Gastón Needleman gets his ticket to the World Cup

8/24/2005 – Last week we published a story on the plight of 15-year-old Gastón Needleman, who according to Argentinian journalist Carlos Ilardo was deprived of a chance to play in the 2006 World Cup when five GMs who ganged up against him in the tiebreak stage of the Continental Championship. Now FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has given the boy a free ticket.

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The story broke last week, with the end of the American Continental Championship. The hero of the event was clearly 15-year-old Gastón Needleman, who tied with seven other players for second. In the tie-break tournament for six tickets to the FIDE World Cup a local paper reported that the GMs ganged up against the boy to force him out. We published an article by Carlos Ilardo entitled 'Checkmate for great aspirations', which had originally appeared in the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion: Mate a la ilusión. You may want to read this article first, if you have not done so, to understand the discussion that has ensued.


Ilyumzhinov and Governor Saá at the Congress meeting where
the latter urged the FIDE President to give Needleman a free ticket.

The discussion continued at the FIDE Congress in Dresden, where we talked to FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and his team as well as the Argentinian World Championship delegation about the Needleman case. On our last day in Dresden the President of San Luis, Dr. Alberto Rodriguez Saá, appealed to the FIDE President to include Gastón in the next World Cup. As we departed Ilyumzhinov said that he would consider the case carefully. When we arrived in Hamburg we learned that he had done so and decided to give the boy a ticket for the 2006 World Cup. So in the end young Gastón will get his chance after all.

The following reactions to our original article came after we consulted a number of players, most notably Gata Kamsky and Gastón Needleman, asking them to give us their view of the events. We also provide you with a selection of letters we received from our news site visitors. A long but quite fascinating read.

GM Gata Kamsky

I was quite surprised at the allegations brought up by that article so I'll give you a brief outline of what happened.

Clearly, out of the seven players who shared the second place, only six could qualify. After the final round had finished we first had to go through the closing ceremony that started around 8 pm, and then we were driven half way across the city to the Argentina Chess Club. We commenced our playoffs around 9:45 pm. Frankly, that was quite demanding, because our final round game had started at 2 pm, and a bit unnerving. All the players were tired.

I don't think that any conspiracy theory would really stand a chance given the simple mathematics that people that draw all their games are guaranteed qualification, except with regards to the kid, because the main tournament tie break formula would be used and he would be out.

But, okay, personally I decided that I would need something like +1 to guarantee my qualification. Hence I played for a win with white against Granda in the first round. The result a draw. In the second round I played with black against Vescovi, and we played a pretty sharp line in Open Spanish that could have lead to any result. Vescovi offered a draw partly because I played some sharp side line. We were both trying to remember how it went, and so finally I saw no reason to take any risks and accepted his offer.

In the third round I played white against the kid, and the fact that I could have defeated him in the last round of the main event, but made few inaccuracies and let him get away, made me want to fight him. We played a rather unusual line of a Benoni type position. I was thoroughly outplayed in the opening and was close to being in a strategically lost position. Fortunately for me, the kid missed a certain tactic that lead to a devastating opening of the position with a counterattack, and he lost.

After that I'd reached my goal and was just happy to draw the rest of the games, sometimes offering and sometimes accepting early draws. I mean, why the hell not, especially given the time of the hour and how close I was to falling asleep? If there were financial incentives like separate significant prizes (on par with the main tournament) I would surely have played for the top prize. But otherwise the only incentive was to qualify, and given the hour and how late the playoff was, we are only human and make our little individual strategies on how to proceed in the tournament, where to try to play for a win and where to draw.


Gata Kamsky talking to Frederic Friedel of ChessBase

I would also like to comment on the public that were observing the tournament. They obviously had no clue as to the physical state of the players, and once they started to see short draws happening, booing and whistling were heard. I find this understandable from their perspective, but completely unacceptable from mine. Here we are, with practically little rest between the last round, playing in this glass "fish" tank with five minutes between games, under the observance of people who are sitting, watching us play, while they have the luxury of being seated at the cafe, with TV news on and numerous loud conversations, as well as obviously some drinking going on at the same time.

Naturally, when I saw these spectators boo and show thumbs down I immediately went into counter attack mode and start saying it was cool and thumbs up. Fortunately, the organizers were the professionals and managed to keep the playing space to a working minimum. Later the booing turned to clapping and applause.

I think it would be fair to say that the GMs drawing each other and playing the kid actually favored the kid, because he could prove his worth and beat them. He did beat Milos after outplaying him from losing position, and he came close to winning against me. He was lost against Onischuk, but after the latter's blunder came close to winning against him as well.

So, in the end it's all about tournament qualification strategy and chess strength. Unfortunately for the kid, both were not on his side this time.

GM Alex Onischuk

I could say a lot about the system of the tournament, which started at 10 p.m. on the day of the last round and the closing ceremony and was supposed to be finished at about 5 a.m., but I won’t do that. I'll just give you some facts.

Some of you in your comments say something like "Felgaer fought, why didn't other GMs fight?" Well, everything was different from what the local journalist wrote. It was actually GM Felgaer who sent the young player into the dangerous minus-one zone in the fourth round. After that GM Felgaer made two short draws (and the bye) and secured his place in the World Cup.

I also would like to give you a score of my game with GM Granda Zuniga, which was a quite typical game between GMs in the first half of the tournament.

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 e6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4 7.e4 g5 8.Bg3 b5 9.Be2 b4 10.Na4 Ne4 11.Bxc4? Nxg3 12.hxg3 Bg7 13.Qe2 Nd7 14.0-0½-½

Does this look to you, dear chess friends, like an arranged game? I made a mistake and offered a draw in a probably worse but complicated position. For my opponent, who had +1 at that moment and the best progressive score (tie-break), to agree meant practically to qualify for the World Cup, so he agreed.

I understand that chess fans want to see fighting, interesting games, but you cannot demand it from us at 2 a.m. or if it is the second long game of the day. Before criticizing professional players please think about the reasons that can be behind short draws. Better conditions in chess, not rules like a "thirty moves rule," can improve the situation.

Gastón Needleman

With regard to the tiebreak games I must say that I do not believe that the behaviour of the players was directed against me personally. It seems logical that if all the grandmasters were rated over 2600 and one in fact was 2700 they would only risk something against the weakest player with a 2200 rating points. Also not all the games were quick draws. For instance Granda-Kamsky was a fighting game, in the second round Granda won against Felgaer, etc.

I would like to make it clear that I am not bitter or sad that I was eliminated in this qualification for the World Cup tournament, and that I enjoyed my six games in the Continental Championship tremendously. I am happy to have made my first IM and GM norms, and mainly to have been able to play against so many grandmasters. And I am thankful for the warm feelings brought to me by so many people. I thank ChessBase for your support in this matter and leave it to my father to explain the results of the tiebreak to you.

Alejandro Needleman

In my role as Gastón's father and a witness to the tiebreak games I would like to describe the situation as I experienced it. Here first are the round-by-round results:

Round 1
Milos
½:½
Vescovi quick draw
 
Kamsky
½:½
Granda  
 
Felgaer
½:½
Onischuk quick draw
Round 2
Granda
1-0
Felgaer  
 
Vescovi
½:½
Kamsky quick draw
 
Needleman
1-0
Milos  
Round 3
Kamsky
1-0
Needleman  
 
Felgaer
½:½
Vescovi  
 
Onischuk
½:½
Granda quick draw
Round 4
Vescovi
½:½
Onischuk quick draw
 
Needleman
0-1
Felgaer  
 
Milos
½:½
Kamsky quick draw
Round 5
Felgaer
½:½
Milos  
 
Onischuk
½:½
Needleman  
 
Granda
½:½
Vescovi quick draw
Round 6
Needleman
0:1
Granda  
 
Milos
½:½
Onischuk quick draw
 
Kamsky
½:½
Felgaer quick draw
Round 7
Onischuk
½:½
Kamsky quick draw
 
Granda
½:½
Milos quick draw
 
Vescovi
1-0
Needleman  

Final standings

No  Name
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Pts
1  GRANDA, Julio
 
½
½
1
½
½
1
4
2  KAMSKY, Gata
½
 
½
½
½
½
1
3.5
3  VESCOVI, Giovanni
½
½
 
½
½
½
1
3.5
4  FELGAER, Ruben
0
½
½
 
½
½
1
3
5  ONISCHUK, Alexander
½
½
½
½
 
½
½
3
6  MILOS, Gilberto
½
½
½
½
½
 
0
2.5
7  NEEDLEMAN, Gaston
0
0
0
0
½
1
 
1.5

I would like to mention that in his game against Granda Gastón avoided a draw by repetition and played a risky continuation, and that in his game against Vescovi he refused a draw that was offered to him by his opponent before the game began.

It is also important to know that in case of a tie for last place the progressive system would have applied and Gastón would have lost out. Also we mustn't forget that these tiebreak games were played in the same night as the final round, and that all the players were exhausted. It ended at three in the morning.

We thank you for your interest in Gastón, we send you our warmest greetings and congratulate you on your excellent news service.

Opinions collected by Carlos Ilardo

The original article on the occurrences during the tiebreak was written by Carlos Ilardo and appeared in the national Argentine newspaper La Nacion. In a followup article Carlos quotes opinions of some of the people involved.

  • Claudia Amura, the best female player in this event: "For me as a chess player the whole thing was quite embarrassing. The players did not even pretend, they were not ashamed of what they were doing. For me it seemed that the GMs were out to save their Brasilian colleague Gilberto Milos and sacrificed Gastón for that.“

  • GM Gilberto Hernández, Mexico, husband of Amura: "Everything was very strange. I think in the US they would not pay out the prize money if so many doubts existed."

  • Arbiter Marcelo Hermida: "I believe it was all perfectly logical. It is legal to offer a draw, even if it is after two or three moves. It is also normal that masters decide to eliminate the weakest rival in the field. That is what happened." Hermida would not comment on the sporting or ethical aspects of this strategy, or whether "fair play" was just a hollow slogan.

  • GM Rubén Felgaer, Argentina: "I cannot say there was a plot, that is not appropriate for me ("No puedo hablar de complot, porque no me consta"). We masters behaved normally, and the weakest player had to be eliminated. But it is true that Milos asked me before the game whether I wanted to play properly or whether I was willing to make a draw. The final outcome of this game was a draw, but not because I accepted his offer."

  • Gastón Needleman to a TV station after returning to his home in Godoy Cruz: "Naturally I would love to play in the World Cup Championship, but it was not to be. Doesn't matter, it is okay, everyone did what was best for themselves. I lost in the tiebreak against Kamsky, Felgaer and Granda (I refused his draw offer), played draws against Onischuk and Vescovi and beat Milos. What more could I expect?"

  • GM Gilberto Milos to Needleman after the tournament: "I have never seen a boy of your age play such good chess."

Feedback from ChessBase readers

Ellery Bann, São Paulo, Brazil
I feel a lot of sympathy for the little giant killer Gaston Needleman. The odds were already against Needleman to begin with, so this wicked plan really wasn't necessary. It brings back memories of the same kind of unsportsmanship attitude practiced by the Soviet Grandmasters against the lonely young Bobby Fischer. Being a Brazilian national, I feel very ashamed for what our representatives, GMs Vescovi and Milos, did to the young boy. They are the Soviets now. As twisted as Bobby Fischer's political views may be, he never showed unsportsmanship. On the contrary, he is a severely competitive person believing that winning by 6-0 or 11-0 is what every chessplayer should be aiming for! I hope this tough lesson will bring out a new South American "Bobby Fischer" akin to the great fighting GM Mecking! In the meantime, I am going to have to find myself another local Brazilian chessplayer to cheer for.

Dobrogost Wojciec, Poland
I must say I wanted to write to you (the ChessBase team and those who read this website) many times. I did it just on one or two occasions so far. This time however it was impossible NOT to write. There is an ongoing discussion about 'doping' in chess and electronic 'support' in particular. We already have strict rules about use of mobile phones during tournaments. However I don't think you can regulate everything (every kind of situation) with FIDE rules. I believe that swift and SEVERE punishment for kind of behaviour that was shown by 6 GMs in your article is MUCH MORE important than rules. It is even more shameful for chess community because of the fact that players involved are (WERE!) respected and well-know GMs. If the whole issue was reported objectively situation is obvious. The ONLY possible reaction to this would be (in my opinion) to EXCLUDE all those 'GM's' from the next World Championships! Yes! And this should be done without consideration so that next players who will even think about such a behaviour would not dare to do this.

I'm not writing about PR effect that it has/had on many people that read the article in Argentinian newspapers and about effect it had on Gastón Needleman himself as its all to clear. I hope we (players, coaches, referees and other people involved in any way in chess) WILL be able to protect the image of our game. After all chess is known as one of the very few games in which only your talent and will power determine if you are a champion or an ordinary player.

Rob Brown, Terrace, Canada
I avidly followed the recent FIDE semifinals from Argentina over the past few weeks. It was an exciting contest made more exciting by the return of Gata Kamsky, an exciting player whose style I find appealing, and Canadian, Kevin Spraggett's, race for one of the qualifying places. During the course of the event I couldn't help noticing the intrusion of a "G. Needleman", a player with a rating a significantly lower than his famous opponents, into the tournament leaders. I learned the details about Gaston Needleman and his Dad only today thanks to the superb reports published by ChessBase. Your story on the rapid playoff is clear and appears substantiated by the crosstable of the tournament and the response of the audience as described in your moving report. When I read of cowardly and unethical strategy these conspirators I was reminded of the treatment given young Bobby Fischer by the Soviet competitors at a couple of candidates tournaments. I was disgusted then and I am disgusted now, but at least Petrosian, Keres, Geller and, to a lesser extent, Tal, had the excuse that they were ordered by some high ranking government apparatchik to make draws and struggle their damndest against the young American prodigy. In this latest case of what essentially amounts to bullying or child abuse, the colluders had so such excuse. The players involved in this gutless act should be reminded that the world of chess is a very small place now thanks to the Internet, and that their moral turpitude is now on display and up for discussion in the global forum. Bravo to young Gaston Needleman! I fervently hope he doesn't take this debacle to heart and grow discouraged.

Charles Hall, Orlando FL USA
A heart-wrenching story. But it also illustrates what's wrong with the FIDE World Championship Qualifier. Gaston produced an amazing result, but his rating is still 2242 and in no way should be playing for the WC. Last year, FIDE invited several players whose only qualification was that they were teenagers with high ratings. Adults with the same ratings would have been laughed off the planet had they expressed any expectations of nomination. Gaston is 15. If he is truly a WC contender, he has a long life ahead to prove it. Please, FIDE - no more special invitation for players based on their age!

Reply: I disagree, Charles. FIDE should keep a certain number of places (from the 124) for people who are interesting, for chess and for the media. That is what wild cards and presidential invitations are all about. Not to ensure that the world's number 136 gets to play, but to encourage young and otherwise extraordinary chess players by showing them that they have a theoretical chance to take part in the big league. Inviting Needleman to play in the World Cup is an encouragement to thousands of young chess enthusiasts. Making it possible for the number 136 in the world to participate is monumentally dull and irrelevant. There are also PR considerations. Needleman (as well as Carlsen, Karjakin and a number of female players) are worth dozens of strong GMs in media value. If chess wants to go mainstream it is worth while dramatically enhancing the big events by inviting a small percentage of attractive media personalities. In fact it may be vital to the survival of FIDE and the World Cup event, which needs sponsors to keep it running. – Frederic Friedel

Charles Hall
I think we can agree to disagree, and I also understand the PR reason the young and interesting players are invited. I am pretty much a traditionalist, and I simply believe that the WC cycle should be immune from external influences like PR, but then, of course your argument, quite validly, would be that where would sponsorship come from then. Unfortunately, FIDE has trained the sponsoring community (and the chess fans) well and such invites do promote interest.

I'll grudgingly give you Carlsen and Karjakin, only with respect to the current sponsorship environment ... they are already at the time of this cycle seasoned Grandmasters with a resume of ratings and results showing they have the capability of playing with the worlds elite. But please, not Gaston. No IM/GM title, 2242 rating (at least till his great event is rated). Hopefully, he will be able to repeat such performances and qualify through the normal process in the next cycle. Or if FIDE is using a 2 year cycle, he might garner enough experience and rating to merit an invitation in the next cycle.

Julian Wan, Ann Arbor, USA
Thank you for bringing this to light. Please continue to look into this further and obtaining copies of the games. It may be that the other players thought their best chances for qualifying lay in beating the weakest player, but given the fact that this young man had defeated several of them head to head, it certainly looks like they did decide to conserve their efforts against each other and play all out only against this young man. If as the article asserts that most of the other games were quick 4-5 move draws, it is certainly a bad example of sportsmanship and something those GMs should be ashamed of. This is another example of why agreed draws are a bad thing. I hope that Gaston Needleman continues to play and develop and become a successful GM.

Miguel Campos, New York, USA
As a Brazilian Chess enthusiast I am ashamed of the attitude of all the GMs but especially of my countrymen towards young Gaston. We all know the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina, especially as it comes to "the beautiful game", but chess is supposed to be above all that, right? It's supposed to be a gentlemen's sport. I have to confess that I was glad to see that Gaston got a full point against Milos in the tie-break. This shameful event is another argument in favor of the end of draws by agreement in pro chess.

R. Parkes, Bath England
I am appalled from what i have just read as regarding the poor Argentine boy Gaston Needleman being ousted by much stronger players. They are not men themselves but heartless weeds.

Vugar, Strasbourg, France
I just read this article about how 5 well-known GMs (including Gata Kamsky!) ganged up against the boy Needleman. I assume that the article was truthful. And if so, what happened is just outrageous! And it is even more unethical because these 5 grown men did it against a little boy! Were these seasoned professionals so unsure of their own capabilities that they really needed to conspire against a young talent? I feel so sorry for this boy, who had his healthy and natural ambitions crushed in such a shameful and undeserved manner. If there is no way to officially punish these players for their lack of respect for fair play (and I really doubt that this will happen), then I call on every chess fan to boo and publicly disgrace (of course, within the lawful limits) these players during any future chess events that they will participate in.

Guillaume Paul, Växjö, Sweden
What a shame for chess! FIDE should react strongly to this by canceling the tiebreak tournament, declare Gastón Needleman and Rubén Felgaer qualified for FIDE World Cup, and organize a new tiebreak tournament among the five cheaters.

Philip Feeley, Surrey, BC, Canada
Disgraceful behaviour by the GMs. They all ought to be punished by the FIDE.

Jim Enman, Halifax, Canada
IF the story about Kamsky, Granda, Onischuk, Milos and Vescovi conspiring to play short draws against each other in order to channel their efforts into defeating Gaston Needleman is accurate (hopefully ChessBase will follow up on this story) then I would hope that FIDE invites Needleman into the next round of the world championship cycle in the interest of fairness.

Dan Mowers, Canada
The article about the Grandmasters ganging up on the young boy seemed to be premature seeing as the lad himself has no complaints. Perhaps there should have been no article as it seems it was very easy for you people to determine that there was no ganging up. The article just made ChessBase look a little like a scandal sheet as in write first investigate later. On the other hand it was interesting reading.

Actually ChessBase reported on and quoted an article that appeared in a national Argentinian newspaper. This was made clear in the story.

James, Seattle, USA
I am writing about the unfortunate circumstances that recently forced the young Argentine Gastón Needleman out of the next World Championship. Assuming that Mr. Ilardo's report is unbiased and does not exaggerate, it was indeed a tragedy for Mr. Needleman. However, upon considering the matter I believe that the real fault lies with the tournament organizers and that they placed the Grandmasters in a position where something like this was almost guaranteed to happen.

Imagine that you are a Grandmaster who has just played 11 exhausting rounds. The tiebreak "tournament" has just started and the only goal is to not finish last. There is no extra prize money, no reward, no rating points to gain or lose, no nothing at all for finishing high in the table. Even the games themselves aren't saved. In this position I would wager that the majority of Grandmasters would pragmatically draw their games as quickly as possible, because if you finish at an even score, you can't lose. Throw in a 400-point lower rated player, and maybe for security you can beat him in case something accidentally goes wrong in another game.

In my opinion, 9 times out of 10 (or at least, if Mr. Ilardo is correct, 5 times out of 7), when faced with these circumstances, Grandmasters (and sportsmen\women in general) will behave the same way. Remember that the corollary to "you don't work, you don't eat" is that if "you don't feed someone, they don't work". Ah, chess capitalism. Who knew there was such a thing? Anyway, my view is that such unfortunate circumstances could be avoided in the future by simply offering a monetary or similar incentive for the players to search for more than an even score.

Sameer A. Salgaocar, Goa, India
What happened was an absolute tragedy. In no way should FIDE allow this kind of stuff to go on. The entire playoff should be replayed with FIDE observers.

Albert, San Diego, USA
My message is simple: What those so-called GMs did to Gaston Needleman is despicable and disgraceful. They should all be ashamed of themselves, especially Milos who suborned the others to act in such a disreputable manner. They have sullied once more the game of chess. Congratulations GM's, you have officially stultified yourselves!! And to Gaston, no te rindas – sigue adelante!

Dr.Tansel Turgut, ICCF IM, Turkey & USA
What a great shame! Not only for the players, but also for the organizers who allowed this to happen. It is amazing that these GMs do not have the dignity to say "no" to such a disgusting arrangement. Another shame for GM Kamsky, who was once a great WC candidate. There is no World Champion coming out of these six. They do not have the sprit, dignity and the personality to be a WC. They are "good successfull businessman"

Sami, Tynninen, Espoo, Finland
In the tie-break tournament for six tickets to the FIDE World Cup a local paper reported that the GMs ganged up against the boy to force him out. Carlos Ilardo reports. Did this really happen? The most awful story I've heard in a while. Grown men bullying a talented kid. Hard to believe it's true. If I were the judge in that event, I'd disqualify all the five GMs playing false games (unsportsmanship behaviour) and make them play each others in a penalty shoot out of their own. That kid could use some tournament experience and now these morons denied it. O Tempora, O Mores.


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