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An unexpected bloodsport

Rupert Coy explores the running feuds of the chess world at the recent Candidates Tournament.

Illustration by Maria Mellos. Illustration by Maria Mellos.
Illustration by Maria Mellos.
Illustration by Maria Mellos.

The only sound that punctuated the tense silence in the hall was the ominous ticking of the clock. Spectators in their hundreds sat expectantly, waiting for the next move, analysing body language.

Then the players started kicking each other.

That was the 1974 edition of the Candidates Tournament — one of the highest-profile, hardest fought, and best paid chess competitions in the world. A win at this tournament grants a player the right to challenge the current world champion for the title.

The 2014 tournament, contested last month in the central Russian town of Khanty-Mansiysk by eight of the world’s best players, was marred by a different scandal. The enduring animosity caused by ‘Toiletgate’ was on show.

This scandal dates back to 2006, when Russian Vladimir Kramnik and Bulgarian Veselin Topalov—two of the favourites in this year’s Candidates—competed for the World Championship. Kramnik, a nerdy, spectacled Russian known for his very solid style, and Topalov whose short, jet-black beard makes him look suspiciously like a vampire, had little history before the match.

That all changed on the first rest-day of that championship. Topalov, 3-1 down, accused Kramnik of hiding a tiny chess computer in his bathroom and consulting it for moves on his frequent toilet visits. The toilet was searched and nothing was found, despite Kramnik’s camp fearing that the Topalov team would plant a device.

Both players were apoplectic. Threats of boycotts and legal action ensued, and Kramnik forfeited the fifth game in protest. Kramnik eventually won the contest in a tie-break: he and Topalov have not been on speaking terms since.

This year’s Candidates tournament was their first high-level meeting since. Their game in Round 6 — a crucial stage of the tournament — was highly anticipated. Crowds flocked not just to the hall, but to websites which streamed the chess live to millions (last year, GQ’s piece on the World Championship had more hits than their coverage of the concurrent Victoria’s Secret fashion show). Eight players ambled onto the stage, sat at their tables, and readied themselves. Kramnik and Topalov comically avoided eye-contact, adjusting their pieces and score-sheets, pouring tea from their flasks, staring at the ceiling.

At the commencement of play, three pairs of players shook hands. Kramnik just pressed the clock and Topalov played his first move, a tremendous sign of mutual disrespect. They didn’t look at one another all game, they didn’t shake hands at the end, they signed their names and walked off. It broke a fundamental rule in chess: children everywhere are taught from an early age to shake hands at the start and end of every game. A top-20 player was disqualified for refusing to shake his opponent’s hand in a major tournament in 2008.

Neither Kramnik nor Topalov won this year’s tournament. Nor was it world number two Levon Aronian, a quirky but immensely talented Armenian known for his sense of humour. Instead, forty-three year old Indian veteran Vishwanathan Anand claimed a clear victory and set up a rematch with Norwegian wunderkind and male model Magnus Carlsen, twenty years his junior, for the world title.

Anand seemed finished after convincingly losing the 2013 Championship to Carlsen, who astounded the cognoscenti with his ability to exploit the smallest weakness and win seemingly drawn games. He won the match, the title, and $1.5 million with two games to spare. Anand was surely too old for a game where players typically peak in their late twenties.

But Anand is the Madonna of the chess world: both stand out among far younger peers and remain successful thanks to constant reinvention. He began with a convincing win over Aronian and played energetically and creatively throughout, the antithesis of his lacklustre performances against Carlsen and at various tournaments since. While his rivals lost at least two games each, ‘Vishy’ was undefeated. Carlsen, keenly watching from Norway, praised his “tenacity”.

Carlsen vs. Anand this November may just be a repeat of last year’s match. Something in Anand’s Candidates performance suggests it’ll be better than that. Kramnik, Topalov, and Aronian should watch and learn.

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