bemoaned Kramnik’s choice of opening.

“The Pirc ought to be outlawed at the highest levels of play. It just seems to be prescription for pain and suffering for black. (Viktor) Korchnoi is probably still muttering to himself about playing that in the decisive loss against (Anatoly) Karpov in decisive game of their world championship match (1978).”

When the servers staggered back to life,both games had gone past the time control and the foretold tragedy of Kramnik was about to come to pass.

Having to make terrible choices in zeitnot (time pressure) Kramnik had missed his last chance to spot the drawing line,and commentators pronounced gravely that his position was ‘officially resignable.’ Anand,following the action all the way back in India,agreed,and went to sleep.

It did not matter what happened on the other board. Kramnik’s loss would automatically hand the tournament to Carlsen. As it happened,the World No. 1 knocked down pieces in scrambling to get to move 40,and upon getting there,found himself in an utterly lost ending. Carlsen resigned,and even as he was addressing the media,news trickled in that Kramnik had too.

The drama was at an end. Kramnik lost out on a technicality. Carlsen would be Anand’s official challenger in November. The tournament was lauded as the most spectacular in recent memory and within a few minutes of it ending,Carlsen was trending on Twitter,along with Chuck Norris.

The relentless drama of the last few days and the unheard of following the tournament commanded on the internet might well be nonce but for a sport that is struggling to arrogate a mass fan-base,and consequently,long-term funding,it is sure to be taken as a sign of awakening interest.

It was just a year ago that FIDE had signed a long term accord with American millionaire entrepreuner Andrew Paulson’s Agon Limited to ‘develop,organize and commercialize the World Chess Championship cycles.’ Around the time the agreement was signed,a number that got bandied about as a sort of proof for the untapped global potential of the sport was 605 million,which allegedly corresponded to the number of people who play chess across the world. When pressed about how exactly this figure came about,the parties concerned had little idea. There has been plenty of hand wringing and finger pointing between Agon,FIDE and a quantitative research agency that was involved. It is not just the authorship that has proven difficult to track down. The numbers seem seriously overblown as a result of a rudimentary oversight in extrapolation.

Natural disadvantage

There was some amount of skepticism,but there was also optimism in the wake of chess’ belated attempts to get on the commercialisation bandwagon. Through the 90s and for a while later,when most other sports spruced themselves up for an ever expanding television audience,raking in television rights,endorsements and sponsorships,chess was steadily falling behind.

To add to its natural disadvantage of being a broadcaster’s nightmare (“Skeptics maintain that live chess is as enthralling as watching paint dry. Ultra-skeptics reply: unfair to paint. As a theatrical experience it is austere and minimalist: two men,two chairs,a table and no dialog,” begins Julian Barnes’ essay ‘Trap,Dominate,F**k’ on the Nigel Short-Garry Kasparov championship match in 1993),the chess world was further debilitated by dissent. In 1993,the sport’s biggest and most bankable star Kasparov broke away from the folds of FIDE to lead a rebel league (PCA),complete with its own World Championships. The PCA folded after its main sponsor Intel pulled out and it wasn’t until 2006 that a satisfactory unification could be achieved.

Promise of cash flow

Meanwhile,the lack of funding was an issue that the world body was facing too,with several top tournaments getting discontinued as institutional interest remained lukewarm. It was largely on the promise of getting money into the sport that the millionaire Kirzan Ilyumzhinov,the then President of the Republic of Kalymykia of the Russian Federation was elected the head of FIDE in 1995.

Ilyumzhinov guaranteed that he would pump in a lot of his own cash into the sport. The associations of several western countries were and continue to remain wary of his approach and their accusations of intransparency,lack of accountability and corruption within the organisation never being completely refuted (among other things,he is also accused of being involved in the murder of a Kalmyk journalist). Ilyumzhinov’s defense in this matter is rather cyclical: “I have sunk hundreds of millions of my own dollars into the sport. How can I donate from one pocket and take it back into another?”

Change,if it has come about,has been slow. It was not until this year,after the deal with Agon,that a long-term plan has been finalised for the World Championship cycles. For the first time in more than 50 years,the candidate was decided on the basis of a tournament,and the decision has been a hit,especially compared to the last Candidates event in Kazan (knock-out matches),which saw 90 per cent of the games drawn and most matches decided on rapid games.

Even on the sponsorship front,it has been individual investors or state firms,mostly from Ilyumzhinov’s own backyard,that have come up with bids to host the Candidates and Championship matches. SOCAR,who sponsored the event in London is Azerbaijan’s state oil company while it was Andrey Filatov,a Russian entrepreuner,who pitched in for the 2012 WCC match. Despite all concerns,Ilyumzhinov is in his 18th year as the head of FIDE.

Perfect match-up

A thread runs through the macro and the micro,from the reign of Ilyumzhinov and the magic figure of 605 million to the denouement of the current Candidates tournament; an attitude of resigned acceptance to things not being determined in an ideal fashion but in the absence of anything better,the necessity to get on with it,in the hope that it is the best for the sport.

Which brings us back to London. It was generally agreed that Kramnik going out in such an arbitrary fashion was a shame. Not unjust but neither was it ideal,is the consensus.

But that in turn meant that Carlsen,the most marketable figure in chess right now and also the strongest rated chess player ever,would keep his date with destiny. The most popular of chess clashes have always come with their own sub-text. The Fischer-Spassky duels during the Cold War,Kasparov taking on Karpov,the darling of Kremlin and so on. It is now Carlsen,the Norwegian stormbringer,the prodigy,G-Star Raw’s fall/winter campaign star (along with Liv Tyler) against Anand,the stodgy Indian,refusing to fade away,and at 43,almost twice his challenger’s age. Any of which can make a tagline.

Future is here

Agon,in its role as promoter of the World Championship cycles,has been trying to get in a few measures to make chess more spectator friendly.

Biometrics:If it receives the go-ahead from the players,viewers will be able to monitor games through several off-the-board data. Much like hole-cams revolutionsed poker broadcasting,biometric information like pulse rates,retinal scans (to see which area of the board a player is concentrating on) and Galvanic skin response sensors (to check for perspiring hands) will be used to keep watchers engaged. There is an outside chance that Anand and Carlsen could be wired up during their World Championship match this November.

Chess casting:This interactive broadcast system features not just expert commentary,but also allows users to predict moves,analyse them on chat forums and asses a player’s position along pre-set co-ordinates like king safety,pawn structure,material imbalance and the like. While what happens in a game between masters is the subject of rigorous scrutiny at the theoretical level,these handles will allow lay viewers to get an easy grip on proceedings.

Venue:“World cities will glorify chess,” said Agon’s chief Andrew Paulson soon after the deal with FIDE was struck. His plan is to host key tournaments in major cities like London,Paris,Spain,Lisbon etc. The venues for the Championship matches too have taken an interesting turn. The 2012 WC final was held at Tretyakov Art Gallery in Moscow while it is reported that the 2013 final may be held in New York.

For all the latest Delhi News, download Indian Express App