All about Basque – Interview with GM Feliz Izeta

1/12/2012 – The Donostia Chess Festival has just ended. It used the innovative and dynamic "Basque system", a world's first. Not only did the participants play two games at the same time; if they lost in the knock-out format the event was not over. Anastasiya Karlovich talks to the organizer and person responsible for making this idea a reality: GM Feliz Izeta, who discusses all that is Basque.

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An interview GM Felix Izeta, the organizer of the Donostia Chess Festival

By Anastasiya Karlovich


GM Felix Izeta, organizer of the Donostia Chess Festival and one
of the strongest Basque chess players.

Anastasiya Karlovich: Ten to twenty years ago you were one of the leading Spanish chess players and represented Spain in the Chess Olympiad (in 1996 Spain came in 6th place, their best result ever, half a point behind the medal winners). You also played for the national team in the European team championships five times. How did you manage to become such a strong player at that time?

Felix Izeta: First of all I was one of the strongest players in the Basque country, as I’m not Spanish and don’t consider myself at all Spanish. When I was young, I was in love with chess. I decided to be a chess player no matter how much time and effort it took. Then I succeeded in reaching a certain standard, enough to be invited to chess events. 25 years ago it was easier to get invitations to chess tournaments because at that time there were no eastern players in Europe, but only a few good players from South America and Western Europe. The life of a chess professional was pleasant at that time. Players like Campos, Eslon, Castro, Bellon, were highly considered, respected and I wanted to be one. Normally, when I want something I'm able to put extreme efforts to get it. I quit the university for the sake of playing tournaments and I believe it was a very good decision. The University of Life is more important and makes you wiser. I learned much more from travelling and playing tournaments than I could in a university.

Was it difficult to become a grandmaster?

After some years playing tournaments I reached, let's say a 2400-2450 level, but it was not enough to become a grandmaster. 25 years ago it was more difficult to achieve than now. So I decided to study chess a lot and spent the next two or three years just learning. As a result I got the title and became a player of around 2500-2550 level. I was very happy for some years but afterwards conditions for chess players started to get worse and worse. At some point it became clear to me that it was pointless to continue playing. I’m not the kind of person who just likes to play chess for its sake and ready to dedicate his entire life to it. I also had other ideas in my mind apart from chess. Life is beautiful and there are many different things to do.

What were you doing all those years between the time you quit your chess career when you appeared in the chess world as an organizer?

I stopped playing ten years ago. I wanted to stop even before but it was not easy, since it’s necessary to have another job if you want to pay your bills. It took some time to quit. I was too active as a player - I participated in too many tournaments and felt full of chess. Then I started to be successful in other areas, particularly in sports betting, so I decided to stop playing chess completely. Now by organizing chess events I'm giving back a part of what chess gave me.


A plaque at the world's first tournament using the "Basque system"

You managed to organize a tournament in 2009, so it is the second chess event in San Sebastian. It was announced that this tournament was devoted to the anniversary of the event which was held in San Sebastian in 1911. Do you feel connected with that tournament? Which trace in the history of San Sebastian is left?

Well, I was not here one hundred years ago (laughing). The society in Donostia-San Sebastian was quite different at that time. It was a very important event for the chess world. It was something new because it was the first tournament which gathered the best players of the world. That’s why this time we wanted to make something new as well. Another possibility would have been to make a tournament with all the best players of the world again but that means a lot of money nowadays. At the moment it’s very difficult to get sponsors for chess in Europe. Even if it were possible, I don’t see the point in spending that much money when there is a chance to do something different and still very attractive. Also because the 2009 tournament was already a round-robin with great players like Karpov, who finished in last place. When you organize a classic tournament and Karpov finishes last then I think that it's enough because you can't get anything more impressive than that (laughs).

The new Basque system seems to be an extraordinary one. Why did you choose that format and how did you come up with the idea?

I staged a couple of meetings with some friends: a young mathematician, Jon Argandoña, an engineer who is also a GM, Pablo San Segundo, and an international chess arbiter, Mikel Larreategi. We largely discussed different possibilities. Our aim was to have a knock-out system but with a chance to continue playing. The problem of knock-outs is that in few days only a few people are left playing. In chess, it hurts the atmosphere of the tournament a bit. I also believe that the knock-out system is a fair one. I don’t like the Swiss system at all, and can even say that I hate it, but of course only the system, not Swiss people (laughs). It’s not only unfair in itself but also gives chances for players to cheat. Everybody knows this. With a knock-out, you avoid cheating, and you avoid quick draws. You can make draws here without problems but then there will be additional games so additional fun. We didn't even implement the Sofia rule, it's not necessary. It’s also more interesting, more exciting. This format works in tennis (I love that sport). We wanted to do something like that tennis system but preserving the atmosphere of chess tournaments at the same time. 


“I think everybody should try the Basque system!”

Thinking about different possibilities of organizing B and C events, all by KO with players falling down from A-group downwards, we faced a problem – you cannot finish the A-B-C groups at the same time. You don’t have enough rounds in the B and C groups because they start later and there are a lot of players set up there.  In the end we decided to finish the B group without a proper end: the players that had survived until the last round would share the prizes of that group, without a single winner. Then the C group could be done in a traditional format – yes, with that Swiss system I hate – as a concession to people's habits. This way you have an A group which is the real and genuine tournament and will produce the true and great champion, and then you have minor groups to give a second and even a third chance to people wanting to play and try for a prize. So you have a fair and spectacular system and at the same time you keep the atmosphere of the tournament with many players around.

We also decided to combine the knock-out with playing on two boards. Because in a normal KO system if you play two games you need two days and that's usually too long and expensive for a chess tournament (that extra money is better off in players' pockets) or you play two games in a day which is too tiring and too long. So why not two games at the same time?

Why did you decide to call this new format the “Basque system”?

Felix Izeta: In chess there is a Swiss system, there is a Catalan opening, Spanish opening, French defense and many others but no Basque opening and nothing else connected to Basques. Everybody has some name around and we didn’t have anything, which unfortunately is something that happens too often to the Basques. That’s why we wanted to create something new, something attractive and call it the “Basque system”. Let's see if there will be more tournaments with it and so we get a place in the chess world.

Is there any connection between your will to have something Basque in chess and your political views?

I’m a Basque independentist and yes, I have to admit that it is somehow connected. I think Basques have been treated unfairly in history. Though we are a real nation like any other, we are not a state, we cannot make our own decisions, and we cannot choose our political destiny. Spain and France have been making decisions for us everyday in all areas. I believe that we are a country in all senses: we have a genuine language and culture, we have a deep history, we were a state: the Kingdom of Navarre, and last but not least, we have a majority of people who want to be considered as a proper country. According to democracy, human rights and common sense we should be a recognized nation, a state. Of course it’s not enough to organize a chess tournament or two in order to get independence but in general I try to do things in that direction.

Does it mean that you would like to represent the Basque country through chess?

We would like it a lot! We would like to participate in the European Team Championships and Olympiads as Basque country – Euskal Herria.

So why did you play for Spain?

I played for Spain but I did so because I had no choice, there was no Basque team. I was a professional and it was the only way to play such tournaments. I would have played for Zimbabwe, Argentina or any other country just to get a chance to play the Olympiad in order to fulfill my chess goals. Now I and other Basque sportsmen and sportswomen have created a sporting organization in the Basque Country (Euskal Herria Kirola) not only for chess but for other sports as well. This organization is going to fight actively for our right to be recognized by the international federations as any other country and I hope we'll get an opportunity to participate in the international events.


GM Feliz Izeta crowns the victor with a Basque beret and trophy

You were the one who implemented the new format but you also used a chance to test it during the tournament. How did you feel playing simultaneously on two boards?

Felix Izeta: It was funny, entertaining but a little bit tiring too, because you have to spend double the energy. I think everybody should try this format because it’s something different. In normal chess you focus on one game but here you have to take different decisions. For instance in the match Dominguez – Volokitin in semifinals, the Cuban player had better positions in both games. Then he decided to draw in the game where he had the white pieces in order to try to win the other game with black. In the end he failed, he started to make mistakes, and even lost that game and the match. I mean, compared to normal chess there are different situations where you have to take new kinds of decisions.

In this tournament everyone could get a real chance to play against top seeds with Elos over 2700. You actually played against the rating favorite Vugar Gashimov (2757) after you managed to defeat GM Eric Prié…

Frankly speaking I felt very weak playing against him. For ten years I have been living not only without playing but also without preparing anything. I gave away my books, my programs and files of personal analysis so I have nothing but my brain, which proved to not be enough against Gashimov (laughs). Now I feel more or less like any other amateur player. Of course I still remember how to move the knights but still it’s very difficult for me to play at a certain level.


Izeta's return from competitive retirement was rather rough against Top Ten Gashimov

Are you satisfied with the tournament? Did you achieve the goals which were planned?

At the beginning I was a bit disgusted that only about 80 players came to the tournament. Actually we expected more players, at least 150. Maybe choosing Christmas dates was a mistake. Then the tournament started and everything went well, thanks to the efforts of Gros Xake Taldea, the club where the tournament was held. The new system has been highly praised and it has produced high quality games and great fun. We commemorated the centenary of San Sebastian 1911-1912 in a decent way and we created a new system that may be used in other tournaments. So we are happy with our contribution to the chess world.

Does it mean there will be a next tournament?

Who knows… maybe (laughs). I don’t like to promise anything without knowing for sure that I'll fulfill my promise. Let's see.

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