Friday, December 09, 2011

A day at the London Chess Classic

I have spent the day at the London Chess Classic at Olympia. This is a tournament featuring the very best players in the world and the best in Britain.

There was plenty of space for coffee and casual games, but the tournament hall itself is surprisingly poor. The four tables are crammed on to a narrow stage and the audience appeared to consist largely of bronchitics with a serious boiled sweet habit. Conditions for the top players were far better in the Sheffield sports hall used for the British Championships this summer.

But I was there for the games and they were good.

Lev Aronian is the only one of the players that I knew next to nothing about. He shares Garry Kasparov's Jewish-Armenian background and has twice led Armenia to the chess Olympiad gold and this year helped his country win the Word Team Championship. Armenia has a population of three million.

Today he was white against the world's highest rank player, Magnus Carlsen from Norway. Carlsen played a slightly precious opening and found himself with his pieces on some odd squares when Aronian found a way to blow the centre open. For a while it looked as though Aronian was getting somewhere, but Carlsen defended calmly and the game was a dead draw when it became the first to finish.

The other three boards were a Britain vs Rest of the World match, which we lost 3-0 - or 9-0 if you prefer the new-fangled scoring method of three points for a win and one point for a draw being used here. (Traditionally it has been a point for a win and half a point for a draw.)

Two years ago David Howell finished third in this tournament without losing a game, despite being the lowest rated player. This year he appears out of sorts and out of form, and he lost tamely to the American Hikaru Nakamura. There is no shame in that: Nakamura is ranked 10 in the world and is widely tipped to join the world elite.

The British champion Michael Adams was black against the Russian former world champion Vladimir Kramnik (who bears a resemblance to our own James Graham). For a while the experts in the commentary room liked Adams' position, but eventually Kramnik worked his way to a favourable ending and won efficiently.

And Nigel Short pressed hard with white against the world champion Vishy Anand. My impression was that he tried too hard to win, but Short said afterwards that he had just lost the thread of the game. Even so, I thought that Short missed some chances towards the end and that Anand could have won more quickly after that. I suspect, however, that says more about my rustiness as a player than it does about the quality of their play.

The idea of having a player with a bye in each round is that he can discuss the other players' games in the commentary room. But Luke McShane, who manages to combine having a day job in the City with being the British number three player, proved spectacularly uncommunicative.

It was a fascinating day and there is no shame in British players struggling in this company. But the problem or British chess is that our two top players, Michael Adams and Nigel Short, and both in their forties. See an  earlier post of mine for the reasons why there is a missing generation behind them.

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