Really a new era in chess?

This article (or rather column/opinion piece) was published in German on April 25th, the translated version is modified here and there as additional information became available. A press conference in St. Louis had been introduced as “biggest announcement in¬†professional international chess since 1988”. “New era in chess” is from chess24 [the English version has been extensively updated and the title was apparently changed – but the hyperlink reflects the initial title]. They added a question mark, so do I. What is it all about? The new, well not really new concept is that some existing tournaments work together under the name “Chess Tour”. Earlier the name ‘Golden League’ circulated. What else is new? They agreed that players like Gelfand, Svidler and Naiditsch (this name was for a German audience, fill in other names as you wish) will NOT be invited – only the very best (plus one wildcard) are welcome. They have lots of money and spend it – on players that are already rich or at least affluent. Last but not least: Kasparov (in a secondary role also Short) play a chess political role. Disclaimer at the start: not everything that follows is absolutely seriously meant, sometimes I tend to be ironic or sarcastic.

The three tournaments – Norway Chess, Sinquefield Cup and London Classic – are all relatively new, all a product of Carlsen era and Carlsen hype, all within the Kasparov – Carlsen – Sinquefield – anti-FIDE camp. Maybe that’s the reason why Gashimov Memorial wasn’t asked: Azerbaijan tends to have a neutral to positive attitude towards FIDE. It fits in the picture that earlier announcements included “completely independent of FIDE”. Isn’t this the case for all private (super)tournaments? Then it could mean three things: 1) It is just blablabla or chess political propaganda. 2) They mean what they say, and the tournaments will not be FIDE-rated. 3) The whole thing is presented or sold as an alternative world championship (cf. below).

First some chess history within my own lifetime. What does 1988 refer to? At the time – Kasparov’s idea – the Grandmasters Association organized a World Cup tournament series. The tournament series happened once, and the GMA quickly ceased to exist – their secret why they remind the public. Next try was the Grand Slam, Danailov’s idea with a similar concept as the Chess Tour: several existing tournaments put under a common umbrella, in that case with (new) a final event in Bilbao. First Danailov’s protege Topalov lost interest (the Bilbao prize money didn’t meet his expectations). Then three of the four events disappeared: only Wijk aan Zee still exists (I hope for many more years). Bilbao also still exists but is a shadow of itself compared to early ambitious plans. By the way there were rumors about new supertournaments in Seattle and Argentina; now rumors are spread about an event in Indonesia, and the press conference mentioned the chess stronghold Africa – to be seen whether plans or rumors will materialize.

How exactly was the Chess Tour, formerly Golden League, announced? First through rumors in Norwegian newspapers, then an official press conference was announced and postponed, then the event in St. Louis. Mostly the three events praised each other abundantly, e.g. Tony Rich (the arbiter who forfeited Wesley So): “They really represent the pinnacle of chess around the world. It’s the gold standard. These three events have established themselves as the premiere, the flagship events, down to every detail, from organization and execution to spectator experience and conditions for the players.” Concise summary: “We are JUST BRILLIANT!”. Kasparov was also praised, home advantage (and free drinks) for all! Then the participants were mentioned, according to Rich they want to turn all of them into superstars – so far they only made dedicated efforts for Carlsen and Nakamura. They used the rating list January 2015, from top to still way up: Carlsen, Caruana, Grischuk, Topalov, Anand, Aronian, Giri, Nakamura. Wait a minute, where is Kramnik, #8 at the time? He declined the invitation.

My initial speculation was that he might not be interested in this Kasparov show, but at a press conference in Shamkir he gave another explanation: His schedule in the second half of 2015 is already packed (by his standards), and he wants to focus on the World Cup, his last chance to qualify for the candidates event. He would have been interested to play one or two, but not all three events – that’s, said Kramnik, something for young players with more energy and no family to take care of. This is a drawback of the Chess Tour concept: top players are forced to play all three events. Another victim seems to be Wesley So, who already agreed to play a match against Navara that coincides with Norway Chess. An (intended?) collateral effect might be that it becomes harder for other events to get the top players, and to meet their (growing) financial expectations.

Eight names were revealed at the press conference. Foreseen are nine, always the same, plus one wildcard. The ninth name was revealed a few hours later at their website: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Eyebrows can be raised: Selection was based on the Elo list January 2015, when MVL was number thirteen behind So, Karjakin and Mamedyarov. There may be several reasons to not invite Karjakin: 1) He won Norway Chess twice in a row, while Carlsen was supposed to win. High time to break a tradition – an unwritten rule says that all tournaments re-invite the winner from last year? 2) Kasparov doesn’t like his political opinions. 3) Maybe also: they don’t like his way of playing chess. First they say “Elo decides, and this very list”, then they deviate from this concept and don’t mention it at the press conference. Maybe they wanted nine players from nine different countries, then they should say so. I have nothing against Vachier-Lagrave. Here also a little update: at the same press conference in Shamkir MVL stated that he had been invited just a few days earlier. Maybe they first tried (in vain) to resolve So’s scheduling conflicts, or rather to convince So that he should break his contract with the Prague organizers?

The press conference only had questions from ‘friendly’ journalists, e.g. “What’s the difference with the FIDE Grand Prix Series?” –¬† Nigel Short’s immediate response: “We are better!”. This was explained with “we have the very best player, including Carlsen!”. They have Carlsen because they belong to the Carlsen camp, they get (almost) all others because they have plenty of money. Otherwise the FIDE Grand Prix Series has a somewhat different concept: a bit more democracy rather than pure Elo dictatorship. Of course Elo was one way to qualify for the GP Series, another way was via the World Cup. Then the World Cup (semi-)finalists Andreikin and Tomashevsky won one tournament each, the Chess Tour won’t have such surprises. Generally in the FIDE system anyone can become world champion or at least join the cycle. An amateur like myself could theoretically play the European Championship to qualify for the World Cup, then the World Cup to qualify for the candidates event. It’s a different concept, maybe not better but also not worse?

My opinion on the Chess Tour: Why not, they can do it and sell it. Whether three virtually identical tournaments really herald a new era in chess remains debatable. And it is nothing really new, just existing events presented differently with louder marketing? It is good (says Thomas Richter) that there are also other events not limited to the very absolute world top: Wijk aan Zee, Dortmund, Biel, … and also the FIDE Grand Prix Series.

The end – I exaggerated a bit, done on purpose.

April 2018
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