Friday, 17 December 2010

Your Move

Last week, I attended the London Chess Classic at Earls Court Olympia and followed the four games being played in Round 3 of the 7-Round all-play-all competition as they unfolded live on stage.

This is only the second year that the London Chess Classic has been staged but already it is gaining momentum. This year the players are: the young Norwegian, Magnus Carlson (currently rated the world’s number one), Vishy Anand (the current World Champion), Vladimir Kramnick (the ex-World champion), Hikaru Nakamura (the US number 1) and the top four rated English players (Messrs Adams, Short, McShane and Howell). Quality or what? Play started at 2.00 pm and spectators may remain until all games are complete which can be anything from 2 hours to 7+ hours. And the cost of a ticket? £10.

Where else in the world of sport can a spectator get to see the current and ex-World Champion and the World Number One player for a tenner? It seems that Chess is the last bastion of a time gone by when the average punter could get up close and personal with the elite of sport – and all for a modest cost. I even shared a lift with veteran world title challenger, Victor Korchnoi and held the gents' door open for eventual tournament winner, Magnus Carlson. Only in chess would this happen.

In the early 1990s, I attended a Chess Event in a Park Lane hotel that is now known, rather quaintly, as the Snowdrops v Veterans Match in which a team of young-up-and coming Women players takes on a team of Veterans. The event I attended featured some of the best women players at that time and the vets team included a seventy year old Vasily Smyslov, World Champion I957-58, who eventually won a gruelling 7 hour game. He died earlier this year, aged 89, but I am so glad I was able to witness his success on that day from little more than a few feet away from the board.

The event didn’t start well as the lights failed in the playing area and we were told to go away and come back in an hour when play would start. Taking the lift down to the ground floor, I found myself in the company of half the women’s team including Sofia Polgar and Pia Cramling, two of the best Women players the world has ever seen. What is it about chess players and lifts? Anyway, they sauntered off down Park Lane as if it was the most natural thing in the world – no entourage, no bodyguards.

A year or so later, I found myself browsing the foyer bookstall with Vassily Ivanchuk, the Ukrainian Grandmaster, rated number 5 in the world at that point, during the London Rapidplay competition. I cannot think of any other sport where the world’s top players have such freedom to come and go, usually unrecognised and where the likes of you and I can mingle with them and watch them perform for so little.

Unfortunately money is already raising its ugly head in the Chess world and prize money is increasing. How long before we, the public, lose contact with the players as we have in virtually all other sports?

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