The Kramnik – Topalov dispute
In many disputes between top chess players, there is no clear right and wrong – forming a clear opinion from the letters of protest, contradictions and mutual
accusations is virtually impossible. However, the Kramnik-Topalov case is an
We have to start with the background. Topalov and his team have worked closely
with FIDE for some time. Topalov is the FIDE champion and he supported Ilyumzhinov’s
re-election campaign. Kramnik, by contrast, is much more an outsider. His world
championship title derived from Brain Games and then the PCA, so he has had
much less contact with FIDE.
The current match is FIDE organised and sponsored, and is being played in
FIDE’s home territory of Kalmykia. To avoid any suspicion of favouritism,
it would have made sense for all the match officials to be clearly independent
and unbiased. Instead, what do we have? The Appeals committee consists of Georgios
Makropoulos (Deputy President of FIDE), Zurab Azmaiparashvili (Vice-President
of FIDE) and Jorge Vega (FIDE Continental President for the Americas) –
a selection which can hardly inspire confidence in the impartiality of the
Appeals Committee. Nor are the members of the Appeals Committee especially
qualified for such a potentially sensitive post, since only one of the three
(Vega) is an International Arbiter and only one (Azmaiparashvili) has any experience
of high-level chess.
The first extraordinary act was the handing over of the video of Kramnik in
his rest room to Topalov’s team. This could easily be used against Kramnik,
for example by seeing if he looked agitated after a particular move in the
opening. This act was so obviously wrong that one can hardly imagine it being
committed by an unbiased person.
Next was the ‘toilet protest’ from Topalov’s team. Notice
that not only has Kramnik not been proved to have done anything wrong,
there isn’t even a single piece of evidence that he has done anything
wrong. All he has done, apparently, is to wander in and out of his bathroom
– a bathroom which, one must remember, was open to inspection at any
time before the game.
However, this didn’t stop the Appeals Committee from deciding to lock
Kramnik’s bathroom. This may not sound such a serious matter, but chess
at the highest level is largely about psychology and the imposition of your
will on the opponent. Achieving this away from the chessboard could easily
be the first step towards doing the same on the board itself. The organisers
have stated that they do not believe Kramnik is cheating; in that case, where
is the logic in punishing Kramnik by making a decision that is so obviously
favourable to Topalov? Moreover, Topalov declared that he would not shake hands
with Kramnik. There is no requirement in the Laws of Chess that the players
shake hands before the game, but not to do so is a substantial insult.
It is hard to avoid the impression that Topalov’s team realised that
it would be an uphill struggle to win two games from eight (and against a player
who went 15 games without loss against Garry Kasparov!) and decided to launch
a psychological attack. Such tactics are far from unknown in top-level chess,
but they are usually frustrated by the fair and common-sense approach of match
officials, an approach which has been notably lacking in Elista. Not only was
the actual decision of the Appeals Committee clearly wrong, it was also wrong
to start Game 5 without any kind of agreement between the players. The result
has been to plunge the whole match into crisis, since now that Topalov has
been awarded Game 5 by default, it is hard to see him playing it again.
Once again chess has shot itself in the foot; who will want to sponsor a top-level
chess match if the whole thing can grind to a halt over a dispute about a toilet?
At least when the 1984/5 Karpov-Kasparov match was controversially terminated
by the then FIDE President Campomanes, the players had managed to entertain
the chess public with 48 games before everything collapsed in chaos. Apparently
today’s players only have the stamina to manage 4!
Chess Director of Gambit